Thinking of going vegetarian?
The risks of eating too much red meat and the benefits of boosting your fruit and vegetable intake regularly make headline news. This may explain why many people have taken the meat-free pledge in an attempt to improve their health.
According to the NHS, around two percent of the UK population is vegetarian, which is the equivalent of more than 1.2 million people. Veganism – which involves eating a purely plant-based diet – is also on the rise, described by the Vegan Society of one of the country’s fastest growing lifestyle movements (some 542,000 people aged 15 or older in the UK are currently thought to be vegan, up from 150,000 in 2006).
However, health isn’t the only reason people stop eating meat. Interest in vegetarianism does tend to increase when food scares such as BSE or the use of antibiotics in animal feed are in the news. But many people are thought to be cutting down on meat – if not cutting it out of their diet altogether – because of concerns about animal welfare and sustainability. Cost can be a consideration too, with rises in the price of red meat also tending to encourage more people to turn to vegetarianism.
Meanwhile one of the questions vegetarians are often asked is ‘So what do you eat, exactly?’ It may be easier to list what they don’t eat, including red meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish, crustacea (crab, lobster) or other animal by-products such as gelatine. The ones who also eat dairy foods and eggs – which is the most common type of vegetarian – are sometimes called lacto-ovo-vegetarians. Lacto-vegetarians, on the other hand, eat dairy but not eggs. And vegans don’t eat dairy, eggs or any other animal products (including, for instance, honey).
Advantages of turning veggie
Studies show the average vegetarian has a lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity than the average meat eater. The EPIC study carried out by Oxford University researchers, for instance, suggests there's a link between the consumption of red and processed meat and an increased risk of certain types of cancer.
Indeed, vegetarians are thought to have lower rates of deaths from all causes. However, this may not be caused entirely by not eating meat, but a result of eating a bigger proportion of healthy foods such as pulses and soya. Vegetarians on the whole may also be more likely to have healthier behaviours than meat eaters, including doing more exercise and not smoking.
Disadvantages of giving up meat
The benefits of following a purely plant-based diet may be many, but not eating any meat or fish could mean you’re not getting enough of certain nutrients, including iron, vitamin D, vitamin B2 and vitamin B12. And if you also don't eat dairy foods, you could also be missing out on calcium.
Vegetarians should also be aware of what they replace meat with in terms of getting enough protein. For instance, cheese is high in protein – which is good – but it’s also high in saturated fat (not so good). Healthier vegetarian protein foods include soya-based foods (such as tofu), beans, lentils, seeds, nuts, Quorn, dairy and eggs, which provide iron and zinc as well as protein.
However, many experts believe non-meat protein is an inferior type of protein to that derived from plants, as they may contain a more effective balance of the amino acids required by the human body than those in vegetables.
Groups including babies, young children, pregnant women and the elderly are thought to have the highest risk of being deficient in certain nutrients – particularly iron – if they are vegetarian. But these days, thanks to the availability of fortified foods such as soya foods and breakfast cereals, getting the right amount of vitamins and minerals isn’t as difficult for vegetarians as it used to be.
However, the emphasis should be on making healthy substitutions rather than cutting things out of your diet completely. And as with all other diets, the trick to having a good one is to make sure you have a healthy balance of a variety of different foods.
How to avoid deficiencies
If you’re thinking of turning veggie – or cutting down on meat and other animal foods – there are several main points to keep in mind:
Plant sources of iron – including pulses, green vegetables, and fortified breakfast cereals – are thought to be absorbed by the body less readily as iron found in meat. Combining plant-based iron with foods that contain vitamin C may, however, improve iron absorption. You may also want to consider taking an iron supplement to replace the mineral in your diet – again, taking it with vitamin C would help your body to absorb it.
Vitamin D is produced by the body when sunlight reacts with your skin. But if you don't go outside much (or if you have dark skin) boost your intake by adding fortified margarine or spreads and fortified breakfast cereals to your diet. The Department of Health also currently recommends all adults and children over the age of five to consider taking a daily supplement containing 10mcg of vitamin D (preferably in vitamin D3 form, which is in a form in which the body is able to absorb it) during the autumn and winter, as it’s difficult for people – even meat eaters – to get enough vitamin D from food alone.
Getting enough vitamin B12, the NRV is 1.5µg for adults, may also be a problem for vegans or vegetarians who don’t eat much dairy. However, it’s essential for wellbeing as your body needs it to release energy from food. It also helps to make red blood cells and keep your nervous system healthy, and without it your body is less able to use folic acid. Regularly eating fortified breakfast cereals, soya foods or a yeast extract can help boost your intake. To make sure you’re getting the right amount of B12 you may also want to try taking a good-quality B12 supplement. Many multi-vitamins contain vitamin B12, however, you may wish to check that the levels are relevant.
Calcium is needed to help build strong bones and teeth, to regulate muscle contractions (including your heartbeat) and to make sure your blood clots normally. It’s found in milk, cheese and other dairy foods. However, if you don't eat dairy, you can get extra calcium from fortified soya products, tofu, brown or white bread, green leafy vegetables, nuts and sesame seeds. You can also top up your calcium levels by taking a supplement (adults aged between 19 - 64 years need 700mg of calcium a day).
You don’t have to miss out on omega-3 fatty acids if you’re a vegetarian either. Normally found in oily fish, omega-3 oils are found in plants too, including flaxseed and flaxseed oil supplements (the type of omega-3 fat found in flaxseed is alpha-linoleic acid – ALA for short). Other sources of plant-based omega-3 fats include chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and rapeseed oil.
Found in meat, shellfish and dairy foods, vegans can get some zinc from bread and cereal products such as wheatgerm. The recommended daily amount of zinc needed by men aged 19 - 64 is 9.5mg a day, and 7mg for women. However, some people may find it difficult to meet these targets, which is why many natural health practitioners recommend vegans and some vegetarians to take zinc supplements.
Iodine is an essential nutrient needed by the body to make thyroid hormones, the NRV for adults is 150µg. However, the richest sources of iodine in our diet are dairy products and fish – both of which aren’t eaten by vegans.
According to the British Dietetic Association, while iodine intake in the UK was previously thought to be more than adequate, more recent research has shown mild iodine deficiency in schoolgirls and pregnant women. This, says the BDA, suggests many adult women may not be getting enough iodine, particularly in pregnancy.
Plant foods may contain a low amount of iodine, but seaweed is a rich source. However, the iodine content of seaweed is variable, says the Vegan Society, which claims a supplement is arguably the most reliable way of meeting your body’s needs.
Meanwhile, if you want to cover all bases, consider taking a good-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement, as it may be the best way of making sure you’re getting a good range of all these essential nutrients.