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Research published recently in Medical Journal of Australia argues that rather than being deficient in nutrients, a well-planned plant-based diet can actually reduce the risk of health problems such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and obesity.
Yahoo!7 Lifestyle asked Dr Rosemary Stanton, one of Australia's most prominent nutritionists, about the health benefits and concerns of a vegetarian diet.
How many Australians are vegetarian or vegan?
To the best of my knowledge, no recent or reliable figures are available. However, surveys do show that many more people now choose at least some meatless meals each week.
What concerns have there been about meat-free diets in the past?
Most people were concerned that meat-free diets might lack protein, iron and zinc. Few were aware that the only real concern is that vitamin B12 is found only in animal foods so those who choose plant-based foods need a vitamin B12 supplement or to choose foods with added vitamin B12, such as some brands of soy milk.
Recipes: Yahoo!7's vegetarian cookbook
Are we eating more meat than we have historically?
Meat intake dropped dramatically in the 1970s when research found that saturated fat increased cholesterol levels in the blood. The fat on meat is mostly saturated and until that time, Australians had eaten plate-sized steaks, lamb and pork with all their fat.
What foods should vegetarians eat for protein?
Plant foods that are good sources of protein are easy to find - they include legumes of all types - chick peas, lentils, soy and other beans (including canned varieties); tofu; nuts (almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, macadamias, pine nuts, peanuts and peanut butter); seeds (sunflower, chia, pumpkin, sesame or tahini); grains such as oats, quinoa, cracked wheat; foods made from grains such as pasta, breads and breakfast cereals (best choices are muesli or wholegrain products).
What other nutrients should vegetarians be especially aware of?
Calcium is available from soy, oat or rice milks (check the label to ensure they have 120mg/100 mL), almonds and almond paste, Asian vegetables, tofu that is set with a calcium salt. Some vegetarians include dairy products which will supply plenty of calcium.
I mentioned Vitamin B12 earlier and zinc is easily available from legumes, wholegrains, nuts and seeds.
Does a vegetarian diet need to be modified for say children or pregnant women? How about elite athletes?
The same principles apply to these groups and there is no problem as long as a variety of foods are consumed.
Related: Sarah Wilson on giving up sugar
How important are 'superfoods' to veg diets?
Superfoods is a marketing term. I would rate many plant foods as superfoods (e.g. nuts, seeds, legumes). Special fruits and juices usually marketed as superfoods are not needed by anyone, including vegetarians.
Are there any reasons you would advise someone not to follow a vegetarian diet?
Occasionally children will not eat enough plant foods.
What’s the key to a healthy vegetarian diet?
Including a variety of foods - legumes, nuts seeds, grains, fruit and vegetables. A vegetarian diet that leaves a space where the meat used to be is not adequate and one that is based on junk foods like chips, cookies, crackers and cola is a total disaster.
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