The short answer to my question is yes, absolutely!
But are vegetarian and vegan diets more healthy than meat diets? Mo Farah was recruited earlier this year to advertise Quorn products. Not that he is even a vegetarian himself, but the advert shows Mo racing past rivals on a mountainous running track, then ending with Mo saying “make Quorn mince part of your programme.” Going meat free won’t necessarily turn you into Mo but due to his huge popularity I think he will really drive sales for meat alternatives and after the horse meat scandal last year, people will be thinking much more about trying vegetarian or vegan products.
I am not a vegetarian myself so should I give it a go, even just for a week? Will I be missing out on anything important other than bacon sandwiches? What are the potential nutritional concerns. So here are my thoughts on being meat free…………………….
I think it’s a good idea to have at least two meat-free days a week but my husband struggles with this idea. I think we have got into a bit of a rut, with the expectation we should have some meat protein in each main meal. There are some definite health benefits to being meat free. Studies have shown that vegetarians and vegans have lower mortality rates than meat eaters particularly from heart disease but being a vegetarian does not automatically make you healthier. You still have to pick the right foods and limit the foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar. Vegetarians and vegans tend to be leaner, have lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure but what we don’t know is if vegetarians or vegans are healthier because they don’t eat meat but eat more fruit and vegetables and / or is it because they may have healthier attitudes so exercise more and smoke or drink less?
If this is something you are thinking about, why not try just one meat free day a week to start with: there is a campaign called Meat Free Monday? This statement is taken from their website –
The World Cancer Research Fund recommends we “choose mostly plant foods, limit red meat and avoid processed meat”. In 2010, a study carried out by Oxford University’s department of public health found that eating meat no more than three times a week could prevent 31,000 deaths from heart disease, 9,000 deaths from cancer and 5,000 deaths from stroke, as well as save the NHS £1.2 billion in costs each year
Following a meat free diet can have many benefits, PROVIDING your diet is varied. I have heard of a number of people deciding to become vegan or vegetarian (for important personal reasons) but they don’t even like vegetables, or beans or whole grain foods! This is potentially quite a precarious path to take as a strict vegetarian or vegan diet can make you susceptible to selected nutrient deficiencies.
There are some nutrients that are harder to get from a vegetarian or vegan diet, either because plants foods contain smaller quantities than animal products or because they are not very well absorbed by the body.
- vitamin B12
- omega-3 fatty acids
There have been many elite and Olympic athletes who have proven they can ‘run on beans‘ – the likes of Ed Moses, Martina Navratolova and Carl Lewis (or was he tested positive for drugs?) As long as a varied diet is consumed, vegetarian and vegan diets can provide all the nutrients needed to be healthy. You may need to look out for more fortified foods and vegans may need a vitamin B12 supplement. Before I get onto these nutrients, let me say a little about protein………………
Protein is made up of amino acids. These are the building blocks of protein and to ensure we can make all the protein the body needs, it is important to eat a variety of different proteins. Our body has the ability to make some of these amino acids ourselves, but some (9 amino acids) we cannot make so we must obtain them from foods; we call these essential amino acids.
Protein from animal sources – meat and eggs for example, tend to contain more of the 9 essential amino acids. Animal protein is therefore considered a ‘better quality’ or more complete protein. Protein from plant sources is often missing one or more of these essential amino acids and so it can be viewed as ‘lower quality’ or less complete protein. Quinoa and soya are probably the most complete plant-based protein foods in our diet but I must add that protein intake is not usually a problem unless your diet is limited. Most vegans and vegetarians get enough protein from their diets as long as they eat a variety of protein rich foods:
- Quinoa (pictured above)
- Soya / Tofu
- All kinds of beans – soya, mung beans, kidney beans, black-eyed beans, pinto beans etc
- Nuts including nut butters (almond or peanut)
- Whole grains – cereals, brown rice, whole grain pasta
- Microprotein (quorn) This is a useful ingredient for vegetarians (it is not suitable for vegans as it contains egg) as it has a similar texture to meat and is great as a meat substitute.
By combining different types of plant protein over the course of a day you can ensure you get all the amino acids your body needs. It’s about VARIETY.
- Beans on toast
- Breakfast cereal with milk
- Rice with lentil dhal
- Vegetable soup with lentils or barley and bread
- Bean chilli with rice or tortillas
- Rye crackers and cheese
- Couscous with chickpeas
- Houmous and pitta bread
Vegans and vegetarians that do not consume dairy products may also need to make sure they are getting enough calcium.
If you don’t eat milk and dairy products, choose soya products and other dairy alternatives such as nut and rice milks fortified with added vitamins and minerals.
Non-dairy sources of calcium include:
- Soya milk (look for fortified versions with added calcium
- Other dairy milk alternatives such as nut (almond), rice and oat drinks
- Fortified bread
- Dried fruit – figs, dates, apricots & prunes
- Dark green leafy vegetables – broccoli, spinach, kale
- Lentils (all types)
- Beans (all types)
- Sesame seeds
- Pulses such as beans, peas and lentils
- Green vegetables such as watercress, spinach and kale
- Wholemeal or brown bread
- Some fortified breakfast cereals
- Dried fruits
- Nuts and sesame seeds
- Yeast extract
- Some fortified breakfast cereals
- Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
- Rapeseed oil
- Soya oil and soya-based foods, such as tofu
- Walnuts and walnut oil
- Eggs (especially omega 3 fortified eggs, or ‘happy’ eggs)