To vego or not to vego...
While the exact number of Australians who follow a vegetarian style of eating is unknown, data collected in the National Nutrition Survey in 1995 found that 3.7% of Australian’s reported being vegetarian. Since then, an observable increase in the availability of vegetarian and more specifically vegan options at both the local supermarket and restaurants would suggest that the popularity of vegetarian eating continues to grow.
Ranging from strict vegans who choose to eat absolutely no animal produce to lacto-ovo vegetarians who will consume milk and eggs but no meat, chicken or fish to semi vegetarians who will eat fish and chicken but no red meat; choosing to follow a vegetarian eating pattern can be a choice for health, social, philosophical and/or environmental reasons.
From a health perspective it does appear that there are a number of benefits associated with a vegetarian style of eating. A scientific review of over eighty research papers published in the journal “Nutrition Reviews” published in 2006 found that vegetarians had lower body weights, a lower incidence of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. From a financial perspective, vegetarianism may too be appealing; with a recent review of meat eaters versus vegetarians shopping bills finding that the average weekly vegetarian shop saves consumers up to 20% of food related costs when visiting the local supermarket.
Nutritionally, vegetarians can also be an exceptionally healthy bunch. Naturally their intake of plant based foods including beans, leafy vegetables and salads are much higher than the average person, meaning that their intake of fibre, antioxidants and vitamins also tends to be considerably higher on a daily basis.
Choosing to eliminate red meat and other animal based foods though, can mean that careful attention needs to be paid to key nutrients such as iron, zinc, Vitamin B12 and even calcium and protein for those who choose to also eliminate milk and eggs permanently from their diets. Iron and zinc are nutrients primarily found in lean red meat and hence the plant sources of iron such as beans, nuts and fortified cereals need to be a staple part of vegetarian eating plans to ensure that intake of these key nutrients is adequate. Simply aiming for a serve of one of these plant sources of iron at both lunch and dinner will allow for optimal absorption of the non haem or plant sources of iron. Vitamin C is also known to aid in the absorption of plant sources of iron so consuming tomatoes, red capsicum or even fruit juice can be a good option for strict vegetarians.
Another key nutrient that is potentially at risk in the diets of vegetarians is long chain omega 3 fats which are found in highest quantities in deep sea fish such as tuna and salmon. Omega 3 fats are important for new cell generation in the body and also have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect in the body, helping to lower triglyceride levels and blood pressure.
It is also important to remember that choosing a vegetarian eating style is not as simple as eliminating the meat part of your meal and replacing it with extra vegetables. Proteins found in beans, tofu, eggs and nuts need to be integrated into the daily meal plans for vegetarians to ensure optimal protein is consumed for muscle growth and repair. Similarly, vegetarian eating styles that include lots of fried potatoes, cheese rich meals such as nachos and pasta and cream based meal options are not healthy choices; containing much fat, particularly saturated fat and hence need to be limited in all diets.
While strict vegetarian diets may be chosen, the concept of incorporating a vegetarian meal once or twice a week into your weekly meal planner is not a bad idea either. In fact, research suggests that four in ten Australians are eating more vegetarian meals than they did ten years ago. Vegetarian meals including pastas, risottos, vegetable stir fries and frittatas are packed full of nutrition and vitamins and can be a much cheaper alternative to meat based meals. Try adding one or two into your family menu each week.