Vegetarian and Vegan Lifestyles

Vegetarian and Vegan Lifestyles

Ever considered becoming vegetarian or even vegan?!…..

….and wondered:

  • How do I make sure my diet is balanced?
  • What ARE my PROTEIN options?
  • How do I actually VARY my diet? I mean it’s literally just veggies, veggies, veggies, isn’t it?

Our SOYA LIFE theme for this year “Healthy Planet – Healthy You”, explores lots of options of becoming healthier and at the same time consuming a diet that is more environmentally sustainable.

Last month we explored the hypothesis that plant-based diets are environmentally better than meat-based diets, and realized just how much meat farming (especially beef farming), but also cheese, dairy and fish farming impacts on our environment. Meat farming is extremely inefficient in converting natural resources into edible products. Water use, land use, biomass appropriation and greenhouse gas emissions are the main issues, their usage being extremely high per unit of edible product.

So it is in this vein that we encourage you to embark on a vegetarian / vegan lifestyle!

Benefits of being vegetarian / vegan

  • Lower blood cholesterol levels
  • Lower risk of heart disease
  • Lower blood pressure levels
  • Lower risk of hypertension
  • Lower risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Vegetarians tend to have lower BMIs
  • Lower overall cancer rates
  • Vegetarian diets tend to be:
    • Lower in saturated fat and cholesterol
    • Higher in dietary fibre, magnesium, potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoid, flavonoids and other phytochemicals (healthy for us!)

Where do we start?

A vegetarian is a person who does not eat meat (including fowl) or seafood, or products containing these foods.

Varying eating patterns of vegetarians include:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: eat all grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, nuts, dairy products, eggs
  • Lacto-vegetarian: excludes eggs, meat, fish, fowl
  • Vegan: excludes eggs, dairy and other animal products

How do we maintain a healthy, balanced diet?

  • Choose a variety of foods including whole-grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and, if desired, dairy products and eggs
  • Minimize intake of foods that are highly sweetened, high in sodium, and high in fat especially saturated fat and trans fatty acids
  • Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables
  • If animal products such as dairy products and eggs are used, choose low fat dairy products, and use both eggs and dairy products in moderation
  • Use a regular source of Vitamin B-12, and if sunlight exposure is limited, of Vitamin D.

Exploring the options for protein

Plant protein can meet protein requirements when a variety of plant foods is consumed and energy needs are met.

There are 8 essential amino acids that must be consumed daily in order to achieve a complete protein intake. Most plant proteins only contain some of the amino acids, yet by eating an assortment of plant foods over the course of a day, one can consume all the essential amino acids and ensure adequate nitrogen retention and use in healthy adults. As such, complementary proteins do not need to be consumed at the same meal.

It is, however, important to note that some plant proteins are definitely more effective in meeting protein needs than others. For example, soya protein isolate can meet protein needs as effectively as animal protein. Wheat protein eaten alone, on the other hand may result in a reduced efficiency of nitrogen utilization. As such, estimates of protein requirements of vegans may vary, depending to some degree on dietary choices. One also needs to be aware that protein needs of vegetarians might be quite a bit higher than the Recommended Dietary Allowance in those vegetarians whose dietary protein sources are mainly those that are less well digested, such as cereals and some legumes.

It is also important to note that one of the essential amino acids is one called LYSINE. Cereals are LOW in lysine. It is therefore important to rather use more beans and definitely soy products in place of other protein sources that are lower in lysine OR to use an increased amount of dietary protein from a wider variety of plant proteins in order to ensure an adequate intake of lysine.

And last but not least, it must also be noted that SOY PROTEIN is as complete a protein as is found in meat / chicken / fish / dairy / eggs, as it contains the full quota of all the essential amino acids required for human health. There are many formats in which one can consume soya, for example, soya mince and nuggets, soya milk, soya porridge (Soya Life Instant Porridge available in Dischems and some other SA outlets), drinks and meal replacers containing soy protein isolate as its protein source, tofu, miso, tempeh and many more soy foods. (*next month we will explore more about soya as a protein source: how to cook with it, and how to consume it in a variety of tasty and acceptable ways).


Legumes (all beans and lentils), especially soya (complete in all essential amino acids); seeds; nuts.


Legumes, especially soya, seeds, nuts, dairy, eggs


Legumes, especially soya, seeds, nuts, dairy

Which nutrients ARE missing from a vegetarian or a vegan diet and what are the alternative sources?

Nutrients of concern:

Nutrient Function Typical/usual sourceVegetarian options
Omega-3 fatty acids


• Cardiovascular health
• Eye development
• Brain development
• Fish
• Eggs
• Generous amounts of algae
• DHA supplements derived from microalgae
• Soy milk and breakfast bars fortified with DHA
• ALA is found in flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil & soy

Recommended iron intakes for vegetarians are 1.8 times those of non-vegetarians

Heme iron is far better absorbed by the body than non-heme iron.

Yet larger amounts of non-heme iron are eaten making the total amount of non-heme iron absorbed much greater.

Iron is essential for the production of red blood cells.

Hemoglobin is the principle component of the red blood cells and accounts for most of the iron in the body.

It acts as a carrier of oxygen from the lungs to the tissues of the body.

Iron is also a cofactor for other enzymes in the body.
Red meat, chicken, and fish contain about 40% heme iron which is absorbed intact.Note: the inhibitors of iron absorption include: phytates, calcium and the polyphenolics in tea, coffee, herbal teas and cocoa.

• Some food prep techniques such as soaking and sprouting beans, grains and seeds, and the leavening of bread, can diminish phytate levels and thereby enhance iron absorption.
• Other fermentation processes, such as those used to make miso and tempeh, may also improve iron bioavailability.
• Vitamin C found in fruits and veggies can significantly enhance iron absorption.

Vegetarian (non-heme) iron sources include:
• Legumes
• Dried fruit
• Cereals

The bioavailability of zinc from vegetarian diets is lower than from non-vegetarian diets due to the higher phytic acid content of vegetarian diets

Essential mineral for all living organisms

An integral part of >20 enzymes

Cofactor in the synthesis of DNA and proteins

Part of the reproductive hormones
• Liver
• Oysters
• High protein foods
• Whole-grain cereals
• Soy products
• Legumes
• Grains
• Cheese
• Nuts
• Peanuts
• Peanut butter

Food prep techniques such as soaking & sprouting beans, grans and seed; also leavening bread, can reduce binding of zinc by phytic acid and increase zinc bioavailability
IodineRole in thyroid function

Deficiency results in inadequate thyroid function

• Iodized salt
• Sea vegetables

Natural goitrogens are found in:
• Soybeans
• Cruciferous vegetables
• Sweet potatoes

(Calcium deficiency is not a problem in lacto-ovo vegetarians; yet vegans always have VERY low calcium intakes)
Prevents bone fractures

(Vegans generally have a 30% increased risk of bone fracture)
Dairy products
(Milk is an outstanding source of calcium: 300mg/250ml)

All other food sources containing calcium contribute <200mg calcium/day at most.
(Kale, broccoli, salmon)
Vegans definitely need to eat calcium-fortified foods as well as calcium supplements, as bioavailability of calcium from vegetable sources is reduced in vegan diets.

Good choices for highly bioavailable calcium:
• Low-oxalate greens (bok choy, broccoli, kale)
• Calcium-set tofu
• Soy milk fortified with calcium carbonate
• Lower bioavailable calcium:
• Sesame seeds
• Almonds
• Dried beans

Very low bioavailable calcium choices (due to oxalate content):
• Spinach, Swiss chard
Vitamin D

Some vegans are Vitamin D
Some vegans are at risk of vitamin D deficiencies

Vit D status depends on sunlight exposure and intake of Vit-D fortified foods or supplements
Bone healthAnimal sourcesIf sun exposure is insufficient to meet Vit D needs, then Vitamin D supplements are necessary
Vitamin B-12Some anemias• Dairy foods
• Eggs
For vegans:
Regular use of vitamin B-fortified foods, such as fortified soy and rice milks, some breakfast cereals and meat analogues.

Daily vitamin B12 supplement is recommended

An example of a vegetarian menu


Oats porridge with soya milk and berries / Soya Life Porridge with sliced banana and soya milk/

Smoothie made with Soya Life Instant Meal replacement drink powder, soya milk and berries / banana + peanut butter

Lacto-ovo vegetarians could have poached egg on low GI toast 3 times a week


Rye crackers + hummus / peanut butter 

OR Almond Butter Protein Balls (find recipe here)

OR Fruit + 8 almonds


Couscous salad: couscous, chickpeas, robot peppers, cooked cubed butternut, balsamic vinegar + olive oil

OR chickpea patties (find recipe here) + seed roll + salad

OR soya sausages or burger patties + seed roll + salad


Fruit and nuts / seeds


Baby potatoes + soya / chickpea patties + mixed vegetables

OR Lentil lasagna + salad

Risotto with beans

Mixed bean and vegetable curry + rice / couscous

Wraps filled with stir-fry vegetables + beans

Pasta + tomato-based sauce + lentils


In conclusion

Appropriately planned vegetarian diets are without doubt healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may be beneficial in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Vegetarian diets are also appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including children, teens, pregnancy and breast-feeding. Athletes can also follow vegetarian diets.

The key is: keep a good balance of all food groups – plan ahead – experiment with new food preparation techniques – and enjoy!

So… if you were thinking about “going vegetarian” give it a try!    OR at the very least, start with the practice of “Meat-Free-Mondays” – and grow this habit into something that is enjoyed a few days a week.

Watch this space for more information and ideas – as to how to manage vegetarian / vegan lifestyles in the various stages of the lifecycle, and also in athletes….



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