Add as bookmark

What Constitutes A Healthy Vegetarian Diet?

by Wilma Kirsten(more info)

listed in vegetarianism, originally published in issue 163 - October 2009

The saying goes, "You are what you eat."

Does that make Fruitarians fruity, Breatharians airy and Vegetarians nuts?

More importantly, do vegetarians actually eat nuts? Or do they carry the veggie label only to make for an awkward dinner quest? Has vegetarianism become yet another unhealthy eating phenomenon?

Traditionally eating was, and still remains, a means to survival. Everything we ingest has an effect upon our health. What we eat determines the quality of our blood, which in turn affects our cells, tissues, organs, and the workings of our minds. Healthy food has the potential to strengthen our physical bodies and positively influence our mood.


Only recently has the emphasis shifted from food as a means of survival, to specific dietary needs and performance demands. Food needs to provide adequate energy for completing daily tasks, building blocks for growth and development, and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, for optimal function of the body's complex, internal pathways.

It is therefore important to include a variety of foods that complement all areas within its chemical makeup. By limiting a diet to exclude certain types of food (driven by strong emotive, moral or ethical grounds), it is imperative to include alternatives in order to maintain a healthy balance.
What could be lacking in the diet when animal products are excluded?


Protein, needed for growth and development, is made up of small building blocks (amino acids), of which there are a total of twenty. Eight of these amino acids are called essential, which means that they are not made in the human body, but that they are required in order to maintain optimal functioning of the internal pathways.

Individuals who choose to exclude meat and other animal products from their diet should be made aware that they are choosing to eliminate a source of easily accessible protein. Without replacing animal sources of protein with vegetarian alternatives, the body will still be supplied with sources of energy (in order to perform daily tasks or even more energy requiring activities such as sport), but left without the ability to adequately stimulate growth and development, support the immune system or have the nutrients required to promote optimal detoxification by the liver.

Phase two of the liver detoxification process is dependent upon sulphur-containing amino acids such as taurine and cysteine for optimal function. Without the availability of these molecules, successful elimination of toxins may be hindered, which may result in the re-uptake and circulation of toxic molecules, or the deposit thereof in the adipose tissue. The inability to excrete unwanted waste products potentially creates an added stress on the body.

Even though plant-based foods contain protein, they may not be as complete as in the case of animal products, which means that they do not contain all eight essential amino acids. In order to gain optimal health benefits, protein containing plant based products, should ideally be eaten in combination with whole grain products to ensure all eight essential amino acids are included. Even though tofu is considered the most complete vegetable protein, it provides sub-optimal levels of the amino acids methionine and cysteine, and should ideally be combined with complementary protein sources like Brazil nuts, seeds or cereal grains.

Complete Protein Alternatives

Soya products such as tofu and soya milk; or
Combine beans / chickpeas / lentils with: brown / wild rice, nuts, seeds, corn, wheat, millet, oats, spelt, rye grain, amaranth or quinoa.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is necessary for healthy blood cell formation and rapidly growing tissues. An inadequate supply could lead to pernicious anaemia (a condition in which there are not enough red blood cells due to the body's inability to absorb vitamin B12 from food) and neurological disorders.

The presence of vitamin B12 has not been conclusively established in plant based foods. However, vitamin B12 is stored in the body for up to 5 years and can be recycled throughout that period of time, which suggests that daily ingestion is not necessarily required. Fortified foods have been made available and should ideally be included regularly in order to replenish depleted stores of vitamin B12 especially for strict vegetarians.

Vitamin B12 Fortified Food

Marmite and breakfast cereals
Shiitake mushrooms

Essential Fatty Acids.

Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are made up of the 'good' fats that our bodies need in order to perform specific functions in targeted areas within the body, such as cell membrane structure and permeability.

Fats are essential in the diet to provide

  • A concentrated source of energy;
  • Regulation of cardiac cells;[1]
  • An insulating layer under the skin;
  • Structural components in the body;
  • Functional constituents of many metabolic processes;
  • A vehicle for intake and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E & K);
  • An important contributor to flavour and palatability of foods.
EFAs are so called because they can not be manufactured by the body, but must be present within the foods that are consumed. There are two types of EFAs namely, Omega 3 (linolenic acid) and Omega 6 (linoleic acid). For optimal functioning, a ratio of 1:5 should ideally not be exceeded. The modern day, western diet tends to include more Omega 6. These EFAs are converted within the body, in a healthy state, in order to become more specific within their action on specific target areas. These converted EFAs play a vital role in normal brain development, communication, skin health, arterial health and vision.

Fish, a rich source of Omega 3, have the ability to perform the conversion, meaning their consumption provides EFAs in an already converted state. When individuals choose to eliminate fish from their diet, an excellent source of converted EFAs is absent.  This necessitates the regular inclusion of alternative sources of Omega 3 rich foods (which will now be in a pre-converted state), in order for the ratio between the two EFAs to be balanced.

 Omega 3 foods  Omega 6 foods
 Walnuts  Corn oil
 Canola oil  Sesame oil
 Soybean oil  Safflower oil
 Flax seeds  Sunflower oil
 Hemp seeds  Cottonseed oil
 Pumpkin seeds
 Sea vegetables  
 Leafy green vegetables  


The many functions of iron in the body include transport of oxygen (without which we can not survive) to the lungs and other relevant tissues, the energy production process and aiding certain internal pathways in their specific functions.

Iron is an integral part of haemoglobin (the substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body). Red blood cells die off roughly every 120 days and need to be replaced. A regular supply of bio-available iron is essential for adequate red blood cell formation. Sub-optimal levels of iron can lead to the development of anaemia, a condition in which there are not sufficient amounts of red blood cells in the blood to transport oxygen, causing tiredness and paleness.

Menstruating women are potentially at greater risk of anaemia due to the regular monthly blood loss cycle. Adolescent girls should be particularly vigilant to ensure an adequate supply of iron, as their immature physiology is still in the process of growth and development.

Dietary sources of iron include: cereals, pulses, beans, fruit and vegetables. Meat, fish, poultry and ascorbic acid (found in fruit and vegetables) all enhance the absorption of iron. Elimination of meat, fish and poultry in the diet should be counteracted by increasing vitamin C rich fruits and vegetables in order to enhance the absorption of iron from dietary sources.


  1. Citrus fruits with nuts (such as oranges and almonds);
  2. Stir fried tofu with broccoli;
  3. Shredded bok choy and cashew nuts;
  4. Beans and tomato sauce.

So what Constitutes a Healthy Vegetarian Diet?

The health benefits of a diet rich in vegetables and fruit are well publicized. Ideally this would be the basis of all diets and in particular for vegetarians. Conditions that benefit from consumption of a variety of these natural occurring produce include:
  • Decreased risk of heart disease;[3]
  • Lowered blood pressure;[4]
  • Lowered cholesterol;[7]
  • Lowered risk of stroke;[6]
  • Lowered risk of age related degenerative eye conditions;[5]
  • Digestive irregularities.[2]
A healthy diet has its roots in a variety of nutritious food choices. Along with an adequate supply of protein, energy-giving food in the form of carbohydrates and fats (depending on the individual physical activity level), the emphasis should be on including a variety of unrefined, unprocessed, natural foods within a chosen diet.

An adequate, regular supply of natural water should also be included. Water is considered an essential nutrient as we cannot manufacture it in the body and therefore need to consume it from exogenous sources to satisfy our various metabolic demands. Our bodies constitute approximately 60% water, which plays a major role in a myriad of metabolic functions including digestion, absorption and transport. Inadequate water supply can compromise many cell functions including metabolic waste excretion by the kidneys, electrolyte imbalances, skin elasticity and the regulation of body temperature. In fact, humans cannot survive beyond about 10 days without water.

As long as food which has been chosen to be eliminated from a traditional diet is substituted with healthy alternatives, there should be no reason why any chosen diet could not support optimal health.

It's not just what you avoid, it's what you eat that counts.


1. Reiffel JA, McDonald A. Antiarrhythmic effects of omega-3 fatty acids. Am J Cardiol. 98(4A):50i-60i. Aug 21 2006. Epub .May 26 2006.
2. Lembo A, Camilleri M. Chronic constipation. N Engl J Med. 349:1360-68. 2003.
3. HC, Joshipura KJ, Jiang R, et al. Fruit and vegetable intake and risk of major chronic disease. J Natl Cancer Inst. 96:1577-84. 2004.
4. Appel LJ, Moore TJ, Obarzanek E, et al. A clinical trial of the effects of dietary patterns on blood pressure. DASH Collaborative Research Group. N Engl J Med. 336:1117-24. 1997.
5. Sommerburg O, Keunen JE, Bird AC, van Kuijk FJ. Fruits and vegetables that are sources for lutein and zeaxanthin: the macular pigment in human eyes. Br J Ophthalmol. 82:907-10. 1998.
6. He FJ, Nowson CA, MacGregor GA. Fruit and vegetable consumption and stroke: meta-analysis of cohort studies. Lancet. 367:320-26.(2)Hung. 2006.
7. Appel LJ, Sacks FM, Carey VJ, et al. Effects of protein, monounsaturated fat, and carbohydrate intake on blood pressure and serum lipids: results of the OmniHeart randomized trial. JAMA. 294: 2455-64. 2005.


  1. No Article Comments available

Post Your Comments:

About Wilma Kirsten

Wilma Kirsten BSc(Hons) Dip CNE MBANT INLPTA Certified  Master NLP Practitioner is a degree qualified Nutritional Therapist who trained at the Centre of Nutrition & Lifestyle Management (CNELM) in Wokingham. As a busy mother of two she is aware of the body’s need for adequate nutrition obtained from a variety of nutritious food.  She is also a qualified Master NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) Practitioner and uses these powerful techniques to support clients.  Wilma is a full member of BANT (British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy) and consults in London and Oxford and may be contacted via For more information visit    Twitter@Goodbye_PMS

  • June Sayer Homeopathy

    Training Academy Homeopathy Nutrition Reiki, Distant Learning. Diet, Health Screening, Detox, Stress

  • Seaweed as Superfood

    Comprehensive nutrient balance found in no other natural food but seaweed: colon health, weight loss

  • nutrition and cancer

    by Sandra Goodman PhD The latest scientific research regarding Nutrition and Cancer. Full details at

  • mycology research MRL

    MRL markets mushroom products food grade US & Netherlands GMP standards. Health Professional Videos

  • College of Ayurveda UK

    Diploma in Āyurvedic Medicine, 4-year self-paced distant learning program in Āyurvedic medicine.

  • Water for Health

    Specialist online health store focused on hydration, body pH balance and quality nutrition.

  • Liposomal Nutrients

    Optimum system for nutrient delivery to cells - fully bioavailable vitamins absorbed and metabolised

top of the page