How healthy is it to go vegetarian? Can you get enough protein?

Vegetarian Lentil Paella by Elle_Ann, on Flickr…I have been considering a vegetarian diet for a few years and wonder whether the lack of protein etc can be compensated for healthily?” from Beth Walsh via website

As one of the roughly 3% of vegetarians in the UK (according to the vegetarian society, and having been so for nearly 20 years now, I can say that my experience has been that it’s pretty healthy. From a health point of view, the evidence says that being vegetarian is actually better for you than being a meat-eater (when comparing a typical Western diet) – a non-meat diet is linked with a lower risk of heart disease and obesity.

In the UK, the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) for protein for women is 45g and men is 55g (more if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or doing certain activities such as weight training). That’s about 4 slices of bacon – although bacon comes with a lot of fat of course, so you’d probably be wise to trim off the fat. On average, vegetarians consume only slightly less protein than meat eaters – and well within the daily requirements.

Nuts are a good source of protein (hence the ‘nut roast’). There are also beans and pulses; mixing them together (‘super combinations’) can give a delicious mix of flavours. Combining and varying food in such a way helps to ensure you are eating a good variety of the essential amino acids (building blocks of proteins). It used to be thought that combining in such a way was essential for a healthy vegetarian diet – it isn’t, but it is a good way to ensure a varied diet. (And I would suggest lentils and kidney beans anyway as they taste great together!)

For a vegetarian diet (as opposed to a vegan diet) you can also get protein from animal sources in eggs, milk and cheese. For these, though, you might want to be careful about how much you eat (cheese has a high fat content, for example), but they can be part of a balanced diet.

These days there are a lot of Quorn products out there as well (widely available in the UK) in addition to the wealth of soy-based meat substitutes. Not everyone tolerates Quorn well; it is made of protein extracted from lab-grown fungus (a mycoprotein). It is bound with egg protein, flavoured and shaped. Alternative soy-based (TVP) meat substitutes are widely available – usually as mince-based products (lasagne, pies, etc). These choices are invariably low in fat, but if you’re giving up meat because you don’t like the flavours and textures then these make an odd choice for a protein source.

There are countless resources out there and it’s important to plan before making the switch. Moving to a vegan diet needs extra care – there is evidence to show that some vegan people have a diet lacking in essential nutrients (consuming insufficient calcium, Vitamin D and vitamin B-12, for example). The Vegetarian Society is a brilliant place to start (and they have an excellent section devoted to advice about adopting a vegetarian diet). Websites such as BBC Food feature recipe databases that you can search for vegetarian recipes and the like.

Good luck with your new diet if you decide to try it.

(More dietary advice available at NHS Choices)

Answer by Lewis Pike and Dr Stu

Image source: Elle_Ann on Flickr

Article by Lewis Pike

February 4, 2014

Lewis studied BioMedical Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University and got a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology at University of York. He now spends more time helping people understand science writing than he should and wishing his colleagues would write more clearly for the public as well as each other.

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