Have you fallen off the vegetarian wagon?

A report by the Humane Research Council (HRC) was released earlier this week (December 2014), stating that 84% of American vegetarians/vegans revert back to eating meat or other animal products.  I was asked to comment on this on BBC 5 Live this morning and only having 60 seconds to make your point led me to this blog post!

HRC have generated this great infographic to summarise their findings………………It would be interesting to have some similar stats for the UK but I don’t think we will necessarily be that far off the mark as the UK diet is also pretty rich in convenience and processed meat.

So the most popular reason for becoming a vegetarian was to be healthy. This appears to be insufficient to sustain a vegetable based diet in the long term. I wonder what we actually mean when we say it’s for health reasons? Do we go vegetarian to help with weight loss? (no, not necessarily true at all) Or is it simply an attempt to feel ‘healthier’ or generally better in ourselves? Is it for a particular health reason such as to look after your heart? Have you read that eating meat increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes? Perhaps being vegetarian makes you more health conscious; if you are thinking more about the food you eat? Some studies have shown that vegetarians have a lower BMI and tend to be healthier (drink less, smoke less, lower blood pressure etc.) compared to non-vegetarians. However, when the comparison is made between equally health conscious vegetarians and non-vegetarians, there was no difference at all. The important thing to remember here is that vegetarian diets are not automatically healthier – as a Nation that relies heavily on convenience, please be aware that vegetarian processed foods are generally no better than non-vegetarian processed foods, all typically being high in fat, salt and sugar. Apparently a large majority of former vegetarians made the transition to a vegetarian diet very quickly; in a matter of days or weeks. Is one of the reasons we fall off the vegetarian waggon because we are unprepared as to which foods are now off the menu? Do we appreciate what impact the diet will have on our food intake and are then surprised by the reality of what is actually involved. Is it harder to find decent vegetarian food when eating out or it it awkward having to justify to your friends why you are or are not eating something? Do you even enjoy eating vegetables, beans and pulses?! Are you prepared to get imaginative in the kitchen and knock up a new range of delicious meat-free dishes? These factors could certainly become a significant barrier to successfully adopting a vegetarian diet.  Interestingly the HRC report suggested many ex-vegetarians would like to go back to being meat free and so perhaps people would find more support through groups and organisations helpful. Click here for the vegetarian society website and here for the vegan society where you can find more information and support. Chicken is probably the most common type of meat consumed by the UK public – if going vegetarian, what do we replace it with that is as cheap and versatile? A vegetarian diet can often be cheaper than a meat based one – protein is expensive compared to plant based foods – but you may need to shop around to get value for money. Don’t forget that any long term dietary changes need to be achievable, sustainable and most importantly, work for you. Typically, vegetarians & vegans can avoid nutritional problems IF appropriate food choices are made. Like everybody else, vegetarians and vegans must eat a wide variety of foods but some nutrients we obtain from plants are present in lower amounts or are less readily absorbed so it becomes even more important to eat plenty of whole grains, pulses, dark green leafy veg, seeds and nuts, including seed and nut oils.

So if you want to cut out meat from your diet, the message here is do your research first – determine how dietary changes will affect what you and your family buys and eats. Obviously this is a personal choice but having the support of your family and friends around you can make a huge difference. Eating should not be a chore and you should not feel as if you are constantly depriving yourself – it just won’t work in the long run. As for the rest of us that eat meat regularly, we should probably try to cut down how often we have it. We do not need to eat meat every day (although my husband can see no sense at all in this as he told me could never ever go vegetarian! *sigh*) but meat in moderation is absolutely fine. Ideally limit red meat to once a week and include a variety of lean poultry and pork in your diet, as well as fish (recommendations say we should have oily fish at least 2-3 times a week). Why not try going meat free for 2 days a week. If you need some inspiration try meat free monday!  or BBC Good Food have classic recipes minus the meat. Let me know how you get on………….

Can we be fuelled by veggies?

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…………………….

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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.

  • calcium
  • iron
  • selenium
  • 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

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
  • Lentils
  • 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

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Calcium

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
Cheese is often a popular choice for people following vegetarian diets, but while it is a good source of calcium (and protein) some varieties can be high in saturates and salt, so only eat it in moderation.
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Iron
Many people in the UK, especially women and adolescent girls, have low intakes of iron. We all need to make sure we get enough iron, which is important for transporting oxygen around the body, for brain function and the immune system. If you are vegan or vegetarian however, you need to be especially careful, as the iron found in plant foods is less readily absorbed than that from animal products.
Good sources of iron suitable for vegetarians. / vegans include:
  • 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
  • Eggs
Vitamin C is great at boosting iron absorption though.  So add some fruit or vegetables, or have a glass of fruit juice with your meal to increase the amount of iron you get from food. On the other hand, tea and coffee make the absorption of iron harder because they contain compounds called polyphenols.  These can bind with the iron making it harder for the body to absorb it. So try to avoid drinking tea and coffee at the same time you are eating – wait at least 30 minutes between eating and drinking these.
 
Selenium 
Selenium is needed for a healthy immune system and to protect the cells of the body. Many people in the UK don’t get enough selenium from the diet. Meat, fish, eggs and nuts are the best sources of selenium, so if you’re a strict vegetarian or vegan, it’s important to make sure you’re eating enough nuts.
Brazil nuts, cashew nuts and pecans are all sources of selenium, so try to include a small handful of these when you can. You could add some to your breakfast – nuts are a delicious addition to porridge and other breakfast cereals!
Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is needed for healthy blood and for the nervous system and the immune system. It also helps release energy from the food we eat. If you eat dairy foods then you should be able to get enough vitamin B12 from your diet. However, because vitamin B12 is not found in plant foods (such as fruit, vegetables and grains), vegans might not get enough of this vitamin.
Vegan sources of vitamin B12 include
  • Yeast extract
  • Some fortified breakfast cereals
You might find it would be advisable to think about taking a vitamin B12 supplement but make sure you follow the instructions on the packaging and don’t take more than the recommended amount as this can be harmful.
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Omega-3 fatty acids
 
It is recommended that we eat 2-3 portions of oily fish per week. This is because the omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish may help reduce the risk of heart disease. If you are vegan or vegetarian and do not eat fish, try to include other sources of omega-3 in your diet. However, research suggests that oily fish is the best way to get the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
Good vegetarian and vegan sources of omega-3 include:
  • 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)

There is far more too veganism and vegetarianism than I could explain here but their websites will tell you all you need to know about shopping and eating healthily, what is eaten and what is not.
So take a look here: http://www.vegansociety.com  and here: https://www.vegsoc.org/ There are lots of recipes too!