Nutrients are usually divided into five classes: carbohydrates, protein, fats (including oil) vitamins and minerals. We also need water and fibre, but these are not usually counted in the main five nutrients. Most foods contain a mixture of nutrients (pure salt and sugar are the exception) but it is easier to classify them by the main nutrient they provide.
Meat supplies protein, fat, some B vitamins and minerals (mostly iron, potassium, zinc and phosphorus). Fish also contains the above but also vitamin A, D and E, as well as iodine. All these nutrients can be obtained by vegetarians from other sources.
Protein is easy to replace in a vegetarian diet. Nuts, seeds, pulses, grain, Soya, dairy products (apart from butter and cream) and free range eggs all are rich in protein. Women need 45g of Protein a day and men need 55g (more if very active). You may have heard about vegetarians having to balance amino acids in their diet. Amino Acids are the units from which Protein is made and there are 20 different ones in all. It is very involved but as with everything, as long as your diet is varied and balanced there is no need to worry.
There are three main types of Carbohydrates which gives us are main source of energy. Simple Carbohydrates are found in fruit, milk, and table sugar. Refined sugar is best avoided as it provides energy without any fibre, vitamins or minerals. Complex Carbohydrates are found in cereals, grain and some rooted vegetables like potatoes and parsnips. A healthy diet should contain plenty of these starchy foods, as a high intake of Complex Carbohydrates is now known to benefit health. Fibre can be found in unrefined or wholegrain cereals, fruit (fresh or dried) and vegetables. Dietary fibre is the best Carbohydrate to eat, like wholemeal bread and brown rice, as they also contain essential B vitamins.
Fats and Oils
Too much Fat can be bad for us, but a little is needed to keep our tissues in good repair, carry vitamins and make hormones. Fats are made of small units and two essential fatty acids are linoleic and linoenic acid which are widely found in plant foods. The benefit of a vegetarian diet is using Vegetable Fat for cooking, as this tends to be unsaturated.
Only a small quantity is needed in the diet, but needed it is. Vitamin A is found in red, orange or yellow vegetables like carrots and tomatoes. It is also added to most margarine. B Vitamins are found in yeasts and whole cereals, nuts and seeds, pulses and green vegetables. B12 is the only exception and is not present in plant food, but can be found in dairy products and free range eggs. Vitamin C is found in fresh fruit, salad, green vegetables and potatoes and helps the body absorb iron. Vitamin D is obtained from sunlight, but is also added to most margarine and is present in milk, cheese and butter. Vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium. Vitamin E is in vegetable oil, cereals, eggs and wholegrain. Vitamin K is also in fresh vegetable and cereals.
Minerals perform a variety of jobs in the body. Calcium is important for healthy teeth and bones and is found in dairy produce, leafy green vegetables, bread, nuts and seeds, cheese and dried fruit. Iron is needed for red blood cells and is found in leafy green vegetables, eggs, molasses, lentils and pulses. Zinc helps with the immune system and enzyme reactions and again is found in green vegetables, cheese, sesame and pumpkins seeds, lentils and wholegrain cereals. Iodine is present in dairy products and some vegetables, but it depends on how rich the soil that they are grown in is.
You can see from this, why research has shown that being a vegetarian can be the healthier option; so next meal time why not try a meat-free recipe.