Whether you’re going totally vegetarian or simply having more meat-free meals, we show you how to get all the nutrients your body needs.
Many of us eat far too much meat and could benefit from eating more meat-free meals.
As long as it’s well planned, a largely meat-free diet can have significant health benefits. For instance, studies show that vegetarians have a lower body mass index (BMI). And eating fish instead of meat reduces bowel cancer risk by 43 per cent. But it’s important to replace the key nutrients that red meat provides.
What foods to choose
Get enough protein
By not eating meat, which is one of the best sources of protein, you need an alternate source in every meal. Protein is vital for our bones, muscles, hair and skin. Plus, protein helps us feel full. You’ll find protein in some surprising places, for example:
grainy bread, brown rice and wholemeal pasta
baked beans, chickpeas and lentils
seeds and nuts
Including a combination of these each day makes a significant contribution to your body’s protein needs.
Don’t go overboard on cheese
While cheese contains many important nutrients such as protein, calcium, and vitamin B, it’s also high in saturated fat and salt. Hard cheese is your best choice as it is lower in fat than the soft varieties. Stick to 40g a day — that’s two ‘singles’ slices or four dice-sized cubes — to boost your meat-free meal.
Tuck into quinoa and tofu
If you’re vegan, you’re not getting the ‘complete’ protein that meat, eggs and dairy provide. So it’s important to add in complete protein sources such as soy-based foods (e.g. tofu and soy milk) as well as quinoa to avoid becoming malnourished.
Other good protein sources such as beans, chickpeas and nuts don’t contain all your essential amino acids. So a good way to get a balance of all the essential amino acids is to eat a combination of protein-rich foods. Try hoummos with wholegrain bread; chilli beans with brown rice; or wholemeal pasta and chickpea salad. These combinations are also high in fibre. Eating protein and fibre together keeps us feeling full.
More good reasons to eat tofu every day
Tofu is loaded with essential nutrients. It gives you a good hit of zinc, iron and calcium, which can sometimes be missing in meat-free diets.
Zinc is important for your immune system, while iron gives you energy, and calcium is vital for strong bones. Tofu also provides omega-3 fats and helps to lower your LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol.
Tofu is versatile, too — use firm tofu in stir-fries, stews and salads; and silken tofu in quiches and dairy-free sauces and dips. See our delicious tofu recipes for inspiration.
Combine iron with vitamin C
Getting enough iron from a meat-free diet is tricky. Vegetarian foods tend to have lower levels of iron which you need for energy. And the little iron that they do have is more difficult for the body to absorb than the iron found in meat.
Vitamin C-rich foods help the body to absorb iron. So go for combos of vitamin C-rich tomatoes and capsicums with iron-heavy eggs, pulses and dark green vegies.
Power up with nuts and seeds
These contain many of the same valuable nutrients that you get from meat and fish. Importantly, they’re rich in zinc and selenium, vital for a healthy immune system.
Eat just a handful a day, as they are high in kilojoules. Choose unsalted varieties of nuts.
Add in lots of calcium
If you follow a vegan diet, it’s especially important to eat plenty of calcium-rich plant foods. Calcium is the key bone-building nutrient and is mostly found in dairy products.
So if you aren’t eating these, some good non-dairy sources are beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, green leafy veg, dried fruit, oranges, calcium-fortified breakfast cereals, and calcium-enriched soy, rice or oat milk.
Boost your vitamin B12
This vitamin helps maintain a healthy nervous system. You can miss out on getting enough if you skip eggs and dairy (it tends to be found mainly in animal foods). Look for foods with added B12 such as some breakfast cereals and soy products.
Follow the portion plate
This applies regardless of whether you eat meat or not. Half your plate should be piled with colourful veg. Fill a quarter with starchy, fibre-rich carbs (potatoes, brown rice and pasta); and the other quarter with protein-rich foods (beans, lentils, nuts and tofu).
Watch out for meat-based additives
If you’re trying the vegan way of eating, you’ll need to be aware of less obvious ingredients that contain animal products, such as most cheeses (which contain rennet, produced by animals) and jelly (made from gelatine, an animal protein). Visit vegsoc.org/veggieaware for foods to avoid.
Vegan avoids eating all meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk and other dairy products, as well as any by-products of animals, such as foods which contain gelatine or rennet.
Lacto vegetarian drinks milk and eats some dairy products but not eggs.
Lacto-ovo vegetarian eats all dairy products as well as eggs.
Pescetarian includes all seafood, eggs, milk and other dairy products but not poultry or other meats.
Flexitarian is a relatively new term to describe a semi-vegetarian. As the name implies, this is a more flexible approach with a largely plant-based diet, and the occasional inclusion of meat or poultry.
My teenager’s turned vegetarian! What do I do?
Even having one vegetarian in the family can pose problems at meal times. And sharing those meals is an important part of social development for young people.
So let’s look at this in a positive way: most of us could do with eating more vegies and less meat. So often, we plan meals around meat, and then add veg to that. Instead, we need to turn the vegie element into the flavoursome heart of our meals.
Serve the meat as a simple side dish for the rest of the family, so the vegetarian will be enjoying the same meal as everyone else at the table.
Going vegetarian won’t automatically make you slimmer, so make sure this isn't the reason why your teenager has cut out meat. In fact, they may gain weight if meat is replaced with large amounts of high-fat foods such as cheese and nuts, or stodgy carbs like creamy pastas.