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More Australians are opting to go meat-free to improve their health or lose weight. In fact, over ten per cent of our population are now vegetarian. According to experts, going vegetarian is actually good for your wellbeing as long as you know what to eat.  

Amy Chien-Yu Wang
Published on
Monday, November 20, 2017 - 13:52
6 min 37 sec

The story of how Teh Chou Yeh became a vegetarian 30 years ago is somewhat unusual. Her father was dying of cirrhosis and had already begun writing his will. Out of desperation, she decided to stop eating meat to pray for her father’s well-being based on Buddhist beliefs.

“All my mind was to save my father’s life. Doing good deeds like not killing other animal’s life - so there is a merit for that and that can be transferred to save my father’s life.”

Her father ended up living on for another 23 years until the age of 99. No-one could explain how the cirrhosis miraculously healed itself, but Teh Chou Yeh believes it could have something to do with her vow. She’s since stayed a vegetarian.

“And I feel that’s true the human life is not more important than the other animal’s life. We’re all equal to have the right to live on so I continue to be a vegetarian till now.”  

Teh Chou Yeh hasn’t experienced major health problems and doesn’t take supplements either. She tries to eat a balanced diet instead.

“Dark green vegetables, and plus, all different kinds of nuts, and all different kinds of grains. We don’t eat white rice or white flour, we always eat brown rice, wheat flour.”

Renske Dijkhuis is a nutritionist at Leading Nutrition, an aged care dietician company. She says research shows that a vegetarian diet can improve your overall wellbeing especially once you hit 50.

“What we have found is that it does give you some protection against overweight, obesity, hypertension - so that's high blood pressure, diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, and some cancers, as well, and, overall total mortality.”

The number of vegetarians in Australia has been steadily rising in recent years with 2.1 million choosing a mostly meat-free diet. It has proved to better for the waistline with only 45.4 per cent of vegetarians obese or overweight, compared with 60.7 per cent of the general adult population.

Whilst more people are becoming vegetarian, Renske Dijkhuis cautions it’s not as simple as removing the meat out of the diet.  

“Especially, older people do require increased amount of protein, and so, not incorporating the protein into our meals is really really dangerous, because we are dealing with more muscle wastage and losing of muscle mass in older people.”

She recommends proper meal planning - bearing in mind that whatever you leave out, you replace with other things to ensure you’re getting enough nutrients.

“What you want to make sure is if it has that adequate amount of protein in it. For example, if you have tofu - 170g, which is a serve, has about half the amount of protein, a similar serve of chicken or meat would provide. However, if you’re having really firm tofu, then that would give you much more proteins.”

If you’re not going out in the sun as much these days, you can use eggs, margarine, or a punnet of mushrooms that’s been placed under the sun on your windowsill to boost your vitamin D intake. You also need to eat iron-rich foods such as legumes, green leafy vegetables, iron-fortified foods, tofu, tempeh, nuts and seeds. You can make your meals interesting by trying recipes from other cuisines like Indian, Vietnamese, Thai or Chinese.

“There’s also a lot of protein meat alternative products out there. So, there are foods obviously based on protein and tofu, soy and tofu and those sorts of things, but also things like vegetarian burgers and vegetarian sausages." 

Older adults need to make sure they consume enough vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, omega 3, iodine, iron, zinc and protein in their vegetarian diet.

“If someone is still having dairy food, then that is helpful, because, obviously, dairy does have a lot of calcium in it, but not everyone has dairy. They can have calcium fortified foods from soy and rice milks, and those sorts of things; lots of nuts and seeds have lots of calcium in it as well, and also Asian greens like kale, and some broccoli.”

If you think you may be low on vitamin B12, it’s worth checking with your doctor to see if you might need supplements. Even though there are no plant-based food sources containing vitamin B12, you can still bypass meat with a bit of planning.  

“Pick some B12 fortified foods so some soy milk products, vege burgers, marmite.”

Older adults need to make sure they consume enough vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, omega 3, iodine, iron, zinc and protein in their vegetarian diet.

Brisbane-based GP Jacqui Kelly says vegetarianism is suitable for anyone provided that they’re eating the right kinds of food.

“It depends on the lifestyle of the patient. But, everyone regardless of the lifestyle would need to make sure that they’re consuming enough non-heme iron - so the green leafy vegetables is a ‘non-heme iron’, whereas, red meat is considered ‘heme iron’. The iron of red meat is absorbed better than non-heme iron, so vegetarians just need to make sure they’re really conscientious with getting enough green leafy vegetables, lentils, anything they enjoy eating that does have iron, that's vegetarian, and making sure they have that with vitamin C. So, vitamin C will promote the uptake of iron.”

Dr Kelly says those considering or already adopting a vegetarian diet should be wary of iron blockers such as dairy or caffeine.

“If people are eating their iron rich meal at night, that’s normally the best, cos in the morning, if the only bit of iron they’re having in the day is like, consuming a couple of eggs, but having coffee with it, the caffeine in the coffee will minimise iron absorption, and also, I guess the dairy part of the coffee -  any dairy will also minimise iron absorption. So, if we have a very active 50-year-old, who’s doing a lot of running, in particular, that's where we might see a bit of low iron, and then that comes across as fatigued. And if it's a concern, we can always do some blood tests.”