A vegetarian diet
Nowadays, logos and other schemes promoting plant-based food are springing up everywhere. How can we reconcile our choices with a well-balanced diet?
A vegetarian diet: a feast for both your eyes and your taste buds. ©Diana Danko
Meat has fallen out of favour. At the end of 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) sounded the alarm, declaring that red meat was “probably” carcinogenic.1 To protect marine ecosystems, the WWF is urging us to limit our consumption of fish, while A Plea for the Animals, written by the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, has been flying off bookstore shelves.2
A paradigm shift is underway. A wind of change is inspiring today’s food choices and the trend is decidedly plant centric. Michelin-starred chefs are turning away from traditional ‘prime cuts’ and are focusing more on plant-based dishes which tap into the unexpected potential of vegetables. Celebrities such as Natalie Portman, Vanessa Paradis and Bryan Adams, who have converted to vegetarianism3, readily promote their lifestyle as well as initiatives such as Meat Free Mondays.4 Less meat – or no meat at all – is synonymous with ecology, ethics, health5 and more considered food choices.
Delicious and inventive everyday cuisine
Excluding meat and fish from our meals, whether it be for ethical, environmental or other reasons, does not have to mean eating plain, tasteless food. The era of steamed vegetables is long gone. Today’s vegetarian food is inventive, delicious and full of flavour. In short, finger-licking good! It plays with colours and textures and can excite the taste buds of even the most hardened meat eaters. Bookshops are bursting with cookery books devoted to the trend and, if in need of some inspiration, a quick look at Instagram is enough to glean a few ideas for an evening meal.
Shopping for the ingredients for our favourite dishes has never been so easy. Local markets offer a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, while some specific items, such as amaranth, or chickpea flour, can easily be found in health food stores. Logos such as the European Vegetarian Union6 V-label, or the green dot in a green square that is very common in India, indicate that a product is vegetarian, thus making supermarket shopping easier as you can see at a glance whether a particular product contains meat.
Good nutritional balance
Not so long ago, friends and family may well have treated a vegetarian with suspicion, commenting disapprovingly that their eating habits would make them ‘pale and anaemic’. Nowadays, we know that there are no medical grounds for advising against a vegetarian diet, provided it is managed well. Indeed, many organisations working in the field of nutrition, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in the United States, recommend a vegetarian diet.
Whether vegetarian or omnivore, it is important to have a well-balanced diet. It is essential that the body procures all the macronutrients and micronutrients it needs through food, and in sufficient quantities. Eating a midday meal consisting solely of iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes is not advisable, but neither is tucking into a classic steak and chips for breakfast! Here are a few guidelines to help you get started.
Favouring a varied plant-based diet of fresh produce provides all the nutrients the body needs.7 In terms of carbohydrates, there are no specific recommendations for vegetarians: As with all balanced diets8, complex carbohydrates, such as those found in brown rice, wholemeal bread and unrefined cereals, should be chosen over simple carbohydrates. Although fruit is high in simple carbohydrates, it is nonetheless recommended as a valuable source of vitamins and antioxidants.
Protein is not only found in meat, but also in eggs and dairy products, as well as in plant-based foodstuffs. Pulses are the most protein-rich plant-sourced food: 100 g of lupin beans contain 40 g of protein9, 100 g of soybeans provide 35 g10 and the same amount of lentils supplies 24 g. In comparison, a 100 g beefsteak contains 22 g of protein.
However, it is important to remember that these figures relate to the raw products.11 When pulses are cooked, they absorb water, which changes the situation somewhat: 100 g of cooked lupin beans contain 15 g of protein, soybeans 13 g and lentils 9 g. Despite these variations in protein content due to the water content, most people following a vegetarian diet have no problem consuming enough protein. Studies show that vegetarians easily achieve and even exceed the recommended daily protein intake.12
The eight amino acids human beings require are present in practically all proteins, whether derived from animals or plants, but in varying amounts. While they are abundant in animal proteins, we need to vary our sources of plant proteins to ensure sufficient intake of these essential amino acids. As the American Dietetic Association points out, “Protein from a variety of plant foods, eaten during the course of a day, supplies enough of all indispensable (essential) amino acids when caloric requirements are met.”13
Pulses are extremely versatile and can be cooked in a variety of ways. Some ideas include making lentil ragouts, marinating tofu before pan-frying it, adding a handful of peas to rice, or pureeing chickpeas to make hummus. However, pulses can take a long time to cook and most require soaking beforehand. When short on time, a good solution is to use tinned pulses, which are often also easier to digest.
With regard to lipids, a vegetarian diet provides the fats the body needs to function properly. A good balance of omega-3/omega-6 can be obtained by using a variety of vegetable oils: rapeseed, linseed and hemp oils are particularly rich in omega-3. Seeds and nuts not only provide fatty acids, but also plenty of protein and other nutrients: They are an ideal snack and can also be used in savoury meals (for example pasta with walnut pesto, cashew nuts in a vegetable curry, etc.) as well as in sweet dishes.
B12 – A vegetarian diet, generally rich in fruit and vegetables, provides many vitamins. However, vitamin B12 is the only nutrient not found in plant-based food. While the recommended daily intake is low (3 μg/day), it is nevertheless essential for the human body. A vitamin B12 deficiency can have serious health consequences, such as anaemia, neurological disorders or paralysis.14 Despite frequent claims to the contrary, fermented food – such as tempeh or shoyu – as well as seaweed or sprouted seeds, are not reliable sources of B12.15 Vegetarians who consume few dairy products or eggs16 can opt for food fortified with vitamin B12 or take food supplements.
Iron – Vegetarians must pay special attention to their iron intake. Owing to the fact that the iron in plants cannot be absorbed as easily as the iron in meat17, for those following a vegetarian diet, the recommended iron intake is higher than for meat eaters. Consuming foodstuffs rich in vitamin C or citric acid during meals increases the absorption of iron.18 Thus, adding a few drops of lemon juice or enhancing a dish with a little chopped parsley, which is also rich in vitamin C, are good habits to adopt.
Iodine – Iodised salt is generally not enough to cover daily iodine requirements. This element is rarely found in many terrestrial plants, but is abundant in seaweed. It is easy to integrate seaweed into our diet, as it is available in many different forms: Flakes can be sprinkled over salads; appetisers made from seaweed tartare are ideal for serving with an aperitif, while sheets of dried seaweed are basic elements of several Japanese dishes such as maki or onigiri.
To conclude, from a nutritional point of view, it is possible to balance either an omnivorous or a vegetarian diet. These days, eating a vegetarian diet is not so hard. Once we have learned a few basic principles and identified the nutrients that are essential for our bodies, we can enjoy combining textures and flavours to produce delicious and varied dishes. With the bonus that we can take pride in doing something positive for the environment!