People choose a vegetarian diet for a variety of reasons. With increasing awareness of animal welfare, environmental and health issues concerning ​​meat production and consumption, more people are choosing to reduce or cut out animal products from their diets.

A well-planned vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrition a woman needs, but you must avoid certain pitfalls to ensure that your nutritional requirements are met.

Ms Nehal Kamdar, Senior Dietitian at the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH), a member of the SingHealth​ group, says one common mistake that vegetarians make is to rely too heavily on vegetables, fruits, refined carbohydrates and fried dishes. “Many vegetarians don’t have an adequate intake of vegetarian sources of protein such as soy products, beans​, pulses and grains,” she says. “They also tend to develop a sweet tooth and consume excessive amounts of white rice, noodles and desserts.”

Tips to help you make the switch to a vegetarian diet

Ms Kamdar had the following tips for women who are planning to switch to a vegetarian diet:

  1. Decide what kind of vegetarian you want to be
  2. Pesco-vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, lacto-ovo-vegetarian or vegan (see descriptions below). Read as much as you can about vegetarianism – books, online resources. Educate yourself on nutrition and learn about healthy substitutes for animal products.

  3. Start by first eliminating red meat.
  4. After a few days or weeks, eliminate white meat and then fish. Initially you may still have cravings for meat but eventually they will fade. Remember to replace meat with beans and bean products, pulses, nuts and seeds.

  5. Invest in a vegetarian cookbook.
  6. When cooking, experiment with different vegetables and fruits. You may wish to experiment with different ethnic cuisines too.

Avoid these common nutritional deficiencies when sticking to a vegetarian diet

  • Calcium

  • To prevent the onset of osteoporosis, women – especially those over 40 – must ensure an adequate calcium intake. Vegetarians and pesco-vegetarians have options such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, but vegans must seek out non-dairy sources of calcium.

    “Soybean products like tofu and tau kwa, lady’s finger (okra), spinach and other green leafy vegetables, almonds and dried figs are good sources of calcium for individuals following a vegan diet,” says Ms Kamdar. Calcium-fortified foods and drinks like hi-calcium nut milks and juices are also available.

    Adequate vitamin D is essential to enhance the absorption of calcium. Our bodies can manufacture adequate vitamin D by exposure to sunlight (10-15 minutes a day).

  • Iron

  • Insufficient iron leads to the production of too few or too small red blood cells, a condition called iron-deficiency anaemia. Pregnant and menstruating women need 19mg of iron per day.

    Vegetarian sources of iron (also called non-heme iron) include iron-fortified breakfast cereals (e.g. cornflakes), beans and lentils (e.g. red beans, green beans, dhal, baked beans), tau kwa, green leafy vegetables, dried fruits (e.g. apricots, raisins, prunes) and malted milk beverages (e.g. Milo, Ovaltine, Horlicks).

    To enhance non-heme iron absorption, consume vitamin-C rich foods like fresh fruit and fruit juice at the same meal.

  • Vitamin B12

  • Ms Kamdar recommends that those following a vegan diet take a B12 supplement.

Can I be a vegetarian if I’m pregnant or breastfeeding?

Nutritional guidelines for pregnant women who are vegetarian are the same as that of women who are non-vegetarian. All pregnant women need additional calories, iron, calcium, folate, zinc, protein and essential fatty acids like DHA. It’s important to eat a varied and balanced diet in pregnancy to provide enough nutrients for the foetus and for your own health.

Vegetarian and vegan new mums and mums-to-be need to pay special attention to their intake of calcium, vitamin D, iron and vitamin B12.

Type of vegetarian diets

Vegetarian diets can be classfied into:

  • Vegan:
  • This diet includes fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, seeds and nuts. All animal sources of proteins- meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, cheese and other dairy products are excluded from this diet.

  • Lacto-vegetarian:
  • This diet includes dairy products in addition to the foods listed in the vegan diet

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian:
  • This diet includes dairy products and eggs in addition to the foods listed in the vegan diet. Meat, poultry and fish are excluded from this diet.

  • Pesco-vegetarian:
  • This diet includes fish in addition to the foods listed in the lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet.

Ref: T12