My Views on Vegetarianism

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So I made it! 7 days with no red or white meat!! and to be honest I probably shouldn’t really have called it a challenge, as I was able to fill myself (and Mark) up on an assortment of healthy, nutritious and balanced meals without too much trouble! Though I do not advocate for vegetarianism, I certainly do NOT not condone it either as I feel everyone has the right to make their own food choices. My concern however, is that if one chooses not to eat red and white meat (and seafood for many) that they understand the importance of eating meals that are well balanced and include bioavailable sources of essential vitamins and minerals, particularly easily absorbable sources of iron and vitaminB12, both of which are primarily found in animal sources.

Firstly I will look at vitamin B12 which is an essential vitamin that cannot be synthesised in the body. Vitamin B12 is primarily only produced by bacteria and fungi particularly in the gastrointestinal tracts of ruminant animals (so sheep and cattle). The major food sources of B12 are therefore: Beef and lamb, liver (highest source), egg yolks, muscles and oysters and mushrooms (however the B12 in mushrooms is questionable as it is not a biologically active form and is from soil contamination not in the actual mushrooms themselves).

Vegan sources of VitaminB12 include:

– Seaweed and the root nodules of some legumes.

There are also a select handful of fortified food products including:

Some breakfast cereals, some plant milks and a few soy products.

If you are vegetarian or even more so, if you are vegan, it is therefore really important that you do one of the following to ensure that you consume adequate amounts of VitaminB12….

1. That you consume at least 3 serves of the natural sources and fortified products just mentioned above to reach a total of 2.4 micrograms of B12 everyday. OR

2. Take an oral supplement which you can buy at your local chemist.

Getting enough VitaminB12 is essential for a number of important bodily functions including DNA synthesis and cell division, the conversion of Folate into its bioactive form, normal nerve function. A deficiency in VitaminB12 can therefore lead to anaemia, elevated plasma homocysteine levels (which is implicated in premature heart disease), peripheral neuropathy (nervous system damage) and degeneration of brain matter causing confusion, depression and psychosis.

Ok now for IRON! This is a pretty obvious one..if you don’t eat meat, you are far less likely to meet your daily iron needs without careful planning and dietary management. This is because the type of iron found in red meats in particular but also white meats (known as haem iron) is much more bioavailable or in other words is easily absorbed by the body. It is really important therefore, that those who choose not to eat meat include food combinations throughout the day that provide them with adequate amounts of all of the 20 essential amino acids required for protein synthesis. This means eating plenty of the following nonhaem iron sources:

Fortified breakfast cereals, fortified drinks and protein bars/supplements, wholegrains, legumes,  soybeans, gluten based vegetarian meat alternatives, textured vegetable protein (TVP), nuts and green leafy vegetables.

It is also a good idea to consume plenty of foods high in vitamin C, which aids the absorption of iron from foods. This means including plenty of the following sources:

guava (highest source), kiwi fruit, paw paw, lychees, citrus fruits, chili, parsley, broccoli, spinach, capsicum and liver. And remember there are significant losses in Vitamin C content of foods after preparation processing methods such as freezing, cutting, heating etc. So eat whole and with as little preparation and processing as possible if you can!

And if this all seems to hard or you don’t like to eat many of these types of foods, PLEASE at least think about taking an iron supplement, especially if you are a woman or are very physically active!

Calcium is obviously another essential nutrient that vegans must be mindful of in avoiding all sources of animal products including dairy. It is possible to obtain your daily calcium needs by including 2-3 serves of the following foods:

Soy and other dairy alternative milks (rice/almond milks etc) that are fortified with calcium. (note: soy milks etc need to contain greater than 100mg of calcium per 100ml).

If soy/other milk alternatives are not an option it’s important that you include as many non-dairy calcium rich alternatives as possible such as set tofu, soy yoghurts/cheeses/ custards etc. Tinned salmon (mainly the bones), breakfast cereals, almonds and green leafy vegetables including spinach,broccoli and bok choy) also all contain calcium but obtaining adequate amounts from these foods is essential and can be difficult to measure!

So as you can see, being a vegetarian or vegan does not mean you are doomed to become deficient in all sorts of essential vitamins and minerals….it just requires a little bit of careful planning and being mindful of the types of foods you need to ensure you include in your diet everyday! Or at least take oral supplements if you are worried you are not obtaining the nutrients you need from your usual dietary patterns!

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