Being a vegetarian can be a tricky thing – it's all about balance, and in taking away meat you've taken away a whole food group! But don't worry as there are lots of alternative ways to make sure you've got proper nutrition without having to return to eating meat or fish.
The simplest method – and often the best to start with whilst you're taking up your new diet – is to replace whatever you lose with supplements. These will help keep you in top shape while you adapt and work out what food you can incorporate regularly. The main things you're going to need are:
Iron Iron is absolutely essential to your health – it is part of haemoglobin, which helps carry oxygen from your lungs to every other part of your body. You may think that all types of iron are the same, but there are actually two different kinds – heme and non-heme. Heme is absorbed far more easily by the body, and unfortunately for vegetarians, is only found in meat and fish. Whilst it's important not to take too much iron, it's vital you're aware that the iron found in plant-based foods is much harder for your body to absorb, and thus, you need to take more to accommodate this – hence why many vegetarians swap to supplements.
Vitamin B12 This vitamin is important for your nervous system, but the only natural sources of it are meat, dairy and eggs. A B12 deficiency is pretty bad – you can encounter shortness or breath, dizziness and even nerve damage. As a vegetarian you can get it though dairy and eggs, but as a vegan you'll want to keep an eye out for fortified cereals and so on. Since it's so tricky, people tend to rely on supplements instead – a multivitamin containing at least 10 mcg of B12 is usually advised. Remember: if in doubt, check with a doctor.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids Omega-3 has a whole host of uses – it can help with arthritis, protect against dementia and lower blood pressure. Unfortunately, it's most commonly found in fish. There are food alternatives, but these can be hard to add in – they're things like hemp oil or ground flaxseed. Omega-3 is usually found in multivitamins, so if you're planning on supplementing any of the other things found on this list, look for one that contains this too.
Protein Surprisingly, this is one of the less tricky ones to obtain through diet alone! Though meat is a primary source, you can find protein in a whole bunch of plant-based sources. For new vegetarians though, it's a bit risky. Often, people forget to replace the meat they've cut out with these alternative sources, so it's often safer to have supplements in the form of shakes or other such methods – at least for the first couple of months whilst you adapt to your new diet.
Zinc Zinc isn't talked about nearly as much as the others on this list, and yet it's crucial for your immune system. Though found in plant foods, it has a much lower absorption rate in these than it does in meat and fish – meaning you may need to take 50% more than your non-vegetarian friends! You should never buy a zinc supplement on its own unless instructed to by a doctor, as taking too much can affect other minerals, but it's worth checking if your multivitamin contains it.
And if you're a vegan:
Calcium If you're still eating dairy, this is much easier. Vegans, of course, have it much trickier. There are some foods which contain it, but it's very limited in scope. Calcium is incredibly important for bone health, and even more so for women (who are more at risk of osteoporis). If you're under fifty, you need 1000mg per day, and if you're above that, 1200mg. Most non-vegans don't even make this, so look into supplementing your diet if you're concerned.
Vitamin D Vitamin D is mostly gained by sun exposure, but many people don't get enough this way. Though recently, companies have fortified products with vitamin D, these are mostly dairy products and it naturally occurs in egg yolks. Vegans therefore will find this very hard to accommodate without external help. Check in with a doctor and they'll be able to help. Be aware though that the supplement vitamin D3 is made from animal products, so you'll need to rely on its less-effective sister D2. It's only 60% as efficient, so make sure you're taking it properly.
Once you're taking enough supplements, you can experiment with your diet. Our top recommendations for foods to add in include: fortified cereals, soybeans, flaxseed, kale, seeds, beans, yeast-based products and chickpeas.