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What are the benefits of being a vegetarian?

Being vegetarian is definitely more popular than it used to be! Statistics by Finder.com suggest that in the UK 7.2 million people (14%) are currently following a meat-free lifestyle with 3.3 million (6%) being vegetarian, 2.4 million (5%) being pescatarian and 1.6 million (3%) being vegan. It’s also thought that approx. 8.8 million people in the UK are planning to go meat-free in 2022.

The benefits of being vegetarian 

Attitudes towards the vegetarian diet and its effects on health have completely transformed since the 1980s. In 1980, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) didn't believe a vegetarian diet could be nutritionally sound, however by the turn of the Century their position on it was that, if appropriately planned, a vegetarian or vegan diet could not only be nutritionally adequate but may also help prevent certain diseases.

In the UK, it's generally acknowledged that a vegetarian diet could help prevent (or reverse) some of the leading chronic health conditions we currently face. Some of these conditions include:

  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol levels)
  • Certain cancers
  • Stroke

Studies suggest that the health benefits of a vegetarian diet are attributed to a higher intake of fibre, plant protein, plant-based unsaturated fats, and phytochemicals (biologically active compounds found in fruit and vegetables e.g. antioxidants). This alongside a lower intake of saturated fats (including fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, lard) and processed and refined foods such as cakes, pastries, processed meats and fried foods. A vegetarian diet is also thought to have a lower energy density, therefore supporting weight loss.

In one study, looking at a plant-based diet and cardiovascular health, they found that this approach to eating reduced the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD) by 10.2% compared to a meat-eating diet.

Another study looking at a plant-based diet and weight loss highlighted how a reduction in BMI and weight from following a vegetarian lifestyle also led to a reduction in the individual’s risk of Type 2 Diabetes, CVD and Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), and this was attributed to an increased intake of fibre, healthy fats (like olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds), and plant protein.

Is being vegetarian healthy?

A vegetarian diet may be as healthy or unhealthy as you make it.

It can be health promoting if the chosen foods are natural and unprocessed. However, there are many processed and unnatural vegetarian foods available. There's an array of “meat alternatives” on the shelves of supermarkets AND some health food shops including: vegetarian sausages, burgers, mince, turkey, bacon…the list goes on. Also remember, cakes, pastries, sweets, and chocolate are all vegetarian products too! So it's easy to see how a potentially healthy approach to eating “could go wrong”. 

Additionally, there are many “free from” products available BUT often when an ingredient is removed it's replaced with something else. The “something else” could be refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, salt or refined fats, which are thought to promote ill health rather than optimal health.

It used to be that for someone following a vegetarian lifestyle “eating out” could be tricky, but now even the simplest of cafes and restaurants have a vegetarian option. BUT, these are also places where it is important to consider the options available. Beware of the unnatural and processed meat alternative options as well as the refined cakes and pastries…especially at fast food restaurants.

In a recent study looking at plant-based eating and health they found that an unhealthy plant-based diet increased the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, which was attributed to a diet high in sugar and low in dietary fibre, healthy fats and antioxidants (from fruit and vegetables). This was thought to lead to poor blood sugar (glucose) control, poor breakdown of fats and weight gain, all of which are risk factors for heart disease.

One concern about the vegetarian diet is a potential limited intake of protein, vitamin B12 and iron. 

“An appropriately planned vegetarian diet could be both nutritious and health promoting”. The key words here are appropriately planned. Absolutely, a vegetarian diet could provide appropriate and possibly optimal levels of all essential nutrients  if the time and effort is taken to prepare! It's when convenience and mindless eating happen that insufficiencies and deficiencies of particular nutrients develop.

How to get protein as a vegetarian 

So, let’s consider how a vegetarian can get an optimal intake of protein.

First, let’s look at what makes up protein…

Amino acids (AAs) are the building blocks of protein, some of which your body can produce internally from other nutrients and compounds whilst others you need to get from diet as your body can't synthesise them. These are known as Essential Amino Acids (EAAs), of which there are nine. 

So, which plant-based foods are rich in protein? 

They include:

Legumes, which are made up of pulses, beans, lentils and soybeans. 

Wholegrains like brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat and oats.

Nuts, seeds and their oils. Oils can be drizzled on salads but don’t cook with them as heat is known to damage the essential fatty acids within, making the oil “unhealthy”.

Eggs, which are a “complete protein” food, but choose organic and free range wherever possible for both health and ethical reasons.

Dairy, but try to select goat and sheep over cow products where possible. It's thought that goat and sheep products are more easily digested, thus reducing the risk of any sensitivity or intolerance.

A vegetarian diet could quite easily achieve an optimal intake of all the essential amino acids as long as it's varied. Non-meat foods containing the full complement of EAAs include: soybean, quinoa and eggs, however many plant-based foods are incomplete proteins, meaning they're missing at least one of the nine EAAs. 

To this end, people following a vegetarian style diet would need to introduce “food combining”. This could be done by choosing plant foods containing a different array of EAAs so by the end of the day all nine have been eaten! Some good combinations include: brown rice with lentils, nut butter with oats or hummus topped with mixed seeds.

What supplements should a vegetarian take? 

Supplements for a vegetarian:

When following a vegetarian diet there's a risk of nutrient insufficiency and deficiency if a balanced diet isn't maintained. Key nutrients that may require supplementation include:

Protein: A protein powder is an easy way to get the full range of essential amino acids and can be purchased as a dairy (whey) powder or a plant-based (hemp, rice, pea etc) protein powder. These are great for using in shakes and smoothies.

Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs): Omega 3 fatty acids are required for cell health and their anti-inflammatory properties. A little Omega 3 can be found in nuts and seeds, especially walnuts, hemp and flax seeds, however the content may be insufficient to achieve optimal health. Algae-based supplements would be a good alternative source of Omega 3 for vegetarians and vegans.

Iron: Iron’s principle function is to assist in haemoglobin production and subsequent transport of oxygen (O2) round the body. Non-haem iron found in plant-based foods requires conversion to its soluble form in the digestive tract, therefore absorption is limited. Additionally, “anti-nutrients “(for example phytic acid and polyphenols), naturally found in many plant-based foods, bind to non-haem iron and prevent its absorption. An iron supplement containing vitamin C (a natural iron absorption enhancer) could help support appropriate iron levels.

Vitamin B12 has a vital role in producing and maintaining red blood cells, nerves, and DNA. Deficiency of this nutrient can lead to anaemia as a result of insufficient red blood cell production. It's found in eggs and dairy products but is very scarce in plant foods, therefore a vegetarian eliminating all animal products would need to supplement. 

Summary

There are many types of ‘vegetarians’ but the classic definition is a person who doesn't eat meat (including fowl), seafood, or products containing these foods. 

Studies acknowledge that a vegetarian diet could be both nutritious and health promoting if it is appropriately planned. It could also help prevent (or reverse) some of the leading chronic health conditions we currently face such as chronic heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes. 

But, it could also be an unhealthy diet if poor food choices are made, thus leading to nutrient insufficiency or deficiency. 

To ensure your vegetarian diet is appropriate and nutrient dense, take the time to plan your meals either on a daily or weekly basis. 

You may also wish to consider nutrient status testing and supplementation if you feel you're lacking in any of the key nutrients discussed. Working with a professional could help you determine your requirements and support you accordingly.

References

  1. Position paper on vegetarian diets from the working group of the Italian Society of Human Nutrition

  2. Nutrient Requirements 

  3. Vegetarian

  4. Essential Amino Acids and Protein Synthesis: Insights into Maximizing the Muscle and Whole-Body Response to Feeding

  5. Comparison of Nutritional Quality of the Vegan, Vegetarian, Semi-Vegetarian, Pesco-Vegetarian and Omnivorous Diet

  6. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets, Journal of the American Dietetic Association

  7. Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes

  8. How Many Vegetarians and Vegans Are In The UK?

  9. The effects of plant-based diets on the body and the brain

  10. Vegetarian diet and all-cause mortality

  11. Neuroendocrine and Metabolic Effects of Low-Calorie and Non-Calorie Sweeteners 

  12. Consuming Plant-Based Diets Compared to Meat-Eaters

  13. The Association of Plant-Based Diet With Cardiovascular Disease and Mortality 

  14. Effects of Plant-Based Diets on Weight Status

  15. Dietary Intakes and Lifestyle Factors of a Vegan Population in Germany 

  16. Health Benefits and Risk Associated with Adopting a Vegetarian Diet

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