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General Health - Reaping the health benefits of being a vegetarian

By Corin Evans DipION FdSc MBANT

Not to eat meat or other animal products is often a big decision, frequently made on ethical grounds. However, with a wealth of research suggesting that vegetarians benefit from a reduction in their risk of developing heart disease, obesity and bowel cancer, it’s not surprising that an increasing number of people are choosing vegetarianism for its health benefits as well.

It can be all too easy when cutting out meat and fish to become heavily reliant on dairy products and pre-prepared meals, so how can you avoid the pitfalls and ensure that you get the most out of your decision to be a vegetarian?


This can be the most difficult area for vegetarians to get right. Protein is vital for cell growth and repair, immune function and neurotransmitter production; so don’t expect your body and brain to work well if you skimp on this area of your diet. You will need to include a variety of protein sources to ensure that you get all the essential amino acids that the body is unable to make for itself. Include lentils, beans, tofu, sprouted beans and seeds, nuts and nut butters, seeds, eggs and low-fat dairy products, such as yoghurt and cottage cheese. Quinoa, millet, amaranth and brown rice are also good sources of protein, so don’t forget to include these too. Hemp protein can be a really useful addition to a vegetarian diet, being a ‘complete’ protein, and can easily be added to smoothies, soups and casseroles.


Playing a vital role in the functioning of our red blood cells, this nutrient can become deficient in vegetarians, particularly menstruating women or those who have been vegetarian for a long time. If you think you might be deficient, it is advisable to get your GP to carry out a blood test. Spinach, kale, pumpkin seeds, almonds, millet, lentils and dried figs are all good sources, so include these on a regular basis. Supplementing with a food form of iron that is gentle on the digestive system can also be a good idea.


There is some evidence to suggest that this vital mineral is less bioavailable in vegan and vegetarian diets, so maximise your intake with pumpkin seeds or butter, nuts and pulses or consider supplementing.

Essential fats

The benefits of omega 3 fatty acids to the body and brain are well researched, and it is absolutely vital to include them in the diet since the body cannot make them. Vegetarian sources of omega 3 include flax seeds and oil, pumpkin seeds and walnuts, and should be included in the diet daily.

Vitamin B12

Deficiency of this crucial nutrient is more common among strict vegans or those who don’t include many eggs or dairy products in their diet. If this is you, it would be wise to take a B12 supplement.

Vitamin D

Food sources of this important vitamin are difficult to obtain in a vegetarian diet, as it is found only in animal products, or fortified foods. The body does make its own vitamin D when the skin is exposed to sunlight, but in the UK, weather and lifestyle can make this a bit of a ‘hit and miss’ affair, so taking a supplement, perhaps a vegetarian multivitamin, is an ideal way to boost reserves.

With a bit of time and thought, it is easy to be a healthy vegetarian! 

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