Chapter 17 – Nutrition
in a Nutshell
When it comes to giving vegetarians advice on nutrition,
most meat-eaters seem to think they’re experts.
They’re usually not. In fact, few people are experts
on the subject. Here, however, is nutrition made simple!
Protein is what people seem to worry about most when
they go veggie. Concerned mums and dads say things like ‘But
what about your protein?’ as though it was the
most difficult substance in the world to find after diamonds.
You do not need to worry about lack of protein, okay!
In fact, you’re more likely to be run down by stampeding
hippopotami in your local high street than to meet a
vegetarian suffering from a lack of protein.
Protein is important because it helps you grow. It repairs
damage to your body and it also fights infection. The
good news is, it’s in nearly all foods, including
fruit and veg. The best source of is in what are known
as pulses. These include chickpeas and lentils as well
as all members of the bean family such as kidney beans,
broad beans and even baked beans. The star bean when
it comes to protein is the soya bean, which is used to
make a whole range of veggies products including tofu,
veggie burgers and sausages, soya milk and even something
called TVP – textured vegetable protein – which
is really not as bad as it sounds! Protein is also found
in free-range eggs, cheese, nuts, seeds, and even rice
Protein is made up of different animo acids and some
foods, such as soya products, milk, cheese and meat,
contain all the amino acids. Other foods contain just
some of them. Simply by eating different types of food
together in a vegetarian or vegan diet you can ensure
that different amino acids are combined and – bingo – perfect
protein. This is something which every major nutritional
organisation in the world agrees about. We don’t
even have to eat all these different foods in the same
meal because our body can store amino acids until it
In its dietary guidelines published in 1995, the USA
government made a special point of saying that vegetarians
get all the protein they need. The British Medical Association,
one of the most respected medical bodies in the world,
said exactly the same thing several years before, and
quite right too because there has not been a single case
of protein deficiency caused by going vegetarian or vegan
in the Western world! And that’s why I say you
don’t need to worry.
Iron is another thing that parents sometimes get in
a twist about – and with good reason. It’s
responsible for maintaining healthy red blood cells which
carry oxygen to all parts of the body. A lack of iron,
known as anaemia, means that your body and brain aren’t
getting enough oxygen, with the result that you feel
constantly tired and run-down. It’s one of the
biggest dietary problems in Britain today, particularly
amongst women who menstruate (have periods).
There is iron in meat but it is also found in a whole
range of vegetarian foods including pulses, wholemeal
bread, leafy green vegetables like spinach, dried fruits – particularly
apricots and figs – and cocoa, which is a good
excuse to pig out on plain chocolate! There’s also
iron in pasta, pumpkin and sesame seeds, pistachio and
cashew nuts, fortified breakfast cereals and jacket potatoes.
Again, the British Medical Association insists that ‘iron
deficiency is no more common’ in vegetarians and
vegans that it is in meat-eaters. Scientists at the University
of Surrey have also studied the health of British vegans.
They state in the British Journal of Nutrition that iron
levels ‘were normal in all the vegans’ and
that children reared on vegan diets were perfectly healthy.
In fact, anaemia may often result because the body has
a problem absorbing iron rather than because a person
isn’t eating enough. Vitamin C helps you absorb
iron and fortunately vegetarians and vegans tend to get
a lot of this as it’s in most green veg, potatoes,
tomatoes and citrus fruits. It’s even added to
cartons of orange juice and instant potatoes.
New veggies often worry about lack of calcium – they
needn’t. Going veggie – giving up meat and
fish but still eating milk, cheese, butter and other
dairy products – will make no difference because
there’s hardly any calcium in meat. Calcium gives
healthy teeth and bones and helps the muscles work. As
well as dairy products, calcium'’ found in nuts
and seeds, pulses, leafy green veg and fortified soya
milk. So, vegans also manage absolutely fine.
A varied vegetarian or vegan diet contains every vitamin
and mineral you need, so don’t let anyone tell
you that by giving up meat you’ll go short of them.
Each vitamin and mineral performs a different task and
most can be stored in the body so they don’t have
to be eaten every day, the main exception being vitamin
It was the lack of this vitamin which caused sailors
on long sea voyages to die of
Scurvy in the old sailing-ship days when they ran out
of fresh fruit and vegetables. Because they didn’t
have refrigerators, sailors in those days would eat the
mould which grew on bread just to get some fresh greens!
However, because it’s in almost all fresh produce,
vitamin C is almost certain to be a daily part of your
diet without going to such lengths! Officially, you need
very little vitamin C every day to remain healthy but
the more that’s found out about, the important
vitamin C seems to be in fighting disease. So the advice
has got to be, eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
One vitamin that veggies and vegans are often asked
about is B12, which produced by bugs in soil. Our ancestors
used to obtain this vitamin by eating vegetables with
bits of soil left on them. These days vegetarians get
all they need of this vitamin by eating dairy products
while vegans are amply supplied by fortified foods such
as soya milk, TVP and most breakfast cereals. Yeast extract
such as Marmite, Vecon and Vegemite is also a good source.
Our liver can store B12 for years and only minute traces
are needed – the equivalent to one-millionth of
a gram a day. So you can pig out one day and eat none
for days after.
What else might be lacking if you give up meat? Nothing!
For a start meat has no vitamin C and it has little or
no vitamins D, K and E. Meat also has no beta-carotene
which our bodies process into vitamin A and which protects
us from disease. In fact meat is very short of most vitamins.
By eating a good variety of fruit, veg and pulses it’s
easy to get all the vitamins you need – just don’t
live on crisps and sweets!
On the other hand, complex carbohydrates are the one
thing that almost no one talks about, as if they don’t
matter. Believe me they do. Complex carbohydrates are
found in grains – including bread, pasta, rice,
barley and rye – as well as root vegetables such
as potatoes and yams. These carbohydrates are of numero
uno importance because they supply the vital energy that
your body needs to keep working properly.
Many people still think that eating complex carbohydrates
make you fat and they try to cut down on them. A big
mistake! Every health authority in every country, including
the World Health Organisation, tells us to eat more of
them. These are the things that should form the bulk
of our diet. And do you know what? There’s none
in meat, which is why the average meat-eater doesn’t
Fats and oils are also important. They help to repair
damaged tissues, produce some hormones and act as carriers
for vitamins. Everyone needs a small amount of fats and
oils and they occur naturally in most seeds and nuts
and in some vegetables such as avocado -–they don't
just come in a bottle or packet. What your body doesn’t
need are the saturated fats that come from animals nor
the cholesterol that accompanies them.
And now we come to the biggest question of all – what
exactly is a balanced diet? The simple answer is to eat
as wide a range of foods as possible. Include lots of
carbohydrates and as many different vegetables and fruits
as you can. Try the different pulses, dried fruits, mushrooms
and specialist vegetarian products. You don’t need
to cram these all together in one meal or even every
day – just be adventurous in what you eat.
It’s fine to eat fast foods some of the time and
to pig out occasionally on the things you like best.
But the golden rule is this: the wider the range of foods
you eat, the better your diet – that’s also
the case for meat-eaters. It’s also true that the
less processed food is, the better the range of nutrients
it contains. So, wholemeal bread and brown rice, for
example, have more vitamins, minerals and fibre than
the white versions. You can also get wholemeal pasta
and noodles but personally I would rather eat shredded
It’s taken a long time but at last the message
is getting through that a vegetarian or vegan diet is
healthier than a meat-based one. And as long as you’re
sensible about what you eat, your parents can rest happy
that you’re eating one of the best diets in the