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The Most Important Parts of a Strong and Healthy Vegetarian Diet
While some people will argue that meat is essential in the diet to obtain all the nutrients we need to maintain a healthy body and maximise our sporting potential, vegetarians would beg to differ. They might be biased, but there is good evidence that a vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrition essential for a healthy and active life. That said a little thought however is still needed to maintain the balance of the diet, as you can’t simply remove meat and not replace it with other foods providing equivalent goodness. Here we look at vegetarian sources of vital elements in the diet for wellbeing and exercise.
Essential to maintain the strength of the musculoskeletal system – the muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage and bones – not just for everyday activities, but to participate in sport and to work out. Protein is also vital for the body to carry out any repair that it needs to do, such as fighting an infection, healing a broken bone or recovering from an operation. It is also a necessary component of enzymes, many of which are required for the chemical reactions in the body which allow us to digest food and release the energy needed by us to carry out all body functions and to participate in activity.
For vegetarians who choose to eat eggs and dairy foods – milk, yoghurt and cheese – these are an excellent source of high quality protein. It is still possible to meet your protein requirements if all animal products are avoided, but soya is the only plant-based protein that provides all the essential amino acids – the building blocks that make up protein. It is therefore necessary to eat a variety of plant sources of protein daily to ensure that we receive the full complement of amino acids, so this means ideally including peas, beans, lentils (collectively known as pulses), nuts, seeds and wholegrains in combination every day. If vegetarians are concerned they are not eating adequate protein and are happy to use a milk-based product, they might be interested in protein shakes.
We are all probably familiar with the importance of adequate calcium to keep our bones strong, but calcium is also required for muscle contractions. It’s easy to obtain sufficient calcium from three portions of dairy foods daily – a third of a pint of milk, a small pot of yoghurt and 1oz of cheese. For vegetarians who don’t eat dairy produce, use alternative milks such as soya, rice or oat milk that has been fortified with calcium, as this will provide an equivalent calcium intake to dairy milks. Vegetarians can also top up their calcium levels by eating plenty of green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, nuts and pulses – our ancestors who followed the Paleo diet didn’t require dairy foods to maintain their bone strength, showing the role that unprocessed plant foods play in our diet.
An essential component of red blood cells, iron allows haemoglobin to transport oxygen around the body, which every cell requires to function. At times of increased activity, oxygen demand by the muscles is increased, so an adequate intake of iron becomes even more important. Eggs are a good source of iron, as are wholegrains, pulses, nuts, green leafy vegetables and dried fruit, as well as any cereals fortified with iron. The only downside is that all these sources of iron are not absorbed as well as that from meat which does have a health impact. However, iron absorption can be increased by including Vitamin C rich fruit or vegetables with meals – orange juice, citrus fruits, berries, kiwis, tomatoes, peppers and peas are all high in Vitamin C and some squashes to dilute have this vitamin added to them.
Eating a diet rich in the components essential for strong bones, muscles and general health is only part of the story, exercise and training are the other essentials; all elements need to be present to see the best results.