Many people choose to exclude meat and other animal products from their diet for a variety of reasons and to different extents. Taking into consideration factors such as age, gender and general fitness, careful planning and nutritional support is necessary to ensure adequate nutrient intakes for individuals opting for a plant-based diet.
Different types of vegetarians
‘Vegetarianism’ has been gaining popularity the last few years especially among fit minded young people and includes a range of dietary habits. True vegetarians exclude all meat and animal by-products from their diet. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians consume dairy products and eggs, pesco-vegetarians (or pescetarians) consume the foods eaten by lacto-ovo-vegetarians plus seafood. Vegans have the most restricted diet as they do not eat any food of animal origin including honey. Depending on how strict the vegetarian diet is, it is crucial to ensure the body gets all the nutrients it needs.
Health benefits of vegetarianism
A well planned vegetarian diet can have numerous health benefits. Generally vegetarian diets are characterised by increased consumption of fruit, vegetables, legumes and nuts. In addition, they are lower in cholesterol and saturated fat but higher in vitamins C and E, magnesium, potassium, fibre and phytochemicals, such as flavonoids and carotenoids in comparison to omnivore diets. Research suggests that as a result, such diets may have a protective effect against certain chronic diseases. Moreover, they may be connected to the lower body mass index (BMI) values that are often seen in vegetarians. A lower BMI combined with improved blood lipid profiles and lower blood pressure, all of which are common among vegetarians, are proven to have cardiovascular benefits. Furthermore, recent evidence suggests that vegetarians are at lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome than meat eaters due to the higher consumption of whole grain foods, nuts and legumes which are beneficial for blood glucose control. Reducing or eliminating red meat and processed meat from the diet may also have a protective effect against cancer according to the World Cancer Research Fund according to which people should eat less than 500g red meat per week.
Key nutrients that might be deficient
The main concern when it comes to vegetarian diets is that several key nutrients may be absent, deficient or poorly absorbed from the gut. These include high quality protein, iron, zinc, calcium and vitamins D and B12 and certain omega-3 fatty acids.
Although these nutrients are usually adequate in pescetarian and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets, vegan diets usually rely on supplementation. Iron stores tend to be lower and anaemia due to this deficiency is very common among vegetarians because the most readily absorbed form of iron, called haem iron, is only found in meat, poultry and fish. Bone health is yet another concern for vegans due to the fact that they have low intakes of calcium, protein and vitamin D. Another nutrient found only in animal-sourced foods is vitamin B12 and its deficiency can be serious during pregnancy can cause irreversible neurological damage to the foetus.
The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, found in fatty fish such as salmon, herring and mackerel are important for heart health, brain development and vision. However, vegetarian diets are not always deficient in these fatty acids as EPA can also be synthesised by the human body if its precursor (ALA) is provided through the diet. Valuable sources of ALA are walnut and rapeseed oil.
Nutritional support and supplementation
Soy, in its various forms (plain beans, tofu, etc.), is probably one of the most useful and widely used addition to the vegetarian diet. It can meet protein needs as effectively as animal protein, and can be considered as a source of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA. Soy is also rich in iron and the plant compounds phytochemicals which are thought to have a protective effect against cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and some cancers.
A wide range of products is currently available to support vegetarians and specifically vegans in their dietary choices. Products such as meat alternatives, non-dairy milks, fortified breakfast cereals, spreads and juices as well as a huge range of supplements aim to provide vegetarians with all the essential nutrients that their diet may lack. Most products are labelled as suitable for vegetarians, vegetarian ready-meals are widely available, and restaurant menus often include meat free meal options. The new In addition, according to European labelling laws it is mandatory that all products have a detailed ingredient list on the package.
Vegetarian sources of vitamin B12 and high-quality protein include dairy products eggs. Vegans may therefore need to use supplements or rely on yeast extract spreads to meet their requirements in B12.
In conclusion, if executed well, vegetarian diets can be a viable alternative. Although a totally meat-free diet may not be appropriate or desirable for everyone, eating fish rather than meat, as part of a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and wholegrain products is associated with health benefits. The main thing to consider is careful meal planning to ensure nutritional needs are not compromised. The most critical nutrients in this respect are iron, calcium, zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids. The main take home message is that a higher fruit and vegetable intake remains an important goal for vegetarians and meat eaters alike as part of a healthy balanced diet.
By Kleio Bathrellou