I'm not a vegetarian or a vegan. However, I am a huge fan of trying to make our diets more plant--based. Reducing the amount of animal-derived foods makes sense, not just for personal health but also for the good of the planet. And it's World Vegetarian Month! So what better time to dive into the world of plant-based nutrition? See below for my top tips and a range of recipes to spice up your vegetarian or vegan diet....
According to the The British & American Gut Project the better variety of plant-based foods we eat, the healthier our gut microbiome. This is because different plants have different types of fibre, and a variety of fibre is good for us! The recommended number of different plants for fibre diversity is 30 per week. This includes fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, seeds, nuts, beans and even herbs and spices.
Don't dismiss vegetarianism as bland salads and lentils!
Think delicious textures, fantastic curries, tasty burgers made with beetroot or black beans, superfood bowls, quesadillas and fajitas! With a dash of creativity vegetarian or vegan meals can not only nourish your body but also help your gut-health, improve your mood and fuel your sport!
The possibilities are endless. Try this Orzo Soup with Crispy Garlic Chickpeas for instance:
Vegetarian or Vegan: What's the Difference?
Health concerns, environmental consciousness, ethical beliefs...people choose a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle stems for various reasons.
Vegetarians exclude meat, poultry, and seafood but may include dairy and eggs.
Vegans, on the other hand, eliminate all animal products and products derived from animals like honey and gelatine.
How do I Fuel my Sport as a Vegetarian or Vegan?
If you're reading this you and/or your family probably leads a pretty active lifestyle. Maybe you're a runner, swimmer, kayaker or triathlete needing to fuel for endurance, perhaps you do a lot of strength training in the gym? Whatever your passion, fueling this as a vegetarian or vegan presents unique challenges.
To get a good balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and to ensure you consume enough calories to support your activities, you need to be particularly vigilant about what you include in your diet as you start out on your vegetarian journey, especially when it comes to protein and minerals such as iron and calcium, as these are easier to get hold of as an omnivore.
Top athletes thrive on plant-based diets, so it is perfectly possible!
Look at world No. 1 tennis player, Novac Djokovic who has led a vegan or plant-based diet since 2010. Djokovic just keeps on winning!
So where to start?
Opt for Unprocessed Foods
The biggest mistake new vegans and vegetarians can make, in my opinion, is to choose processed 'meat alternatives'. I recently saw a 'vegan scotch egg' with a list of ingredients to make your eyes pop! Some vegan burgers and sausages and meat alternatives can be packed with ultra-processed ingredients, so watch out for these, especially if you're trying to eat vegetarian or vegan for health reasons.
Opting for a large variety of less processed or even better, unprocessed 'real foods', increases your chances of meeting your nutritional needs.
Go For Complex Carbohydrates
Fueling your body for an active lifestyle begins by tapping into the power of plant-based complex carbohydrates, the go-to energy source, particularly when it comes to endurance and keeping you feeling fuller for longer. Brown rice, quinoa, brown bread, and oats are fantastic choices, along with starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Combine this with...
...Plant Based Protein
Contrary to popular belief, it is perfectly possible to get your protein from a well-balanced plant-based diet. Pulses, lentils, beans, tofu, tempeh, nuts, and seeds are all excellent sources.
Fill up With Fats
The good news with fats is that unlike animal fats, plant-based sources offer 'good' unsaturated fats, crucial for reducing inflammation and supporting heart health.
Training can lead to inflammation and delayed recovery. Many plant-based fats are rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, so you can include good sources of fat into your post-exercise recovery meals such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, avocados, soya beans (edamame) and tofu.
Other plant-based foods which offer great anti-inflammatory properties are berries, leafy greens, and turmeric. These can all help reduce muscle soreness and promote quicker healing, allowing you to get back on the road, in the saddle or into the gym faster!
Top tip: combine turmeric with black pepper to improve absorption of the curcumin, the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compound in turmeric.
Improving Your Absorption of Vitamins and Minerals
While many nutrients are readily available in plant-based foods, some are more easily absorbed from animal sources. Essential nutrients like Vitamin B12, which are easily available from meat, liver, eggs, and dairy, are vital for preventing fatigue.
According to the Vegan Society, the only reliable vegan sources of B12 are foods fortified with B12, including some plant milks, soy products and some breakfast cereals. Other vegan sources of B12 are nutritional yeast, yeast spreads (marmite!), some mushrooms and seaweed.
Vegetarians can get their B12 from eggs and cheese too.
Plant-based sources of iron (non-heme iron) are less readily absorbed by the body than animal sources (heme iron). Leafy greens, lentils and pulses, nuts and seeds, dark chocolate and fortified cereals are good sources of non-heme iron.
To promote absorption, it’s a good idea to eat sources of iron with vitamin C, and to avoid caffeine, so try to have your coffee mid-morning rather than with your breakfast!
Here’s some more information on iron in my recent blog:
Calcium and Vitamin D
Getting adequate calcium and vitamin D in your diet is hugely important for supporting bone health and overall wellbeing. Dairy products are great sources of calcium and vitamin D, as well as milk and leafy greens. You can also get Vitamin D enriched mushrooms (or put them in the sunlight for 30 minutes!).
Try this creamy mushroom soup - a great source of both vitamin D and calcium!
You can live life on the veg, and it can be healthy, tasty and varied!
Whether you're a seasoned vegetarian or vegan, or just trying to go more plant based, a well-structured plant-based diet will provide the energy, vitality, and nourishment. Some people say they feel so much better after avoiding animal products. Others find it more difficult..
Try these recipe suggestions: