Week one question: If I went vegetarian, how do I replace the protein that I would miss out on??

– Bindi, via Facebook


Hi Bindi,

Great question!

Following a vegetarian diet can be very nutritious, and has even been linked with health benefits including lower levels of obesity and lower average blood pressure, both of which are risk factors for a range of chronic diseases.

A vegetarian diet is based around plant foods and it’s important to note that there are different types of vegetarian diets including:
• Vegan – only plant foods are included
• Lacto – dairy foods are included
• Ovo-lacto – dairy foods and eggs are included.
For this response, I’m focusing on the most common vegetarian diet (ovo-lacto) where dairy foods and eggs are also included.

Choosing to follow a vegetarian diet can mean changing the way you plan and prepare meals. Meat, chicken and fish provide a significant amount of protein, iron, zinc, vitamin B12, which are important for keeping our immune and nervous systems healthy, maintaining our energy levels and transporting oxygen around our body, among other things! When we stop eating meat, it is important that we replace these nutrients with vegetarian alternatives.

Great vegetarian sources of protein include:
• Dairy foods – milk, yoghurt, cheese
• Eggs
• Nuts and seeds
• Legumes – chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, etc.
• Tofu/tempeh

To make sure you are eating a balanced diet each day, try following these five tips:

1. Include a source of protein at all main meals
Fill around 1/3 of your plate with one of the vegetarian protein options listed above to make sure you are getting enough protein and important minerals at each meal.

2. Choose dairy foods and eggs regularly
Vitamin B12 is important for our cells to function properly, but unfortunately we don’t get any from plant sources. Including eggs and dairy in your diet each day will help to make sure you are not missing out on this important nutrient.

3. Opt for wholegrain varieties of foods, where possible
Wholegrain products contain more fibre and nutrients than white varieties, plus they usually have a lower glycaemic index too, meaning they’ll keep you feeling fuller for longer.

4. Have a piece of fruit, or small glass of fruit juice, when you have cereal or dark green vegetables
Iron is an important nutrient that carries oxygen around our body. Unfortunately, the iron we get from plant foods is slightly different from the iron found in meat, and our bodies don’t absorb it as well. The citric acid (vitamin C) in orange fruits and vegetables helps our body to absorb as much iron as possible.

5. Eat a variety of foods and colours every day
‘Eating a rainbow’ everyday is one of the simplest ways to make sure you get a great range of nutrients, and it looks pretty too!

Rest assured, with a bit of planning a vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients you need for health.

For some great vegetarian recipe ideas that are also balanced (Dietitian approved!), visit the Healthy Food Guide website here.

For more information about vegetarian diets, see Nutrition Australia’s website here.


Zoe Taylor

Zoe Taylor is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian and Senior Dietitian at Nutrition Australia Vic Division. With more than 10 years’ experience in the nutrition industry, Zoe has built expertise in a range of areas including general nutrition, mental health and eating disorders, aged care, community health and health promotion. A keen cook and mother to a toddler, Zoe is passionate about promoting positive relationships with food, and recognising the role of food in both physical and mental health and wellbeing. Zoe loves engaging with the public, and working with individuals to help them find practical ways to improve their health through nutrition.