A well-planned diet that avoids meat or other animal products can be a healthy way to meet your nutritional needs.
While 94% of New Zealanders are ‘meat eaters’ who regularly eat animal products as part of their diets approximately:
- 1 to 2% are semi-vegetarian who avoid meat except for chicken and maybe fish
- 2.3% are ‘lacto-ovo’ vegetarians who do not eat meat but will eat other foods that come from animals, like eggs and dairy products
- there are no figures for the numbers who are vegan and avoid animal products altogether.
By eating a variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, soy products, and whole grains, vegetarians can get nutrients from non–meat sources.
Reasons for being vegetarian or vegan
There are a wide range of reasons why people choose to adopt a vegetarian or vegan. These include:
- animal welfare – no person has a right to own or exploit another animal
- human welfare – it is better to plant food to feed people than to feed animal stock
- environment – wasteful land use involved in producing meat (eg, 13.18kg plant protein makes 0.45kg beef)
- religious grounds
- health – eg, lower bowel cancer rates
- eating disorders – a potential reason in young women
- revulsion and/or dislike of the taste of meat or animal products.
Cutting animal products from your diet is most common among young females. It is estimated that 2% of young women aged between 15 and 24 years describe themselves as vegan, 2% lacto-ovo vegetarian and 5% semi-vegetarian.
Health status of vegetarians
For practically all diseases, vegetarians fare better than the general population. Nutritionists put this down less to the avoidance of meat and more to the fact most vegetarians generally have a healthier lifestyle than most non-vegetarians. For example, they tend to smoke less, exercise more and be more proactive about attending screening programmes.
However, research shows that vegetarian health status is no different from a healthy population of non-vegetarians. The exception being that vegetarians have a slightly lower ischaemic heart disease rate.
Avoiding health risks
Health risks are minimal for people choosing not to eat meat, but there are some things to be aware of. Vegetarians, especially vegans, need to pay attention to their diets to ensure they are getting enough nutrients, including iron, vitamin B12, protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
Iron & vitamin C
helps with the absorption of plant-derived iron, which isn’t absorbed as well as meat-derived. For this reason, people choosing not to eat meat should choose foods rich in vitamin C at each meal.
Vitamin C-rich foods include citrus fruits, rockmelon, tomato, capsicum, cabbage and broccoli, with iron-containing foods such as wholegrain cereals, dried beans and lentils, and green vegetables.
Vitamin B12 plays an essential role in your health. A lack of vitamin B12 can cause serious problems with your physical and mental health. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you must take particular care to consume enough Vitamin B12, as it is mainly found in meat, eggs, and dairy products.
Vegan dietary sources of vitamin B12 include fortified cereals, fortified non-dairy milk, nutritional yeast and marmite.
You can also take B12 in the form of capsules or injections. Discuss with your doctor or pharmacist whether supplementation is right for you. See vitamin B12 supplements
Plant protein is often referred to as incomplete because it lacks some essential amino acids. But eating a variety of plant foods can provide you with the full complement.
Plant proteins include: nuts, cereals (preferably wholemeal, such as bread, rice and pasta) and legumes (lentils, dried beans and peas). Soybeans and wheatgerm contain protein, too.
Ground flaxseed (linseed) or flax oil is also an excellent source of omega 3.
Visit Appetite for Life for some great main meal recipe ideas.