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Vegetarian and vegan diets

4-minute read

Plant-based diets can help reduce your risk of disease and provide you with all the protein, minerals and vitamins your body needs.

Vegetarians don't eat meat, poultry or seafood. However, there are different types of vegetarian diet:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products.
  • Vegans don’t eat any animal products, including honey and gelatine.

Benefits of a vegetarian diet

A vegetarian diet based on vegetables, legumes, beans, wholegrains, fruits, nuts and seeds can help reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and some types of cancer.

Dietary fibre in a plant-based diet increases 'good' bacteria in the bowel. 

A well-planned vegetarian diet that includes a variety of plant-based foods - including those from the 5 food groups - can meet nutritional needs. However, some nutrients may need special attention. A vegan diet requires extra care to ensure your body gets adequate nutrients - particularly in the case of children's diets.

Here’s how to get enough protein, calcium, iron and other nutrients on a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Protein

Protein is made up of amino acids. Essential amino acids can’t be made in the body, and they’re typically found in meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese and yoghurt. Not all plants have all essential amino acids.

You can get the amino acids you need by eating a variety of plant sources of protein each day. Good sources of protein include:

  • legumes such as chick peas, lentils and beans
  • tofu
  • nuts, excluding coconut
  • seeds such as sunflower, pumpkin, chia and sesame
  • grains such as wheat, oats, barley, quinoa and buckwheat.

Calcium

Lacto-vegetarians get calcium from milk, cheese and yoghurt.

Good sources of calcium for vegans include:

  • tofu set with a calcium salt (check the label)
  • soy drinks with added calcium (look for 120mg calcium per 100 mL)
  • almonds
  • tahini
  • Asian greens, such as bok choy.

Iron

There are two types of iron in food: haem and non-haem. Haem iron is absorbed better than non-haem iron. Almost half the iron in meat, poultry and seafood is haem iron. Eggs and plant foods have only non-haem iron.

But plant foods can still provide an adequate amount of iron for the body. Good sources of iron include:

  • legumes such as lentils, beans and chick peas
  • firm tofu
  • tempeh
  • pumpkin seeds (also called pepitas) and sunflower seeds
  • nuts, especially cashews and almonds
  • wholegrain cereals such as oats or muesli, wholemeal bread, brown rice, amaranth and quinoa
  • dried apricots
  • vegetables such as kale, broccoli, spinach and green peas.

Including fruits or vegetables at each meal helps you absorb non-haem iron. Try eating berries, kiwifruit, melon or an occasional small glass of orange juice at breakfast; salad, home-made vegetable soup or fresh fruit for lunch; and vegetables such as broccoli, capsicum, cabbage, cauliflower, snow peas, kale, pumpkin, spinach or tomatoes at dinner.

Women need more iron to replace the amount lost in blood during menstruation. Until menopause, women need about twice as much iron as men.

Pregnant women need even more iron, although they’re better at absorbing non-haem iron. If you’re concerned about your iron levels, see your doctor about getting a blood test.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 helps blood form and allows the brain and nervous system to function properly. It’s found in animal foods including milk, cheese, yoghurt and eggs, and is added to some soy products and breakfast cereals. Spirulina, comfrey, tempeh and mushrooms are not sources of vitamin B12.

Vegans need to supplement their diet with B12.

Is a vegetarian diet safe for children?

A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet is fine for children as long as they eat a variety of plant foods. It’s a very good idea to seek the advice of a doctor or dietitian before putting children, especially babies and toddlers, on a vegan diet to ensure they get all the nutrients they need.

With the exception of soy drinks, non-dairy milk substitutes don’t offer enough protein or other nutrients for babies and toddlers. Australian Government guidelines recommend giving infants on a vegan diet breast milk or soy-based infant formula for the first 2 years.

Tips for vegetarians and vegans

  • Vary your diet widely to make sure you get all essential amino acids.
  • If you’re pregnant, get your iron levels checked regularly.
  • If you’re vegan, vary your diet and add a supplement of vitamin B12.

Children can safely follow vegetarian diets, although it’s wise to get advice from a dietitian first. If not planned correctly, inadequate nutrition due to the requirements of a restricted diet (such as a vegan diet) can be a cause of poor growth in children.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: November 2017

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