Diet Nutrition

Everything you need to know about adopting a vegetarian diet - including how it can benefit you

A plant-based diet doesn't have to mean a boring diet!

By Bronte Chaperon
Making salad

When meat-lovers hear the words "vegetarian" or "vegan", you can almost instantly see their noses crinkle and the corners of their mouths turn down into a grimace.

Whether this is a disapproving frown or knee-jerk expression of guilt, I'm not sure. But when I tell my flatmates I am wanting to switch to a vegetarian diet, their reaction is clear as day: "Why would you want to go vegetarian? Have you even tried hamburgers? Steak?"

My stomach agreed with my flatmates - I salivated just at the mention of these delicious foods. Ever since I was little I have adored eating meat - there are photos of me as a toddler eating chicken straight off the carcass, and as an adult I would request extra meat on my spaghetti bolognese. Safe to say, my going vegetarian didn't exactly feel like a natural fit.

So why was I choosing to adopt a vegetarian diet if I adored meat so much?

I had been considering a plant-based diet for a while, but after watching Cowspiracy I was sold on vegetarianism. Admittedly, I did see flaws and manipulation within this documentary (very strategic framing of questions to illicit certain answers from experts), but the bottom line was undeniable; the space required to farm beef isn't sustainable, and the way certain farmers destroy animals for consumption can be morally unjust.

And I'm not alone in my quest to be more ethical and sustainable.

The stigma surrounding plant-based diets (particularly veganism) is slowly waning. More and more, albeit not nearly enough, people are choosing to switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet - and we should all be more encouraging of this.

Why become a vegetarian?

There are many good reasons to adopt a plant-based diet!

For starters, animal welfare is a very valid justification to ditch the meat.

Consider this, according to the NZ Vegetarian Society: "The average meat-eater during their lifetime is personally responsible for the slaughter of five cows, 20 pigs, 30 sheep, 760 chickens, 46 turkeys, 15 ducks, seven rabbits, one and a half geese and half a tonne of fish."

That's a lot of unnecessary animal deaths, and that's without considering the (at times, I won't say that all farmers are the same) inhumane ways animals are put to sleep before they become food.

Animal welfare aside, there are also numerous health benefits to be gained from upping your intake of veggies.

Plant-based accredited practising dietitian Bec Norris, founder of Be Well Fed, says making the switch to a plant-based diet is a good move.

"Research shows that vegetarians and vegans are less likely to experience heart disease, obesity and cancer, and often have lower blood pressure and less inflammation.

"When changing to a vegetarian diet, people may experience increased constipation, bloating, and gas as a result of adding extra fibre from plants to their diet.

"Other symptoms such as low energy, weakness and a reduced immunity may occur either initially or after a long period of time as a result of an underlying nutrient deficiency, but this can be prevented," says Norris.

Of course, there are many other reasons to switch to a vegetarian diet - including environmental, sustainability and religious grounds - you can read about them here.

How to become a vegetarian

Unfortunately, there is no clear cut way to go vegetarian. Some find it easiest to go cold-turkey (see Katelyn Brew's experience of going vegetarian and then vegan below), while others may slowly cut out meat.

For some this may mean only eating meat on certain days or for particular meals (e.g. exclusively eating meat at dinner) and then reducing the amount of meat eaten and the frequency of consumption.

Others choose to cut out particular meats first (oftentimes the first to go is beef, as farming cows is most harmful to the environment) and then continue to eliminate other meats from their diet when they feel ready.

Plant-based accredited dietitian Rebecca Norris says no matter which way you choose to eat, make it a transition and enjoy the journey.

"Discover new foods, experiment in the kitchen and seek guidance from a plant-based dietitian," says Norris.

"This will not only make the experience more enjoyable but also help prevent the risk of developing a nutrient deficiency. If in doubt, grab an iron and B12 supplement from your local pharmacist and know what foods to eat everyday."

If you're an avid meat-eater, expect to throw a few tantrums and shed a few tears in frustration during the adjustment period - especially when going out for dinner.

You may find a lot of places you used to love going to with friends (think nice restaurants and takeaway shops) have a limited selection of vegetarian and vegan foods, and seeing your friends' meaty dishes may drive you up the wall a little during your first few weeks on a plant-based diet.

If you're struggling to commit to a strict vegetarian diet and need a transitioning step, there are other avenues you can take to cut down your meat consumption.

Norris explains that there are many different types of vegetarian diets, including less restrictive and more flexible options:

  • Semi-vegetarians: eat mostly plant foods and meat, fish, dairy occasionally - see flexitarianism.
  • Pesco-vegetarians: eat mostly plants and fish.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians: eat mostly plant and also eggs and dairy but avoid meat, fish and seafood.
  • Lacto vegetarians: eat mostly plant and dairy but avoid meat, fish, seafood and eggs.
  • Vegans: avoid all animal foods including meat, fish, seafood, eggs and honey.

Where to get essential vitamins and nutrients

One thing to consider when adopting a vegetarian diet is how you're going to get your required nutrients.

A plant-based diet can certainly provide protein and iron - but you do need to ensure you're getting enough.

Protein:

"Most people consider animal foods such as meat, seafood, eggs and dairy to be the main source of protein but plants contain protein too," Norris says. "A vegetarian can get enough protein by choosing to eat legumes, nuts, seeds and wholegrains everyday."

There are some limitations to this though.

"Vegetarians that are 100 per cent plant based (vegan), eat mostly fruit (fruitarian), are trying to lose weight, consume a mostly processed diet, or avoid legumes may be at risk of not getting enough protein."

In this case you may need to up your consumption of protein-rich foods or take a supplement - see your GP or dietitian for more information.

Iron:

Iron is extremely important for the body and serves many functions. Norris explains that, "iron is essential in the production of energy, transporting oxygen around the body, and in learning and memory.

"To get enough, focus on eating dark green leafy vegetables including kale, collard greens, and spinach; wholegrains such as amaranth, quinoa, and oats; and fruit including dried figs, dates and apricots.

"To help absorb as much iron as possible, pair these foods with vitamin C containing vegetables and fruit such as capsicum, tomato, strawberries, kiwi fruit and the wholegrains with yellow and orange vegetables including pumpkin, carrots and sweet potato."

Rebecca recommends waiting one to two hours before you have any tea, coffee, calcium fortified milks or supplements to allow the body time to absorb as much iron as possible.

Vitamin B12:

Vegetarians - and especially vegans - should ensure they get enough vitamin B12, an essential vitamin made by bacteria. Norris recommends a B12 supplement for a reliable source of the vitamin and to prevent deficiency - something you really don't want as this vitamin assists in the production of energy, builds DNA and forms the fatty coating around our nerves.

If you're pregnant:

Norris says, "a well balanced diet with a variety of different plant based foods including colourful vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and legumes can provide pregnant women with most of their vitamins and minerals.

"It is advised that all women trying to get pregnant and those who are already pregnant do take a daily DHA supplement and a multivitamin to cover increased nutrient requirements of omega 3's, vitamin B12, iodine, folate, and zinc."

What a vegetarian day on a plate might look like

If you have no idea where to start, this sample meal plan from plant-based dietitian Rebecca Norris may help.

"A healthy vegetarian plate needs to include a whole host of colourful vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, grains and cereals. When completely avoiding animal foods (and dairy and eggs), protein can be found in legumes including lentils, soy milk, edamame beans, tofu, tempeh and peanuts. Enjoy calcium-rich plant foods such as green leafy vegetables, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, calcium set tofu, fortified soy milk, almonds, and figs."

Sample meal plan:

Breakfast: Scrambled tofu - 2 slices of wholegrain toast with scrambled tofu, capsicum and tomato.

Lunch: Mexican tacos - black beans, tomato, lettuce, avocado and a corn and seed salsa.

Dinner: Roasted vegetable salad - Quinoa, chickpeas, sweet potato, capsicum, tomato, zucchini and cauliflower tossed with spinach and dressed with a tahini, lemon and mixed herb dressing.

Snacks ideas:

½ cup fortified soy milk
¼ cup dried figs and 1 kiwi fruit
¼ cup pumpkin seeds

How one woman transitioned to a plant-based diet

Katelyn Brew, 26, a disability support worker from Brisbane explains how - and why - she decided to adopt a vegetarian (and later vegan) diet.

For more information, visit the NZ Vegetarian Society website or contact plant-based accredited practising dietitian Rebecca Norris via her website Be Well Fed or check out her Instagram @plantfednutritionist.