Unless you’ve been living under a stone for the last year, it can’t have escaped your notice that being vegan, vegetarian or at least mostly meat free has been big news. Eschewing meat in favour of veggie alternatives has also been huge in the recipe book business, and glamorous protagonists include (Deliciously) Ella Woodward and Madeline Shaw.
But could you take the plunge, and should you, even if you could? I’m often asked by friends, family and clients, and here is my view:
People become vegan or vegetarians for many reasons, including health, religion, concerns about animal welfare, or a desire to eat in a way that avoids excessive use of environmental resources. Others follow a largely vegetarian diet because they can't afford to eat much meat.
Becoming a vegetarian has become more appealing and accessible, thanks to the year-round availability of fresh produce, more vegetarian dining options, and the growing culinary influence of cultures with largely plant-based diets. Plus a hell of a lot of media coverage.
A number of scientific studies have shown that going meat free has definite benefits (see below). However, a vegetarian diet isn’t necessarily healthy. A diet of sugary, fizzy drinks, pizza and cake is technically vegetarian. For health, just like any other diet, it is important to focus on eating a rainbow of vegetables, balanced sources of protein (see below), smaller amounts of starchy carbohydrates like rice, pasta, bread and potatoes, and healthy fats like those found in oily fish, nuts, seeds and avocados.
Plant-based sources of protein:
• Tofu, miso and tempeh
• Quinoa (say ‘keen-wa’)
• Peas and beans
• Nuts and nut butters
• Seeds and seed butters, including flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp, pumpkin and sesame seeds, and tahini
• Leafy green veg
• Novel proteins (those that have been manufactured from vegetable sources to resemble animal proteins in texture) like TVP (textured vegetable protein, derived from soy), seitan (wheat gluten) and Quorn mycoprotein (derived from a fungus). All are manufactured and processed and have same issues as all processed foods.
Enjoy the benefits without going veggie
You can get many of the health benefits of being vegetarian without going all the way. A Mediterranean diet, for example, features a greater emphasis on plant foods with more limited use of meat and associated with longer life and reduced risk of chronic illness.
If you don't want to become a complete vegetarian, you can steer your diet in that direction with a few simple substitutions, such as plant-based sources of protein instead of meat a couple of times a week.
Although, strictly speaking, vegetarians do not eat any meat, poultry, fish or seafood at all, some people go part the way towards being vegetarian and call themselves vegetarian, so let’s get really clear on the distinctions…
• Vegans eat no meat, poultry, fish, seafood or any products derived from animals, including honey, eggs and dairy products.
• Vegetarians don’t eat meat, poultry, fish, seafood or any products derived from dead animals. Sub-groups of vegetarianism are:
• Lacto-ovo vegetarians don’t eat meat, poultry, fish or seafood but they do eat eggs and consume dairy products.
• Lacto-vegetarians eat no meat, poultry, fish or seafood but they do eat dairy products.
• Ovo-vegetarians eat no meat, poultry, fish or seafood and avoid dairy, but they do eat eggs.
• Pesco-vegetarians (or pescatarians) are not vegetarians, because they eat fish and seafood, they also usually eat eggs and dairy, but no meat or poultry.
Is going vegetarian healthier?
Compared with meat eaters, vegetarians tend to eat less saturated fat and cholesterol, and more vitamins C and E, dietary fibre, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, and phytochemicals (plant chemicals), such as carotenoids and flavonoids. As a result, they tend to have lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and lower body mass index (BMI), all of which are associated with longevity and a reduced risk for many chronic diseases. However, we now know that eating saturated fat and cholesterol neither leads to heart disease nor an increase in cholesterol levels.
The good results vegetarians and vegans have with heart health may simply be due to the fact that they have a much healthier diet than the average person on the Western diet, they are better informed about nutrition and particularly for vegans much junk is off the menu (as much of it contains dairy or egg). Vegetarians and vegans are also less likely to smoke or drink excessively, and are likely to take more exercise. These factors, too, are life preserving.
A huge number of studies point to eating more fruit and veg to reduce the risk of developing certain cancers. And, if you stop eating red meat (whether or not you become a vegetarian), you'll eliminate a risk factor for colon cancer. It's not clear whether avoiding all animal products reduces the risk further.
Vegetarianism & Nutrient Deficiencies
Some women worry they won’t get enough calcium to support bone health if they don’t eat dairy. Women would have to get their calcium from vegetables like bok choy, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, spring greens, and kale. Tofu and sesame seed (incl. tahini) are great sources of calcium.
People who follow a vegetarian diet (and especially a vegan diet) may be at risk of getting insufficient vitamin D and vitamin K, both needed for bone health. Although green leafy vegetables contain some vitamin K, vegans may also need to rely on fortified foods, including some types of soy milk, rice milk, organic orange juice, and breakfast cereals. They may also want to consider taking a vitamin D supplement.
The biggest problem for vegans is a lack of vitamin B12 as there are zero plant sources for it. It has to be supplemented or come from fortified foods.
Diets that include no fish or eggs are low in EPA and DHA. Your body can convert ALA in plant foods to EPA and DHA, but not very efficiently. Vegans can get DHA from algae supplements, which increase blood levels of DHA as well as EPA. Good ALA sources include flaxseed, walnuts, rapeseed oil, and soy.
Becoming a vegetarian or vegan is very much a personal choice, but one thing is clear, we would all benefit from increasing the amount of vegetables (and fruit) in our diets. They contain an array of life-enhancing plant chemicals, vitamins and minerals that help in the fight against disease. They fill you up by activating the satiety hormone leptin, they make it easier to eliminate waste via the colon and, they help mop up excess hormones in the body, making them essential in the detoxification process. How can you squeeze an extra portion into your diet today?