Is going vegetarian healthier?

With World Vegetarian Day on 01 October – it was time for our nutrition experts to have a go at trialling another dietary approach. Surely going meat-free couldn’t be too difficult? Or could it!

is a vegetarian diet healthy?

What is a vegetarian diet?

Vegetarianism may be adopted for various reasons such as religious beliefs, environmental factors, health benefits, or simply personal preference. There are a range of vegetarian diets that people follow with the most common being the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet which excludes meat, poultry and fish but includes both eggs and dairy products.

How does a vegetarian diet fit with Heart Foundation advice? Is it healthy?

Both the Heart Foundation and Ministry of Health recommend that we emphasise plant-based sources of protein. While a vegetarian diet has been shown to be healthy and to reduce the risk of heart disease, so too have dietary patterns which include some animal products. Well-known examples include; the traditional Mediterranean diet, the vegetarian diet of the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the largely plant-based diet of the Okinawans in Japan.

These dietary patterns all reflect a range of fat, carbohydrate and protein intakes but share some common themes. These themes underpin the Heart Foundation’s dietary advice and includes eating largely minimally-processed foods with plenty of vegetables and fruit. Including some whole grains – in place of refined grains – legumes, nuts, seeds, and other sources of healthy fats such as oily fish. It may also contain non-processed lean meats or poultry and/or dairy, if desired.

The trial – how did our experts become vegetarian?

Our team of food and nutrition experts trialled a vegetarian diet for a month. They all followed the lacto-ovo vegetarian approach which includes milk and eggs. For this trial we did not become vegan, which excludes all animal products including dairy and eggs.

Were we able to stick to a meat-free approach? Find out how we went.

Dave

At the beginning of the trial, I’d dish up the kids’ dinner and sneak a piece of leftover meat, forgetting that it didn’t fit the brief. This highlighted how difficult it can be to follow a vegetarian approach if ethical factors aren’t a personal driver. Overall, my approach during the four weeks was more like partial-vegetarian as our Sunday-night family meals continued to include meat.

I didn’t plan my meals particularly well. I just tended to use dairy (e.g. feta or haloumi), chickpeas, falafels or meat replacers instead of meat. Overall, my dairy intake went up, but I should have been focusing on trying to increase the legume and vegetable intake. My key take-away from the trial is to aim for at least one or two meat-free evening meals and put some effort into more creative vegetarian dishes.

Angela

I must admit that I didn’t think this challenge would be too much of a stretch for me – but I was wrong! We usually have a couple of meat-free meals each week, however I do love fish and I found it tough not being able to include it during the challenge.

I also found it challenging cooking for the rest of the family who were still eating meat and fish and not having any myself. This meant that I ended up resorting back to my usual eating patterns far sooner than anticipated and I didn’t manage to complete the full trial. I also made the mistake of cooking a beautiful vegetable and tofu dish only to be caught out by adding fish sauce – oops!

It did make me wonder how many times a vegetarian may unknowingly eat meat products without realising. For me, this challenge drove home how difficult it can sometimes be to break habits when it comes to our food choices. Also, that making dietary changes needs to be realistic and work for the individual and sometimes making small changes over time, rather than trying to do everything all at once is what works.

However, other than a few challenges, I found it a really enjoyable experience trying lots of new vegetarian recipes. I also found a new love of tofu and will continue to include this and other plant-protein sources into my meal repertoire.

Qa-t-a

Eating vegetarian food is an excellent way to increase our family’s food repertoire. Generally, we have one to two vegetarian meals per week, so extending this to a full week was straightforward for us.

Vegetarian food provides quick and easy meals that are suitable for budget conscious consumers, so are great to help keep weekly food costs low. The benefit of eating vegetarian meals, is that they are handy to cook in bulk and freeze, so you always have something ready on those busy days when you just can’t cook.

Judith

While I was on the vegetarian trial I tried a lot of recipes from other cultures which extended my range of vegetarian-protein sources such as legumes, tofu as well as vegetables, grains, herbs and spices. This meant I had to plan my shopping more carefully and sometimes more preparation time was required when I tried new recipes for my lunches and dinners.  

I deliberately avoided relying too much on cheese and eggs as protein sources. These recipes provided a full range of nutrients including those that can sometimes be lacking if you don’t eat meat and fish (e.g protein, iron and omega 3).

I think the cost of my vegetarian eating, especially if I used seasonal vegetables, was less than I would normally spend. I really enjoyed the trial and will now be having more vegetarian meals each week.

Brogan

Eating vegetarian wasn’t too hard for me, but keeping meals interesting and nutritionally balanced takes some planning. I was lucky to have my partner (a keen meat-eater) join me on the challenge so I didn’t need to prepare separate meals. We were both excited to eat more plant foods and started off strong - planning our meals for the week using recipes online.

By the end of week three our cooking turned more ad-hoc with eggs and canned chickpeas a convenient back up. I think the key to success is planning your meals and writing a shopping list to keep things interesting and varied. A positive side effect of the challenge has been a reduction in our food bill, even after increasing the quantity of fruit and veggies purchased.

This challenge has encouraged us to come up with creative ways to used plant foods (I’ve become an expert on canned beans and their many uses!) and we’ve noticed an increase in our energy levels. We’ve now introduced one fish, and one meat, meal back into our week and take a ‘flexitarian’ approach. No set rules but an emphasis on plant-based foods.

Tina

For me the first week was difficult as I wasn’t organised enough! The next couple of weeks became easier – I put time aside over the weekend to plan and organise lunches and dinners for the coming week. Initially my tummy was not too happy with the increase in fibre from the extra vegetables and legumes but settled after week two.

Lunches were often salads with falafel/hummus for protein. The occasional lunch out was not an issue as there generally were a good variety of vegetarian options available. In the weekends, I resorted to bulk meals such as vegetarian lasagne which could serve as lunch/dinner throughout the week.

I thought this was a good challenge as I’d like to include more meat-free meals in my week and it was a great incentive to try out some new and different recipes.

Sarah

I usually eat meat-free three to four times per week, so going full vegetarian wasn’t too much of a challenge. I browsed food blogs, looked through cookbooks, and it didn’t take long to find plenty of veggie-based recipes and inspiration.

Canned legumes and beans were a convenient and versatile alternative to meat which helped reduce our grocery bill. Cheese and tofu, nuts and seeds also featured on our menu as sources of protein. Dining out was easy and I had no regrets ordering vegetarian items (like Mexican black bean tacos with thyme, roasted kumara, feta and coriander… yum!). The most challenging part was when I stayed with family and friends as I didn’t want to be an inconvenience – that’s when I started to break the rules!

I really enjoyed making vegetables and colour the main focus of each and every meal. Although not everyone needs to become vegetarian to be healthy, I think most of us can benefit from eating more vegetables and less meat.

Sande

I was really excited to start my vegetarian journey and I had anticipated the first week at home cooking two separate meals for my ‘meatatarians’ was going to have challenges. I was pleasantly surprised when my husband decided to join my vegetarian journey.

However, what I hadn’t anticipated was how challenging it would be to become a healthy vegetarian when I travelled around the country, to rural areas. The only “healthy vegetarian” meal I could get in semi-rural areas was falafel. I could have gone to the supermarket to purchase kai, however that would have only been successful if I had a kitchen in my hotel/motel room to cook it in.

I had my fair share of salads and falafels during my three weeks on the road and I fell off the wagon and resulted to eating a pescatarian diet purely because I was really, really hungry. I now have a better appreciation for the dedication vegetarians have.

Is the vegetarian diet healthy?

Going vegetarian is not necessarily a licence for a healthy diet, after all chocolate, hot chips, and soft drink are all foods that can fit within a vegetarian dietary context. However, as we found in the trial, there are aspects of a healthy vegetarian dietary pattern which we can use to improve our dietary intakes. These include an emphasis on minimally-processed foods, plenty of vegetables and fruit, and increasing our consumption of legumes, nuts and seeds.

It’s also important to remember that whenever you exclude any food group, you consult with a nutrition professional, such as a Registered Dietitian or Registered Nutritionist, to make sure that you’re still getting all the nutrients you need.

Many of our food and nutrition experts found that the cost didn’t vary significantly whether we went vegetarian or not, and that there are a range of excellent meat replacers (e.g. vegetarian patties, falafels etc) and interesting vegetarian recipes available to make a vegetarian dietary approach work for them.

Below are our team’s top tips for vegetarian eating, or to simply include more meat-free meals in your weekly meals.

Five top tips for becoming vegetarian

  1. Be planned and organised – Plan meals for the week to ensure variety and balance, and that you have all your ingredients on hand. Make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need – especially protein and iron, and calcium if you are excluding dairy and vitamin B12 if you are excluding all animal products.
    If you are not going full vegetarian but just including one or two meat-free meals a week – plan the days that you are meat-free and ensure you have the ingredients on hand.
  2. Plant protein sources – Legumes (e.g lentils, chickpeas, beans and split peas) are not only good for your health but also your wallet. They are a really affordable choice to add some protein, iron, fibre and other beneficial nutrients to your diet. Our team found a great range of canned legumes which can provide a relatively low-cost and versatile plant protein source. Consider making your own hummus, so it can be used as snacks, lunches or as an accompaniment to an evening meal.
  3. Eggs and dairy – If you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian, both eggs and dairy, in addition to being excellent sources of protein, provide a range of other vitamins and minerals. If you are vegan or don’t eat eggs or milk, you’ll need to ensure you’re choosing a calcium-fortified dairy alternative and getting enough protein from plant-based sources, such as lentils. Ensure you have some protein in most meals to help you feel full and are not just filling up on refined or starchy carbohydrates.
  4. Get creative – planning and preparing vegetarian meals can require some effort and innovation. Look to recipes for inspiration and particularly foods of other cultures where vegetarianism is more common. The Heart Foundation has created the Vegetable cookbook and Full of Beans which provide simple, tasty family meals to include more vegetables and legumes in your weekly diet. 
  5. Flexitarian - Like any dietary approach it is important not to ‘sweat the small stuff’. Some participants included some meat in their diet taking a flexitarian approach (vegetarian some of the time). Rather than embracing vegetarianism totally for a healthier diet, you could consider how you can take small steps towards a more plant-based diet. This may include having one or two meat-free meals a week (e.g. committing to having a meat-free Monday), or incorporating more legumes, such as lentils, chickpeas, split peas or beans, and vegetables into your meals.
Dave Monro, NZRD

Dave Monro, NZRD

Food and Nutrition Manager

I completed chef training while studying nutrition/ dietetics and enjoy combining both of these elements to develop practical solutions for families to eat healthier.