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Can you be an unhealthy vegetarian?

There’s no doubt that vegetarian diets are good for your health. Research shows that people following a balanced plant-based diet are consistently slimmer and healthier than meat eaters. They also have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and type 2 diabetes - that’s a big tick in anyone’s book.

But not all vegetarians, or vegans, are healthy. Like any diet, it comes down to what you pack on your plate.

Plant-based diets are typically rich in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and legumes, but that’s not always the case. You could just as easily load your meat-free plate with creamy pastas or mountains of white bread.

Foods that are highly processed, such as refined carbs, are the nemesis of any diet and when it comes to being vegetarian, regularly indulging in these types of foods can actually wipe out the health benefits gained from eating meat-free.

According to medical professionals, eating an unhealthy vegetarian diet can put you at an even higher risk of illness than someone eating a well-balanced diet that includes meat and dairy.

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So how can you avoid common mistakes and ensure you are eating a healthy vegetarian diet?

Keep it balanced

When it comes to a healthy diet, balance is key. It’s always best to focus on eating fresh, whole foods and avoid overly processed foods as much as possible.

In the supermarket, just because something is vegan or ‘vegetarian-friendly’ may not mean it is a healthier option – cheese pizza is a prime example.

Don’t forget protein

Going vegetarian doesn’t mean simply cutting meat from your diet. It’s about swapping meat-based protein for plant-based protein sources such as legumes, tofu and tempeh. There are so many surprising sources of plant-based protein, it really is easy to meet your daily protein needs without eating any meat. 

Mix it up

Different fruits, vegetables and grains will nourish you in different ways, so it’s important to mix up the menu to make sure you aren’t missing out on essential vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. Focus on getting healthy carbs (sweet potatoes, brown rice and quinoa), good fats (avocado, nuts and seeds), protein (legumes, tofu), calcium (dark leafy greens, broccoli, almonds), iron (lentils, soybeans, nuts), vitamin B12 (fortified soy or nut milk) and vitamin D (mushrooms, fortified soy milk) in your diet. 

Refresh your favourite recipes

Adopting a vegetarian lifestyle doesn’t mean you miss out on your favourite comfort foods – simply give them a meat-free refresh for a healthier version with bags of flavour. Try switching minced meat for lentils and mushrooms to make a rich bolognese, add broad beans or chickpeas to your favourite winter soups or curries, beef up your cottage pie with mushies, switch out your hamburger patty for a delicious egg or tofu filling, or try great-tasting meat-free products from the health, chilled and frozen sections of the supermarket.

Explore our collection of over 500 healthy, dietitian approved recipes and subscribe to Recipe of the Week for free weekly recipe inspiration!

If you need some tasty winter vegetarian recipes check out these dishes: