The meat-free trend is on the rise both in South Africa and globally. Whether it be for environmental, ethical or health reasons, people are reverting to plant-based, meat alternatives. As with any diet, it should be balanced and healthy so that you can get all the nutrients your body requires to perform at its best.
Although the vegetarian diet is mostly plant-based, it does contain some animal bi-products such as dairy milk, yoghurt, butter, cheese and eggs. (Note: gelatine is often a hidden ingredient which is not considered vegetarian). If you are looking to change to a vegetarian diet or even just reduce your meat intake, ensure that you are still eating a balanced diet. Being vegetarian does not mean surviving on fruit and vegetables only. A healthy vegetarian diet consists of grains, seeds, pulses, vegetables, fruit, dairy products and eggs.
With the new developments in meat-less “Chick’n nuggets”, The Beyond Burger, or the seafood alternatives, these products are both familiar in look, texture and taste to real meat, making the swap easy and convenient for meat lovers looking to decrease their meat intake, but try to limit the amount of processed protein foods (many vegetarians rely heavily on these). Some brands which are revolutionary in their meat alternatives and loved by all South Africans, whether they be vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarians are:
- The Fry’s Family Foods found at most food retailers
- Linda McCartney’s range found at Checkers
- Simple Truth range by Checkers
- Woolworths’ Plant Power Protein range
The key to being a healthy vegetarian is to have a balanced diet. There is a basic guide to what proportions of the different food groups to eat, but this doesn’t need to be balanced in every meal per say, just try to achieve this over the day1.
Fruit and Vegetables
You need to eat at least 5 x 80g portions of fruit and vegetables per day. These are a great source of fibre which aids in digestion.
Meals should be based around a starchy carbohydrate of some sort. This can be anything from potatoes to bread, rice and pasta. Wholegrain is always best, so try to stay away from processed white flour. Starch helps the body to sustain energy and is full of nutrients too.
Dairy or Dairy Alternatives
Dairy provides us with protein, calcium and vitamins A and B12. Wonderfully, plant-based milks such as soya, rice and oat milk contain calcium too. Limit dairy in the diet as it may cause inflammation. Opt for full cream, unprocessed and sugar free where possible.
The myth that all essential amino acids can only be found in animal-based protein has been busted. Several plant-based proteins are classified as complete protein sources. With loads of protein-rich plant-based foods to choose from, these are also high in fibre, vitamins and minerals. It is important to eat a variety of different protein foods throughout the week to ensure you are getting all the necessary amino acids your body requires. Amino acids are responsible for repairing and grow new healthy cells and tissue in the body. Here are some of the best protein rich foods to enjoy:
- Chickpeas and hummus
- Green peas
- Brown and wild rice
- Chia Seeds
- Nuts, nut butters and seeds
- Yoghurt and cheese
While there are negative connotations to the idea of consuming fat, unsaturated (good) fats are necessary for energy. Try to stay away from saturated fats that include butter, lard and ghee, and rather enjoy unsaturated fats such as peanut, rapeseed and olive oils, avocado, nuts and seeds.
Any diet may fall short of some nutrient or other. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has identified essential nutrients which may be of concern to those following a strict plant-based diet. Anyone following a meat free diet needs to ensure that they get enough iron, calcium, Omega 3 fatty acids, and vitamins B12 and D in their diet. Before deciding to take a supplement, it is best to have these nutrient levels determined through annual blood tests during your wellness checks with your doctor or medical practitioner.
Interestingly, women are considered to be particularly at risk of iron deficiency.1 Foods rich in iron include pulses (beans, lentils, peas), nuts, dried fruit, dark green vegetables (watercress, broccoli, spring greens), and wholegrains (brown rice, brown bread). Through regularly eating such foods, there shouldn’t be a need to take an iron supplement,2 however, if your iron levels have tested low, Floradix Iron Tablets is a fantastic iron supplement that is suitable for vegetarians. What’s great is that Floradix also contains vitamins B1, B2, niacin, B6, B12, C, folic acid and herbal extracts.
Foods rich in vitamin B12 are generally from animal sources. Vegetarians who eat dairy products and eggs shouldn’t have a problem. Other plant-based food sources containing vitamin B12 are yeast extract (eg: Marmite), soya products and breakfast cereals fortified with vitamin B12.2
Vitamin D is essential in supporting a strong immune system. This sunshine vitamin can be made by the body on its own through direct sunlight onto the surface of your skin. Ensure you get at least 20 minutes of sunshine (without sunscreen) per day. There are two forms of vitamin D. While vitamin D2 is found in yeast, D3 is better absorbed by the body and typically found in lanolin (which is the oil present in sheep’s wool). Finding a non-animal vitamin D3 supplement may prove tricky, however, there are vegan-friendly vitamin D supplements on the market. We recommend trying Better You’s DLux 1000 Vegan Vitamin D Daily Oral Spray.
Calcium and Vitamin D work hand in hand. The body needs Vitamin D in order to be able to absorb calcium. Calcium is essentially for good bone health and is often lacking in a completely plant-based diet. While we are led to believe that dairy is the go-to for calcium, it is also available in good amounts of plant-based foods including plant milk, kale, cabbage, tofu, oranges and orange juice. Note that a calcium overload can be toxic, and you should only take a supplement enough for the amount missing from your diet. The recommended daily allowance for calcium is 1,000mg for men up to the age of 70 and woman up to the age of 502.
When looking for a calcium supplement, double check the source as the product may be derived from bone meal or oyster shell which are not vegetarian-friendly. A wonderful product for maintaining healthy calcium levels in the body is A.Vogel Multiforce.
In most cases, it is advisable to supplement one’s diet with a multivitamin. This covers the bases of any nutrients which may be lacking in the food we consume, and are essential for good health and immunity.
Our go-to product is Bio-Strath. This is a completely natural Swiss-Made herbal yeast food supplement which provides the body with 61 of the 100 essential nutrients that you need to be well and live life to the fullest every day. Bio-Strath is packed with vitamins, minerals, amino acids, trace elements and building substances which are all bioavailable. Studies have also proven the product helps to absorb micro-nutrients from our food better.
If you are a meat eater looking to eat more plant-based foods, start with one day a week. Meat-free Mondays has become a global trend and there are loads of websites, cookbooks and influencers with great recipes ensuring you don’t “miss” the meat. Take your favourite recipes and try them without meat. For example, lentils are a great substitute for mince in cottage pie, spaghetti bolognaise or meat balls. Try some vegetarian options on the menu of your favourite restaurants or even enjoy a meal at a fully plant-based restaurant – you may just be pleasantly surprised!
A little planning and research into your specific nutritional requirements can ensure that your vegetarian diet meets the needs of all people including children, teenagers, adults, and even pregnant and breastfeeding women. The more variety you bring to your diet the better the chances of you meeting all your nutritional needs.
- nhs.uk. 2021. Vegetarian and vegan diets Q&A. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/vegetarian-and-vegan-diets-q-and-a/.
- Vegetarian Times. 2021. Vegetarian and Vegan Supplement Guide. Available at: https://www.vegetariantimes.com/health-nutrition/vegetarian-supplement-guide/.