How Healthy Is a Vegetarian Diet?

22/01/2016 14:22 GMT | Updated 21/01/2017 10:12 GMT

I am often asked if a vegetarian diet is a good idea and I always reply that it depends on what the vegetarian eats. If we think of a vegetarian as someone who does not eat meat or fish and just eats a plant-based diet you can be a vegetarian who eats all good things or a vegetarian who lives on pasta, pizzas and cakes. In fact, I knew a vegetarian who did just that. I am sure that you will agree that this is not a good idea. Of course, a mixed diet, which includes meat, can also vary between being very healthy and the complete opposite.

A meat eater who eats some meat and lots of fruit and vegetables will have a better diet than a vegetarian who lives on pasta and cereals. Either way, the best diet is one where vegetables make up the bulk of what is eaten. This is because these contain the highest level of vitamins, minerals and especially phytochemicals, which help prevent cancer, heart disease and so many other conditions. This can be achieved on either a vegetarian or a mixed diet.

Possible Deficiencies

However, a vegetarian diet needs more care and thought. This is because if you do not eat meat, fish or chicken is that it is more difficult to ingest enough of the nutrients that we need for a healthy life. This means that the vegetarian needs to think more carefully about what he or she is actually consuming. There are certain nutrients that are not as easy to find in a vegetarian diet. The ones most likely to be lacking are:

Zinc

This is found mainly in animal foods such as oysters, lamb, haddock, and egg yolks. It is very important, as it is a component of over 200 enzymes in the body, is essential for growth, fertility, and is needed for good skin and immunity. Deficiencies of zinc could cause a poor sense of taste or smell, stretch marks, white spots on fingernails, and more. Eating too much sugar can rob the body of the zinc that is eaten. Vegetarians can get their zinc from

• Pecan nuts

• Split peas

• Green peas

• Turnips

• Brazil nuts

• Rye

• Oats

• Peanuts

• Almonds

Protein

Protein is high in animal foods, which contained all the amino acids Because of this they are called 'complete proteins' Vegetable sources of protein lack one or more of the amino acids and so are not complete. To get round this traditional vegetarian societies have learned how to mix different foods in order to make a meal that contains all of the amino acids. This means combining foods like lentils, chickpeas, yogurt, beans, millet in the one dish.

Iron

Vegetarians can be low in this as most bio available iron is found in animal foods. In order to include this in their diets they could consume

• Watercress

• Nuts

• Eggs

• Seeds (especially pumpkin seeds)

• Wheat germ

• Parsley

• Raisins

• Prunes

Omega-3 Fats

These are found in oily fish. It is true that there is omega-3 in flaxseeds and walnuts but not in the same form. The form of mega-3 in these foods has to be converted in the body to DHA and EPA, which is found naturally in fish.

Vitamin B12

This is only found in animal foods so a vegetarian needs to eat some dairy or eggs to get this nutrient.

The Bottom Line

Therefore, the answer is that if you are a meat eater, eat the best mixed diet that you can eat and if you are a vegetarian do the same thing. In both cases, you need to ensure that you are getting all the nutrients you need for good health overall, both mentally and physically.