How to get a balanced meal from a vegetarian diet

How to get a balanced meal from a vegetarian diet

There are many reasons why people become vegetarians - health, concern for animal welfare and religion among them. Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur dietitian Nur Izzati Sarah Md Yussof gives insights on going meat-free.

Q: What does a vegetarian diet mean?

A: It's a diet free of animal food sources, usually defined as one that does not include meat or seafood or products containing these foods.

Q: What are the variations of vegetarian diets?

* They can be categorised into one of the following groups:

* Vegan or total vegetarian diet which does not eat animal product at all.

* Lacto-vegetarian diet which excludes all animal protein except dairy products.

* Ovo-vegetarian diet which excludes all animal protein except eggs.

* Lacto-ovo vegetarian diet which is based on grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, nuts, dairy products and eggs.

Q: How do you get a balanced meal from a vegetarian diet?

A: A balanced meal for a vegetarian should come from the main five food groups which are grains, fruits, vegetables, protein foods and dairy.

It is important to eat a wide variety of foods in the right proportions as this will provide nutrients such as carbohydrates, protein and fat as well as vitamins and minerals to meet our body's requirements. A simple way to obtain a balanced meal from a vegetarian diet can be achieved by referring to The Healthy Plate Guide at each meal intake.

This Healthy Plate should consist the following 

- 1/4 of plate of grains such as rice, bread, pasta (choose wholegrains)

- 1/4 of plate of protein such as eggs, legumes (beans, peas, chickpeas ,and lentils) and soy foods (e.g. tofu, tempeh)

- 1/2 plate of dark green leafy vegetables

- A serving of fruit (one slice of papaya, one medium piece of apple/orange, eight pieces of grapes)

- A serving of dairy product or alternative (example one glass

- 250ml - of low fat milk or fortified soy milk

Q: Is it safe for children to be vegetarians?

A: According to the American Dietetic Association, well-planned vegan and lacto-ovo vegetarian eating patterns adequately provide nutritional needs for children and adolescents.

However, it is important to ensure that children eat frequent meals and snacks and nutrient-dense foods to achieve the caloric and nutrient requirements for growth and development.

Q: Do vegetarian diets provide the nutrition a person need?

A: Appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including vegan or total vegetarian are healthy and can also meet the nutrient requirements for a person. The key to a nutritionally-sound vegetarian diet is variety. A healthy and balanced vegetarian diet should include whole grain products, fruits, plenty of green leafy greens, dairy products or alternatives, seeds, nuts and legumes to provide enough calories and protein.

Q: How nutritious are vegetarian diets compared to the omnivorous diet?

A: Vegetarian diets can be nutritious when a variety of foods are consumed. Vegetarians generally have higher content of complex carbohydrates, vegetables, legumes and fruits. So a vegetarian diet is higher in fibre and lower in salt and fat, especially saturated fat.

Besides, due to the higher consumption of plant origin foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, peas, pulses, nuts and seeds, one will obtain higher amounts of vitamin such as vitamin C, E and minerals including magnesium and potassium.

Q: What are the health benefits of vegetarian diets?

A: Vegetarian diets are often associated with a number of health advantages:

* According to studies, vegetarians are at lower risk from ischemic heart disease than non-vegetarians. This may be due to the fact that vegetarians commonly have lower body mass index.

* Vegetarians also tend to have lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol. Factors in a vegetarian diet that could have beneficial effect on cholesterol levels include higher amounts of fibre, nuts, soy and plant sterols and lower levels of saturated fats.

* Vegetarian diet also helps lower the risk of hypertension. Vegetarians obtain health benefits from various compounds found in plant foods such as potassium, magnesium and calcium which play an important role in reducing blood pressure.

* Higher intake of fibre from vegetables, whole grains products, legumes, fruits and nuts among vegetarians also help to lower risk of insulin resistance and Type-2 Diabetes.

* In addition, vegetarian diet is associated with lower overall cancer rates. It provides a variety of cancer-protective dietary factors. Regular consumption of fruits and vegetables has been associated with reduction in risk of some cancers. Fruits and vegetables are rich in fibre, vitamin C, carotenoids, flavonoids and other phytochemical (such as soy isoflavones) which may be helpful to protect against cancer.

Q: Is a vegetarian diet the only way to be healthy?

A: No. In the long run, vegetarians may not necessary be healthier compared to non-vegetarians. One can also be healthy with a properly planned and well-balanced non-vegetarian diet.

It is recommended to follow the healthy eating guidelines by referring to the Malaysian Food Guide Pyramid.

This includes moderate intake of rice, cereals, cereals products, noodles and bread; eating plenty of fruits and vegetables; moderate amounts of lean meat, poultry and fish; some dairy products; and a reduced intake of foods high in fat, sugar and salt.


Vegetarians may need to focus on protein, iron, calcium, vitamin B-12 and zinc since these nutrients are commonly higher in animal sources. Below are some deficiency that vegetarians could be facing and how to meet their requirements.


Protein requirements can be met by consuming a variety of plant foods. Those who consume dairy can obtain protein from eggs, milk and dairy products (cheese, yoghurt). Vegetarian sources of protein include beans, lentils and chickpeas; soy and soy products (tofu, tempeh, soy nuts); seeds; nuts and nuts butter (peanuts), grains such as wheat (found in cereal, pasta and bread), rice and maize.


Vegetarians, especially teenage girls and women of child-bearing age may have greater deficiency in iron compared to non-vegetarians. Iron is found in animal and plant foods, but iron from animal sources (especially red meat) is better absorbed by our body.

However, consuming plenty of high-iron plants foods can help to top up iron. This include legumes, dark green vegetables (such as spinach); dried fruits; beans and lentils; fortified breakfast cereal; sesame seeds; nuts and wholemeal bread.

For better absorption, plant sources of iron should be consumed along with foods rich in vitamin C like vegetables (broccoli, tomatoes), fruits (kiwi, guava, orange) or a glass of fruit juice.


All vegetarians should ensure adequate calcium intake for development and maintenance of strong bones. Dairy foods are rich in calcium. In place of dairy foods, vegans need to consume abundant amounts of dark green leafy greens (such as kale, mustard and turnip greens); bok choy; broccoli; legume; tofu; calcium-fortified foods (soy milk, yogurt, rice/oat drinks, calcium-fortified cereals and juice); sesame foods; and dried fruits (apricots and figs).


Found only in animal foods, vitamin-B12 is not a nutrient of greatly concern for lacto-ovo vegetarians who regularly consume dairy foods and eggs.

Vegans must obtain from regular use of vitamin B-12-fortified foods, such as fortified soy, yogurt and rice beverages, breakfast cereals, yeast extract and/or vitamin B-12 supplement in their diet.


Foods such as wheat germ, nuts and dried beans should be included to increase the needed amount of zinc.


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