Becoming vegetarian is usually a decision based on religious beliefs or the ethics of eating meat. However, some people may try it for health reasons. A currently high profile example of this is the blog and recipe book, Deliciously Ella. Its writer, Ella Woodward adopted a vegan and gluten free diet after suffering a debilitating illness and found it helped her recovery.
There are many different types of vegetarian diet, depending on what is excluded from the diet – some people eat fish but not meat, others avoid meat and fish but eat dairy products, while vegans exclude all animal products. On the whole, a vegetarian diet offers many health benefits; vegetarians tend to have lower body weights, lower blood pressure and incidence of heart disease and lower rates of cancer. However, to be healthy, a vegetarian must understand how to plan a balanced meal without meat.
There are several important nutrients that are not as abundant or well absorbed in plant foods. Meat is a good source of protein as it contains all of the amino acids necessary for human health and growth and is easily absorbed. Eggs and soy are also a complete source of protein but plant proteins are not as well absorbed and need to be combined with other plant proteins. Fortunately, this is not as difficult as it sounds – beans combined with grains or rice form a complete protein, so natural partners like vegetable chilli with rice or baked beans on toast will do the job. Eating nutritious foods like nuts, seeds, oats and grainy breads throughout a day also add to the protein tally.
Iron is essential to human health and plant sources are not as well absorbed as from meat. Iron is present in foods such as eggs, beans, dried fruits and green leafy veggies but the absorption can be boosted by vitamin C. So for example, a meal containing iron-rich chickpeas and spinach with vitamin C rich tomatoes and peppers will supply plenty of iron to the body.
Vegans need to be particularly aware and careful with their diets or to take supplements. Vitamin B12 is a vital nutrient only found in meat and dairy products and a deficiency can cause irreversible damage to the nervous system. Vegans need to seek out fortified soya milk or take supplements. Iodine is found naturally in fish and seafood and plants such as seaweed but also in dairy products. Vegans should regularly consume small amounts of seaweed (too much is toxic) or seek out fortified products such as iodised salt or soya milk to meet their requirements.
So, if we were to set ethics and religion aside, what is the healthiest option? I think a part-time vegetarian diet would be my choice. As a planet, we are consuming more meat and using more vital resources to produce that meat than is sustainable. If we all consumed a bit less, it would benefit the earth immeasurably. Having meat-free days could encourage experimentation with healthier foods such as fish, eggs, soy and legumes, which are full of vital nutrients and help us become less reliant on meat. I think we should all learn to cook a few vegetarian staples, so click here for a fab lentil and mixed veg curry and a quick pita bread pizza recipe.