Author: Nina Evans, Researcher & Trainer in Public Health/13 December 2019
Vegetarian and vegan diets have gained widespread popularity in recent years with some sources estimating figures have grown by approximately 350% in the past decade. A recent report even predicted that by 2025, a quarter of all British people could be vegetarian (it is currently about one in eight) and about half identifying as ‘flexitarian’ (someone who primarily follows a vegetarian diet but occasionally has meat or fish).
People adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet for many different reasons including religious, personal, ethical and/or environmental. Vegetarians are people who don’t eat any meat (red, poultry and game), fish, shellfish, crustaceans or animal by-products, such as gelatine or rennet. Vegans go a step further and do not eat any animal products including (but not limited to) eggs and dairy. Whilst there may be an argument for the ethical and environmental benefits of adopting a vegetarian/vegan diet, unfortunately, I don’t have the expertise (or blog space!) to cover it here. Instead, the focus of this blog is going to be on individual health and the considerations that should be made when adopting a vegetarian/vegan diet.
A meat-free diet has been associated with a reduced risk of diabetes, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, lower risk of heart disease and stroke (depends which study you look at) and has been associated with a reduced risk of some cancers. So among many, there is this long-standing assumption that vegetarian diets are ‘healthier’ than those that include meat. But being vegetarian does not automatically make someone’s diet healthy. A prime example of this is consuming fake meat; meat alternative products such as vegetarian burgers and sausages. Whilst clever marketing might make you think the product is healthy, they are often highly processed with a lengthy ingredients list produced with unpronounceable ingredients. Good planning and an understanding of essential nutrients are crucial in ensuring a healthy meat-free diet. The following points are just some of the things that should be taken into consideration if you are, or thinking of, following a vegetarian/vegan diet:
Plant-based foods do not naturally contain vitamin B12 (an essential micronutrient that is needed to keep the nervous system healthy). Consuming adequate amounts of vitamin B12 (and a few others on this list) is more of an issue for vegans than vegetarians, it is still worth noting different sources of vitamin B12 in a meat-free diet. Vegetarians generally consume adequate vitamin B12 from dairy products and eggs, however, since vegans do not consume these they need to find alternative sources or consider a supplement. Certain foods are fortified with B12 such as plant-based ‘milk’, yeast extracts (e.g. Marmite) and nutritional yeast.
Sources of iron
Red meat is a great source of iron (haem iron) is easily absorbed by the body. Iron from non-meat sources (non-haem iron) is harder for the body to absorb so you might need to eat more iron-rich foods to get a sufficient amount. If you are concerned about your iron status, you can consider what you are eating alongside your iron-rich foods. There are certain nutrients that either hinder or help the absorption of iron. For example, phytate (found in grains, nuts, and seeds) inhibits the absorption of iron, whereas vitamin C enhances iron absorption. To improve iron status (which you might need to consider if you follow a vegetarian/vegan diet), try consuming iron-rich foods alongside those rich in vitamin C such as citrus fruit.
Calcium helps us maintain strong bones and regulate muscle contractions (including heartbeat). The majority of non-vegans get most of their calcium from dairy foods. Whilst vegetarians often consume sufficient dairy to reach their requirements, it is worth vegans looking at the sources of calcium in their diet. Good sources of calcium for vegans are green leafy vegetables, beans and lentils, almonds, seeds (notably poppy and chia), soybeans (including soybean products such as tofu and tempeh) and fortified non-dairy ‘milk’ (including soy and almond).
Rhubarb and spinach are relatively high in calcium, however, they are also high in oxalates. This means that much of the calcium they contain is not absorbed. Research suggests that only approximately 25% of the calcium in rhubarb is absorbed (more on anti-nutrients to come).
Protein requirements differ between age and weight but as a general rule, at X-PERT, we recommend consuming between 2-4 portions of protein daily (with 1 portion being equal to 2 eggs; 100g lentils; 200g beans; 60g nuts). If grams, protein requirements are roughly 08.-1g per kilogram of body weight, so if you weigh 80kg (0.8 x 80 = 64), approximately 64-80g of protein should be consumed daily. Ensuring sufficient protein from a variety of sources is essential for growth and repair. As well as those listed above, if you are meat-free you can also find protein in dairy products, seeds, soy products (edamame, tofu, and tempeh), hummus, quinoa, oats and grains, and even broccoli. Similarly to iron, plant sources are considered to be incomplete as they lack one or more of the essential amino acids that your body needs.
Sources of Omega-3
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of unsaturated fats acids that are found in different foods. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) which cannot be made within the body so much be consumed from mainly plant-sources (nuts and seeds). Oily fish are the best sources of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic), so those who are abstaining from this need to be aware of how to get sufficient amounts. EPA and DHA can be made from ALA, however, the process happens slowly and can be affected by genetics, sex, age, and dietary intakes. When our bodies make EPA and DHA from ALA only small amounts are formed, therefore if you do not consume oily fish you may be required to eat additional amounts of plant-based sources. These include various nuts and seeds (walnuts, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds and chia seeds) and eggs. There is now an option to purchase omega-3 enriched foods to increase intake, these include eggs (from chickens which are fed EPA and DHA) and some brands of milk, yoghurt, bread, and spreads.
To briefly extend on what is written above, those who are meat-free (not exclusively) may need to consider anti-nutrients in foods. Anti-nutrients are natural or synthetic compounds that reduce the body’s ability to absorb essential nutrients (such as phytate and oxalate mentioned above). They are not a major concern for most people but they may play a part in nutrient deficiency in societies that base their diets largely on grains and legumes and those that have very restrictive diets. But I’ll leave this as a teaser until my next blog!
Overall, with the extensive growth of vegetarian and veganism in recent years it is worth highlighting that this lifestyle doesn’t always mean a healthier choice. It is important for those abstaining from meat and/or animal products to consider the nutritional quality of their diets and to ensure they are meeting all the nutritional requirements to live their healthiest meat-free life!
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