11 Jun Vegetarian diet
More than a million people in the UK choose a vegetarian diet for ethical, religious or health reasons. It can be a positive step towards a healthier lifestyle, but when changing your diet, you should think about more than just cutting out meat and fish. To feel great and stay well, you need to focus on achieving balanced nutrition and remember gorging on chips, chocolate and cheese will swell your waistline and sap your energy.
There’s increasing awareness that a plant-based diet, rich in fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and pulses, can be great for your health. It can prevent type 2 diabetes and protect against obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease. However, not all vegetarian foods are healthy, as plenty of processed foods, cakes, cookies and fizzy drinks contain absolutely no animal products.
Embracing a vegetarian lifestyle is good for you. In developed societies, vegetarians have a lower BMI, lower cholesterol and a 25% lower mortality rate from heart disease. They may also have better bowel health, less constipation, diverticular disease, gallstones and appendicitis. Research evidence suggests that if a vegetarian diet was adopted widely across the UK, it would save a staggering 40,000 deaths from cardiac disease every year.
More than just cutting meat
Different diets have different effects on your health and wellbeing. In research, scientists compared the impacts of different plant-based diets. Although they were generally associated with a lower risk of heart disease, a diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables was associated with a much lower risk than one filled with refined grains, sweetened drinks, potatoes and sugar.
It can be difficult to get all the vitamins and minerals needed for the body to build and repair tissues and work properly. Plant-based diets tend to be richer in micronutrients, like vitamins C, E and folic acid, and in the minerals potassium and magnesium. However, vegetarians can sometimes struggle to get enough protein, iron, vitamin B12 and essential fatty acids. Calcium and vitamin D deficiency can also be a problem, particularly in vegans.
Vegetarians miss out on iron-rich foods like beef, lamb and dark meat from all forms of poultry. This can cause problems with the production of red blood cells, leading to anaemia. However, there are plenty of non-animal sources of iron; you can beat anaemia by eating lots of leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds and dried fruits such as raisins and apricots. Wash them down with some vitamin C, from fruits or juices, to make your body more efficient at absorbing the iron available.
Vitamin B12 is also important in the production of healthy, red blood cells. You can boost your levels with dairy produce like milk, cheese and eggs, fortified plant-based ‘milks’ and breakfast cereals.
Our bodies can make Vitamin D in sunlight, but people that avoid the sun, have darker skin or live in gloomy, northern European climates can have lower levels. This can be a particular problem for vegetarians, who may not get as much vitamin D in their diet. Top up your levels with, egg yolks, fortified cereals and spreads.
Omega-3 fatty acids
These essential fatty acids are important for the health of your skin, your brain and your heart. Fish oils are a fantastic source of omega-3, so vegetarians can miss out. However, omega-3 can also be found in nuts and seeds, especially flax and chia as well as in vegetable oils, green leafy vegetables and soya. Vegetarian supplements are available and because of the essential role of omega-3 in maintaining health, many governments now promote fortification of foods including eggs, spreads, juice and dairy produce.
A medical article on plant-based diets, aimed at physicians said that ‘if we are to slow down the obesity epidemic and reduce the complications of chronic disease, we must consider changing our culture’s mind-set from “live to eat” to “eat to live.” The future of health care will involve an evolution toward a paradigm where the prevention and treatment of disease is centred, not on a pill or surgical procedure, but on another serving of fruits and vegetables1.’ Choosing a vegetarian way of life can be a step towards this, but it’s essential to consider the overall balance of your diet over days, weeks and months.
1 Tuso, P. (2013). Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. The Permanente Journal, 17(2), pp.61-66.