Vegetarianism or regular meat-free days are a way of life for many and World Vegetarian Day on October 1st can be an ideal opportunity to raise awareness of some of the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle. It also enables a wider discussion about the different diets that people follow which can help educate and inform young children.

A vegetarian diet is devoid of any foods that contain any part of an animal.  This also includes fish, shellfish.  The staples of such a diet include grains, pulses, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit.  There are also different types of vegetarian such as lacto-vegetarians who eat dairy products but avoid eggs, and vegans.  Vegans do not eat dairy products, eggs, or any other products, which are derived from animals. Estimates from the last National Diet and Nutrition Survey suggest that 2% of the UK population are vegetarian, which is more than 1.2 million people, with teenagers amongst the largest group. Individuals choose this lifestyle for a variety of reasons including health, environmental, religion, cultural or humanitarian.

Generally a vegetarian diet can be a healthy way of life and research suggests that vegetarians have less propensity to arthritis, heart disease, cancer and inflammatory conditions than meat eaters. The health benefits of vegetarianism is thought to be due to the diet tending to be higher in fibre and lower in saturated fats. There are some concerns that the diet may be deficient in essential nutrients such as vitamin A, iron, zinc, omega-3’s and vitamin D which is why it’s important to focus on nutrient dense foods, a variety of different foods and avoiding foods that can compromise health.

Many of these essential nutrients are found in much higher quantities in meat and in a more readily available form for the body. One important nutrient to be aware of is vitamin B12, which is only available from animal produce, therefore vegans specifically should check levels and possibly supplement. Low levels can result in high levels of homocysteine, which is a marker for cardiovascular disease. With this in mind understanding foods to avoid and foods to focus on can be helpful.

Foods to Avoid:

  • Many vegetarian meals tend to be high in full-fat dairy, typically using cheese as the protein source. Try to focus on variety for protein and avoid too much full-fat dairy.
  • Too many starchy foods high in white refined products such as flour and sugar should be reduced/avoided. These foods tend to be inflammatory and contain little nutrition for the body.

Foods to Focus On:

  • Protein: Vegetarian sources include lentils, quinoa, beans, brown rice, peas, nuts and seeds, which all contain zinc required by the body.
  • Green leafy vegetables are important for many nutrients including calcium and magnesium. Eat plenty of kale, spinach, cabbage, watercress, rocket etc.
  • Good sources of carbohydrates include sweet potato, turnips, swede, oats, barley, millet, buckwheat and rye.
  • Red or yellow vegetables, carrots, tomatoes, pumpkin, sweet potato and leafy green vegetables can all provide beta-carotene. This can be converted into vitamin A, though it’s important to understand that conversion rates tend to be low.
  • Nuts, seeds, oils and avocados are high in essential fat.
  • Mushroom and peas contain B vitamins.
  • Iron rich foods include leafy green vegetables, eggs, beans, seeds, pulses and nuts. Eaten alongside vitamin C rich foods, such as kiwi, cherries and peppers helps aid absorption of iron.

Model a Meat-Free Day:

Talking about different ways of eating is invaluable in childcare settings and enables children to share the diets they have. In October to link with World Vegetarian Day would provide a great opportunity to model a meat-free day in your setting. The day can focus on eating vegetarian foods, trying new vegetables, art with pulses and some hands-on food preparation.

About the author
The Food TeacherThe Food Teacher, 
Katharine Tate, has worked as a teacher and education consultant internationally in primary and secondary schools for over 20 years.

Qualified as a registered nutritional therapist, Katharine, combines her unique education and nutrition expertise to offer schools, organisations and families advice, education programmes, practical workshops, and individual/family clinical consultations. She has also published 2 books: ‘Heat-Free & Healthy’ and ‘No Kitchen Cookery for Primary Schools’.

(For more information, visit her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter or email her at info@thefoodteacher.co.uk. You can also visit her website to find out more and subscribe to her newsletter.)

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