Happy February! I hope you have all had a successful start to the year and are continuing to work on your health targets for 2017.
The beginning of a new chapter, be it a fresh week, month or year, is a time of renewed motivation and the ideal opportunity to implement positive lifestyle changes.
But the seemingly endless temptations of daily life can make this difficult and we may feel the need to ‘give up’ something for good in order to truly benefit our health. A popular option is going ‘meat-free’, or perhaps even taking it one step further and cutting out all animal-derived products.
But as awareness of vegetarian and vegan diets increases, it is important to consider the nutritional implications thoroughly before embarking on such pertinent changes.
Of the 3 million vegetarians and vegans in the UK, aside from religious or ethical reasons, many embrace ‘plant power’ in the hope of becoming healthier and slimmer. But is giving up animal produce the right way to achieve this, or is it an outdated and oversimplified concept?
Vegetarian and vegan diets have long been associated with healthful eating, representing predominantly low-calorie and low-fat food groups such as vegetables, grains and fruit. Fruit and vegetables after all, are excellent sources of fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Combined with reports of red meat, eggs and dairy containing high levels of saturated fat and historical advice instilled in us to reduce levels as much as possible, forgoing these foods perhaps seems like the logical option towards preventing chronic illness.
A study by the International Journal of Obesity in 2003 indeed concluded that those who abstained from meat tended to have lower BMIs in comparison to their meat-eating counterparts, which led to a positive correlation being made between eating meat and weight-related disorders such as raised cholesterol levels, cardiovascular disease and diabetes type 2.
However, more recent research has discovered that saturated fat in fact has very little impact on cholesterol levels in most people and issues were more likely to arise due to consistent intake of hydrogenated or ‘trans’ fats, most commonly found in processed convenience foods.
Additionally, saturated fats were highlighted as playing an important role in key processes such as brain health, immunity, hormonal balance and nutrient absorption.
A serious issue that can arise in vegetarian, and especially vegan diets, is a chronic lack of protein. Protein is essential in many vital processes such as maintenance and repair of muscles and tissues, energy, metabolism and immunity.
The Reference Nutrient Intake guidelines for the UK are set at a minimum of 0.75g of protein per kilogram body weight per day for adults. Since meat and animal by-products provide the highest quality and most easily utilised source, effective measures need to be taken to replace these with optimal amounts of vegetarian or vegan-friendly alternatives when deciding to cut them out. But reaching this amount through plant sources alone may be more difficult than you think.
Typical sources of plant protein include:
Pumpkin Seeds 28g/per 100g
Almonds 24g/per 100g
Sunflower Seeds 24g /per 100g
Chick Peas 20g/per 100g
Lentils 19g/per 100g
Chia Seeds 16g/ per 100g
Quinoa 16g/per 100g
Walnuts 16g/per 100g
Flax Seeds 12g/ per 100g
Black Beans 8g/per 100g
So, once you have made the decision to become vegetarian or vegan, what next? First and foremost, I strongly recommend that you seek professional advice before implementing any restrictive dietary changes. A registered Nutritional Therapist can advise you on the best ways to meet your nutritional needs and devise an optimised meal plan for you.
As a general guideline, here are the main aspects to consider when transitioning to a primarily plant-based diet:
Obtaining your daily recommended intake from plant sources alone will take additional planning and preparation. Whereas animal proteins are ‘complete’ and contain all of the required essential amino acids to be utilised effectively, plant proteins do not. Therefore, a variety of different plant proteins need to be eaten in order to obtain a full quota of essential amino acids e.g. grain + legumes, legumes + nuts etc. Perhaps you could enjoy a bowl of oatmeal with flaked almonds, a black bean and brown rice salad or peanut butter on wholegrain toast as some simple examples.
Supplementation is not necessary for everyone – but for vegans and some vegetarians, it is an essential part of maintaining optimal health.
Certain nutrients are harder to absorb or are non-existent in plant-based foods, such as vitamin B12. It is only present in animal-derived foods such as meat, fish and dairy, but is important in many processes such as proper function and development of the brain, nerves and blood cells.
The anti-inflammatory essential fatty acid DHA, also known as Omega 3, has cardiovascular and brain benefits but is only present in oily fish. A derivative of it can also be found in foods such as chia seeds and flax seeds but in a much less effective form.
I recommend that you ‘test, don’t guess’ via a Nutritional Therapist to ascertain deficiency before commencing any new supplement regime.
I hope you have found this article helpful and I look forward to hearing any feedback or queries. In my next blog, I will be discussing dairy-free and gluten-free diets – until then!
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