Lately there has been a jump in the interest for plant-based diets. Only five short years ago around 4% of people in the United States and Britain stated that they were vegan or vegetarian. Recent research conducted in 2019 suggests that 25% of US and British people under the age of 35 are self-identifying as either vegan or vegetarian. That is a massive upshift for the plant-based community. Amazingly, in many European countries such as Germany, half the population identify as eating low or no meat.
Why are people opting to shun meat and other animal products?
Many non-meat eaters will still site animal cruelty as a reason for not including meat in their diet. However, there is now a rise of vegan, vegetarian, and meat-lite eaters who do so for health or environmental reasons.
So, with this growing number of plant-based consumers, what are the dietary risks you should consider if you are to join the ranks?
Is there a difference between plant-based, vegan, and vegetarian?
Yes, there definitely is. Plant-based is an all-encompassing term for anyone who wants to cut down on, or cut out, meat. Some plant-based advocates still eat meat or fish occasionally, they may or may not consume dairy products or eggs too.
Vegetarians are a stricter form of plant-based eating, which can also include subgroups, such as lacto-ovo (eat eggs and milk), and pescetarian (eat fish) vegetarians.
Finally, vegans are the strictest form of plant-based eating. Their refusal to consume animal products goes beyond food into products such as leather, fur, and products tested on animals.
Something we see people asking all the time in nutrition is, is there a risk of going plant-based, particularly vegan? Surely cutting out all animal products, that is meat, dairy, and eggs, leads to deficiencies?
So let’s take a look at what you could be missing out on if you don’t manage your meat free diet appropriately.
The easiest thing to do is to take a look at what nutrients we get from animal products.
One of the most important things we get from animal products are essential amino acids. Amino acids are dubbed ‘the building blocks of life’. They are found in everything from our muscles, to our bones, skin, and hair. There are 22 amino acids, and 9 of these our body cannot produce itself. Thus these 9 amino acids are essential for us to get from food sources.
Because we, as humans, need amino acids, it makes sense that other animals need and have them too. This is why we find all 9 amino acids most easily in animal meat.
Plants on the other hand, don’t need all the essential amino acids. This means that in turn, we don’t typically get the complete set of essential amino acids from the plants we eat (there are a few exceptions).
For non-meat eaters this requires them to be a little more adventurous with what they eat as you need a wide variety of plant foods to get all your essential amino acids.
Some complete plant-based essential amino acids are Quinoa and Buckwheat. Whilst grains, lentils, legumes, nuts, soy, and rice contain some essential amino acids.
However essential amino acids are not all, animal protein contains other nutrients our body needs in the form of Vitamins and Minerals such as Haem Iron and B12.
There is a lot of discussion, and misinformation, about our body and its need for haem iron. To date the most reliable research we have still suggests that the iron from meat (haem) is more readily absorbed into our body.
Why do we need iron?
Iron helps us carry oxygen around our body. As you can imagine that is a pretty important task. So if we are low in it that could cause some serious health complications. We call the lack of iron in our blood – Anaemia – and it is more common in vegans and vegetarians.
Can you avoid iron deficiency on a vegan diet?
Of course you can. You just have to be very measured with your eating. Supplements do help, particularly if your whole family is vegan, as children cannot consume the same quantities of food as adults, it can be hard for them to get all the iron they need from plants.
The following are plant-based foods high in iron;
– Grains (quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal)
– Nuts and Seeds
– Swiss Chard
– Collard greens
– Prune juice
A top tip is to eat your iron containing foods with foods high in vitamin C – such as broccoli, citrus, kiwifruit, cauliflower, and capsicum. As vitamin C increases our absorption of iron. In contract, calcium decreases our ability to absorb iron. So lay off tofu and tempeh when you’re trying to eat a plant-based iron-heavy meal.
Vitamin B12 is another high risk deficiency for a vegan diet. B12 is essential for normal brain function. You can get some B12 from nori seaweed, tempeh, yeast extracts, soy products, as well as cereal, bread, and meat substitutes. This may not be enough on its own however, and vegan friendly supplements are recommended (check out our B-Complex).
A vegan diet may also be low in Vitamin D, and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA.
These are both found in oily fish such as salmon. Yes, vitamin D can be obtained by the sun, however our increasingly indoor sedentary lifestyle, coupled with skin cancer risks, means that we do not always spend adequate time with our skin exposed to the sun for vitamin D to be absorbed. Additionally, if we live in a climate with long winters this will decrease our exposure even more.
Vitamin D deficiency is linked with osteoporosis, cancer, depression and other neurological conditions, multiple sclerosis, and heart disease.
Plant based forms of vitamin D are not effective at raising our circulating blood levels of Vitamin D, so if you live in a cooler climate, or are indoors a lot, supplementation for this is really advisable.
DHA can be made from ALA, which is found in flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. However the body is not very efficient at making this conversion. Instead vegans can take an algal oil supplement made from microalgae to obtain DHA.
Calcium is another mineral which may be in low supply in a vegan diet.
Typically we get high levels of calcium from dairy products. So where else can you get your calcium?
There are many plant foods high in calcium. Again you just have to plan your diet a little more carefully if you are eating vegan. These include;
– Soy products
– White beans
– Black beans
– Navy beans
– Kidney beans
– Collard and green leafy vegetables
Hopefully what you’re able to ascertain from this is that it is possible to get what you need from a vegan diet, as long as you eat a wide variety of plant-based foods frequently. As with any diet, it comes down the quality of the food you eat, and how well your body absorbs the nutrients in those foods. In practice however, I do recommend supplementation as well, as many of us just simply aren’t on point with our diet all the time. So, deficiencies on vegan diets can happen quickly.