Vegetarian eating patterns, including vegan and plant-based diets, seem to be on the rise. Most of us likely know someone who is following a vegetarian diet, or we are following one ourselves. A 2018 study from the University of Dalhousie actually found that over 6.4 million Canadians are already reducing or completely eliminating meat from their diet, with many others considering to do the same. (1)
This growing interest in reducing our intake of animal products can also be seen by the explosion of new animal-free products, including the Beyond Burger, Impossible Meat, and numerous other products being advertised as “vegan” or “plant-based.”
In today’s post we will dive a little deeper into this trend, exploring different vegetarian eating patterns, reasons why people may choose to adopt a vegetarian diet, and some important nutritional considerations when eating animal-free.
Types of Vegetarian Eating Patterns
Vegetarian, vegan, plant-based, pescatarian… there are many terms that someone may use to describe their approach to eating. Knowing the difference between them can help you better understand how someone may eat, or what a particular vegetarian eating pattern entails.
This term is likely the one that most of us are most familiar with and is often used to describe any eating pattern that omits certain animal products, however, it is most commonly used to describe diets that do not include meat, poultry, or fish. Many vegetarians may still choose to eat dairy or other animal products. To help simplify this, vegetarian diets can be further defined as:
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian
- Excludes meat, poultry & fish
- Includes dairy & eggs
- Excludes meat, poultry, fish & eggs
- Includes dairy
- Excludes meat, poultry, fish & dairy
- Includes eggs
- Excludes meat & poultry
- Includes fish, seafood, dairy & eggs
The term vegan is used to describe individuals who abstain from consuming any form of animal products – this includes meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, honey, and other animal by-products such as gelatin. Veganism also extends beyond the diet – according to The Vegan Society:
Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals. (2)
Plant-based diets are often very similar to vegan diets – the big difference being that plant-based diets are focused solely on the diet, while vegan diets are informed by a philosophy that aims to reduce harm to animals and the environment. Many individuals who follow a plant-based diet may still include some animal products occasionally, whereas those following a vegan diet typically aim to eliminate and abstain from consuming (and using) all animal products. There are also some forms of a plant-based diet that may further eliminate or greatly reduce certain foods, such as whole-foods plant-based diets or low-fat plant-based diets.
Choosing to Go Vegetarian, Vegan or Plant-based
The reasons behind choosing to follow a vegetarian, vegan or plant-based diet vary widely, and many people often have more than one reason for choosing to reduce or eliminate their intake of animal products, such as:
- Aiming to improve overall health and/or lose weight;
- Ethical concerns over the treatment of animals and/or the environmental cost of producing animal products; and
- Religious, spiritual, or cultural beliefs.
Nutrients of Concern
We have covered the different forms of vegetarian diets, and why someone may choose to adopt a vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based way of eating. But what about nutrition? Is it possible to be healthy on a vegetarian or vegan diet?
According to Dietitians of Canada and The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can meet an individual’s nutritional needs, regardless of age, gender, or activity level. (3,4) This includes all life stages, “including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.” (4) Some research even shows that appropriately planned vegetarian or vegan diets can reduce one’s risk for developing heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity, some cancers, and high cholesterol. (3)
However, there are some nutrients that can be challenging to obtain from a vegetarian or vegan diet, especially if certain foods are not included. Let’s go over the primary nutrients that could be low in a vegetarian or vegan diet and provide some suggestions that may help fill the gap.
- Why it’s important: protein helps our body build and repair tissues, including muscle and skin. (5)
- Why it may be low on a vegetarian or vegan diet: plant-based foods that are rich protein sources may not be included regularly.
- Plant-based sources: tofu, tempeh, edamame, legumes (including beans, peas, and lentils), nuts and nut butters, seeds, plant-based protein powders (i.e., soy, hemp, pea, etc.), protein-rich plant-based milk alternatives (i.e., fortified soy/pea beverages and yogurts), and plant-based meat alternatives made from wheat-gluten, soy, and/or pea proteins. Vegetarians who include dairy and/or egg products can also use these foods to help meet their protein needs.
- Why they’re important: omega-3 fats are forms of unsaturated fats that aid in the development of our brains, nervous system, and eyes as infants, but research also shows that these fats may help to lower heart disease risk and support a healthy immune system. (6)
- Why it may be low on a vegetarian or vegan diet: omega-3s come in three different forms: ALA (alpha linoleic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). (6) ALA is considered an essential fatty acid and must therefore come from our diets (our body cannot produce it on its own). (7) However, our body is able to convert the ALA we consume into EPA, which can then be converted to DHA. (7) EPA and DHA can also be obtained from the diet if fish and/or eggs are included. (7) For those who do not eat fish or eggs, it may be challenging to include enough ALA in the diet to ensure an appropriate amount of DHA is being produced by the body, therefore, supplementation with a plant-based DHA supplement may be considered. (7)
- Plant-based sources: ALA can be found in ground flaxseeds*, chia seeds, walnuts, edamame, tofu, tempeh, flaxseed oil, canola oil, and soybean oil. (6,7)
For those choosing to include fish, salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring, Artic char, and trout are all rich sources of EPA and DHA. (8)
For those not including fish regularly, consider speaking with a Registered Dietitian to ensure your DHA needs are being met, and to discuss if a plant-based omega-3 supplement may be right for you.
*Grinding flaxseeds makes it easier for our body to absorb the ALA – whole flax seeds are challenging for our body to digest due to its hard outer shell. (8)
- Why it’s important: calcium is a building block for healthy bones and teeth, and also plays a role in the functioning of our heart, muscles and nerves. (9)
- Why it may be low on a vegetarian or vegan diet: Many calcium-rich plant-based foods also contain oxalates, which can reduce the amount of calcium absorbed and make it challenging to meet calcium needs. (9)
- Plant-based sources: tofu prepared with calcium sulfate, textured vegetable protein (TVP), tempeh, almonds or almond butter, tahini, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, boy choy, calcium-fortified plant-based beverages and yogurts (i.e., soy, almond, rice, oat, etc.), calcium-fortified orange juice, blackstrap molasses, and dried figs. Vegetarians who include dairy products can also use these foods to help meet their calcium needs.
- Why it’s important: iron plays an important role in our growth and development, and in the production of red blood cells, which carry oxygen around our body. (10)
- Why it may be low on a vegetarian or vegan diet: Iron comes in two different forms: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found only in animal-based foods, while non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods. (10) Non-heme iron is not absorbed as efficiently, meaning vegetarians and vegans are recommended to eat twice as much iron to ensure their needs are met. (10)
- Plant-based sources: tofu, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), nuts and nut butters, seeds and seed butters, products made from soy (i.e., fortified soy beverage, soy yogurt, tempeh), fortified grain products, blackstrap molasses, marmite/vegemite, and some vegetables (including cooked spinach, asparagus, beets, beet greens, and turnip greens). (10) Vegetarians who include seafood and/or eggs can also include these foods to help meet their iron needs.
Quick Tips – vitamin C can actually increase the absorption of non-heme iron. Aim to include foods rich in vitamin C (fruits and vegetables) when having iron-rich foods. (10) For example, having an orange with a snack of nuts and seeds.
Consuming coffee and tea while having a meal rich in non-heme iron may actually decrease iron absorption – aim to include coffee or tea outside of meal and snack times when possible to increase iron absorption.
- Why it’s important: selenium is an antioxidant that plays a role in thyroid function and may help to support a healthy immune. (11)
- Why it may be low on a vegetarian or vegan diet: many selenium-rich foods are animal-based, and plant-based foods that contain selenium may not be regularly included.
- Plant-based sources: nuts (particularly brazil nuts), grain products (including couscous and whole wheat bread products), and legumes (such as pinto beans). (11) Vegetarians who include seafood and/or eggs can also include these foods to help meet their selenium needs.
- Why it’s important: zinc helps to support a healthy immune system and aids in wound healing. (12)
- Why it may be low on a vegetarian or vegan diet: many animal-based foods are rich sources of zinc. Omitting these foods without adding plant-based sources in may lead to an inadequate intake of zinc.
- Plant-based sources: oatmeal, tofu, legumes (including beans, peas, and lentils), nuts and seeds, and whole grains. (13) Vegetarians who include seafood and/or dairy products can also include these foods to help meet their zinc needs.
- Why it’s important: vitamin A helps to support the health of our eyes, skin, and immune system. (14)
- Why it may be low on a vegetarian or vegan diet: vitamin A is found in animal-based foods, however, our body can make vitamin A using carotenoids, which are compounds found in fruits and vegetables. (14) When animal-based foods are omitted, efforts to include fruits and vegetables rich in carotenoids should be taken to ensure our body can produce enough vitamin A to meet our needs.
- Plant-based sources: brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, including sweet potatoes, pumpkin, cooked carrots, cooked spinach, butternut squash, dried apricots, cantaloupe. (14) Vegetarians who include seafood and/or dairy products and/or eggs can also include these foods to help meet their vitamin A needs.
- Why it’s important: vitamin B12 is involved in the formation of red blood cells and supports our nervous system. (15) Individuals who do not meet their vitamin B12 needs may develop pernicious anemia, which may be treated using vitamin B12 supplementation.
- Why it may be low on a vegetarian or vegan diet: while vitamin B12 is actually produced by bacteria, it is not naturally found in most plant-based foods. (16) There are fortified plant-based products that include vitamin B12 (see below), however, failure to include these regularly may make it challenging to meet vitamin B12 needs.
- Plant-based sources: Fortified plant-based beverages (e.g., soy, almond, oat, etc.), fortified plant-based meat alternatives (i.e., soy burgers, etc.), and fortified nutritional yeast.* (15) Vegetarians who include dairy products, seafood, and/or eggs can also include these foods to help meet their vitamin B12 needs.
Vitamin B12 supplements are often recommended for those following a vegan or plant-based diet. Speak with a Registered Dietitian to see if a vitamin B12 supplement would be appropriate for you.
*Not all brands of nutritional yeast are fortified with vitamin B12. Be sure to check the label before purchasing.
- Why it’s important: vitamin D works with calcium to keep our bones and teeth healthy. (17) It also plays a role in supporting our muscles, nervous system, and immune system. (17)
- Why it may be low on a vegetarian or vegan diet: similar to vitamin B12, vitamin D is not naturally found plant-based foods. Plant-based products fortified with vitamin D are available, but meeting vitamin D needs could be challenging if these products are not regularly included. Vitamin D can also be produced by our bodies through regular exposure to sunlight, however, this can be challenging due to a number of factors: skin must be exposed (without sunscreen) for an adequate amount of time (but research suggests limiting sun exposure to reduce skin cancer risk), and the amount of vitamin D produced can vary widely between individuals, depending on skin tone, age, and geographical location. (17) It is therefore not recommended to rely on sun exposure alone to meet your vitamin D needs. (17)
- Plant-based sources: fortified plant-based beverages (i.e., soy, almond, oat, etc.). (17) Vegetarians who include dairy products, eggs, and/or fish can also include these foods to help meet their vitamin D needs.
Plant-based vitamin D supplements are often recommended for those following a vegan or plant-based diet. Speak with a Registered Dietitian to see if a vitamin D supplement would be appropriate for you.
If you have questions about adopting a vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based way of eating, or if you have concerns about meeting your nutritional needs on a vegetarian diet, speak to a Registered Dietitian. A Registered Dietitian at Nutrition Assessment Clinic can assist you with optimizing your vegetarian or vegan diet to help ensure your nutritional needs are being met.
Written by Mikaela Horton, BASc, MHSc, RD for nutritionassessment.com
- Dalhousie University: Faculty of Management. (2018, October 30). Release: New Dalhousie study finds that 6.4 million Canadians limit the amount of meat they eat, and number will likely grow. https://www.dal.ca/faculty/management/news-events/news/2018/10/30/release__new_dalhousie_study_finds_that_6_4_million_canadians_limit_the_amount_of_meat_they_eat__and_number_will_likely_grow.html
- The Vegan Society. (n.d.). Definition of veganism. Retrieved from https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism
- Dietitians of Canada. (2019, January 03). Four steps to a balanced vegan eating pattern. In ca. Retrieved from https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Vegetarian-and-Vegan-Diets/Four-Steps-to-a-Balanced-Vegan-Eating-Pattern.aspx
- The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2016). Position of the academy of nutrition and dietetics: Vegetarian diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(12). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025
- Dietitians of Canada. (2020, June 10). Introduction to protein and high protein foods. In ca. Retrieved from https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Protein/Introduction-To-Protein-And-High-Protein-Foods.aspx
- Dietitians of Canada. (2018, December 18). What’s the difference between omega-3 and omega-6 fats? In ca. Retrieved from https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Fat/What%E2%80%99s-the-Difference-Between-Omega-3-and-Omega-6.aspx
- Norris, J. (2012). Omega-3s Part 1 – Basics. Retrieved from https://veganhealth.org/omega-3s-part-1/
- Dietitians of Canada. (2019, January 29). Omega-3 fats deliver oh mega benefits. In ca. Retrieved from https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Heart-Health/Omega-3-Fats-Deliver-Oh-Mega-Benefits.aspx
- Dietitians of Canada. (2019, February 14). What you need to know about calcium. In ca. Retrieved from https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Vitamins-and-Minerals/What-You-Need-to-Know-about-Calcium.aspx
- Dietitians of Canada. (2019, February 14). What you need to know about iron. In ca. Retrieved from https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Vitamins-and-Minerals/What-You-Need-To-Know-About-Iron.aspx
- Dietitians of Canada. (2019, February 14). The scoop on selenium. In ca. Retrieved from https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Vitamins-and-Minerals/The-Scoop-on-Selenium.aspx
- Dietitians of Canada. (2018, October 22). What you need to know about a healthy vegetarian eating plan. In ca. Retrieved from https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Vegetarian-and-Vegan-Diets/What-You-Need-to-Know-About-a-Healthy-Vegetarian-E.aspx
- Dietitians of Canada. (2021, January 7). What you need to know about zinc and immunity. In ca. Retrieved from https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Vitamins-and-Minerals/-What-You-Need-to-Know-about-Zinc.aspx
- Dietitians of Canada. (2019, March 21). What you need to know about vitamin A. In ca. Retrieved from https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Vitamins-and-Minerals/What-You-Need-to-Know-About-Vitamin-A.aspx
- Dietitians of Canada. (2019, September 13). What you need to know about vitamin B12. In ca. Retrieved from https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Vitamins-and-Minerals/What-You-Need-to-Know-About-Vitamin-B12.aspx
- Norris, J. (n.d.). Vitamin B12. Retrieved from https://veganhealth.org/vitamin-b12/
- Dietitians of Canada. (2019, September 8). What you need to know about vitamin D. In ca. Retrieved from https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Vitamins-and-Minerals/What-you-need-to-know-about-Vitamin-D.aspx