Question: ‘I am a vegetarian. What should I be doing to ensure I have all the essential vitamins and minerals in my diet?’ – A vegetarian is someone who eats a diet consisting mostly of plant-based foods including fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains. Some (lacto-ovo vegetarians)also consume eggs and dairy products. Vegans don’t eat any animal products. A well-planned low carb vegan diet can certainly meet all of your nutritional needs, but there are some nutrients that may need special attention.
Low carb vegan diet
Protein is an essential nutrient that is required for many vital roles in the body. Proteins are made up of amino acids – some of these can be made by the body, while others (known as ‘essential’ amino acids) must be supplied by the diet.
As a vegetarian you can obtain all of the essential amino acids you need by eating a variety of different types of plant foods including legumes, grains, nuts, seeds and soy products. It was once thought that certain combinations of plant foods had to be eaten at the same meal but it is now known that strict protein combining is not necessary.
Meeting your protein needs
Iron is an essential mineral that plays a vital role in forming haemoglobin, which transports oxygen around the body. It also assists in energy – producing chemical reactions and maintaining a healthy immune system. Low iron levels lead to anaemia.
There are two types of iron in food – ‘haem iron’ is found in animal foods while ‘non-haem iron’ is found in eggs and plant foods such as legumes, cereal grains, nuts, seeds and dark green leafy vegetables. Non-haem iron is not as well absorbed by the body but including foods high in vitamin C at the same meal can improve absorption.
Meeting your iron needs
Zinc is needed for reproduction, growth, wound healing, sexual maturation and for maintaining a healthy immune system. While it is found widely in plant foods, its absorption is reduced by phytates found in wheat bran, wholegrains and legumes. So, to maximise absorption, try processing a food by soaking, fermenting or sprouting (where possible) to reduce the phytate level and make zinc more readily available. Remember, the most important thing is to include foods rich in zinc in your diet.
Meeting your zinc needs
Calcium is important for healthy bones and teeth. It also plays a role in muscle contraction and relaxation, blood clotting, nerve function and regulation of blood pressure. For lacto-ovo vegetarians, dairy products provide plenty of calcium. Vegans can obtain their calcium from fortified soy milk or other plant foods rich in calcium, such as hard tofu, Asian green vegetables (like Bok Choy and Choy Sum) and unhulled tahini (sesame seed paste).
Calcium absorption is improved in the presence of vitamin D but is reduced by sodium and caffeine.
Meeting your calcium needs
Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin, which is found almost exclusively in animal foods. We need it to form red blood cells and to maintain a healthy nervous system. Deficiency can cause a type of anaemia and may lead to irreversible nerve damage. It is particularly important for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding as newborn babies have very little of their own stores and rely on obtaining vitamin B12 from their mother’s breast milk.
Meeting your vitamin B12 needs