Happy Vegetarian Awareness Month!
No, this is not an article that will try to convert you or bash any other food choices you wish to make. It is, however, a quick guide to the history of vegetarianism, the nutrients to consider on a vegetarian or vegan diet and plant-based sources for these nutrients.
Ultimately, there are various ways you can find balance and ensure you meet your nutritional needs; however, the underlying key you ask? KNOWLEDGE. Knowledge is power, my friends. Before we dive into considerations we need to make when following a vegetarian diet, let’s go a moment back in time and delve into where vegetarianism sprouted from (see what I did there?).
It is believed that the father of ‘vegetarianism’ was the Greek philosopher himself – Pythagoras. Yes – you may remember his name from the famous ‘Pythagorean theorem’ that haunted your teenage self in geometry class. Pythagoras was an early proponent of a meatless diet well before the vegetarian movement gained a foothold in the mid-1800’s. He claimed to follow this diet for ethical reasons as he believed that all living beings had souls.
Without sparking any controversial discussion, of course, the prehistoric man consumed meat but as plants were less demanding to procure, plants are believed to have made up the majority of his diet. Nonetheless, as Pythagoras had a very large following, this thinking was passed on for many generations and in the mid-1800s a group of these followers came together to create the Vegetarian Society in England. During the war it became inevitable that more people became vegetarian as there was a meat scarcity. Only in the 60’s though did it become more mainstream, just in time for the peace & love hippie movement.
Fast forward 50 years and there are now many studies demonstrating that, indeed, there are various health benefits associated with making more plant-based food choices.
What is a vegetarian diet?
A vegetarian diet is one that is predominantly plant-based and excludes meat products including red meat, poultry, fish and shellfish. There are various subcategories whom may consume dairy and eggs (lacto-ovo vegetarians), only eggs (ovo-vegetarians), only dairy (lacto vegetarian) or none (vegans). Inevitably, if we exclude entire food groups the risk of developing nutrient deficiencies increases. However, if well-planned nothing is impossible! In fact, vegetarian diets have been associated with lower risks of Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, certain cancers and improved weight management.
Not only are plant-based diets found to improve cardiovascular and metabolic health indicators, but a marked difference in gut microbiome between vegetarians, vegans and omnivores is well documented. A recent study says, “the available literature suggests that a vegetarian/vegan diet is effective in promoting a diverse ecosystem of beneficial bacteria to support both human gut microbiome and overall health.” Health benefits include anti-inflammatory and cardio-protective benefits, improved immune function and gut health through high fibre intake. Some studies have even found that consuming a vegetarian diet has been linked to improved weight management by the influence of the gut bacterial composition when opting for more plant-based food choices in comparison to more meat-based options (Tomova and colleagues 2019).
Aligned with the literature, the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics and the Dietitians of Canada Position paper on vegetarian diets specify that if well-balanced, vegetarian diets are not only health promoting but a more sustainable approach to health too. And we at Louise Parker are all aboard the sustainability train!
Nutrients to Consider on a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet
When excluding particular food groups from our routine we are at risk of developing deficiencies. Common to vegetarian or vegan diets are the following:
Protein – Proteins are complex structures made up of amino acid building blocks. Some amino acids are essential, that is, they cannot be made by our bodies and therefore we need to consume them in the food we eat. Animal proteins contain all essential amino acids. Plant proteins on the other hand may not. Soya, quinoa and hemp are the exceptions. However, many plant proteins offer a different cocktail of amino acids so by ensuring a variety of plant protein sources we can adequately meet our needs. See examples below.
Iron – Iron is a mineral that is vital for many bodily functions, one of which is in the production of haemoglobin – a protein that is found in red blood cells responsible for transporting oxygen to your cells. There are two forms of iron, the first of which is called ‘haem-iron’ found in animal protein sources, and the second ‘non-haem iron’ found in plant-based foods. Haem iron is more easily absorbed by the body, however, there are plant-sources that may contribute to your total intake. With that in mind, it is recommended that you consume foods rich in vitamin-C alongside to maximise absorption (e.g. vegetables and fruit).
Calcium – Calcium is a mineral that is imperative for optimal bone health. Dairy products are an excellent source of calcium; however, if you do not consume dairy it is important to be aware of plant-based calcium rich alternatives. See the table below.
Vitamin D – Vitamin D is another key player in maintaining the integrity of our bones and it is actually required to effectively absorb any calcium we consume. It is very difficult to obtain sufficient vitamin D from the food we eat. Rather our bodies are able to produce Vitamin D when our skin is exposed to the sun. Unfortunately, living in the northern hemisphere we often do not get enough sunlight from September to April, which means supplementation is recommended by Public Health agencies. Nonetheless, there are some foods that offer a source of Vitamin D, which you can find below.
Vitamin B12 – Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that is key for the integrity of your red blood cells and nervous system, which is usually rich in animal protein sources, dairy and eggs. However, for vegans who exclude all animal products, there are fortified alternatives that can be taken as shown below.
Omega 3 Fats – These are a family of essential fats that is, our body cannot produce enough on their own.
Zinc – Zinc is a mineral that plays an important role in making new cells, wound healing and aids in the metabolism of carbohydrates, fat and protein.
Selenium – Essential for optimal immune function as well as reproductive health as it plays a role in regulating thyroid function.
Iodine – A mineral key in the production of thyroid hormone to consequently assist in bone and metabolic health. Can be naturally found in iodized salt or sea vegetables, but may need to be limited in some medical conditions, if you are breastfeeding or pregnant, care must be taken and it is advised you speak to a qualified health professional.
Plant Food sources
|Protein||Beans, lentils, chickpeas, soya products such as tofu or tempeh, nuts and seeds, mycoprotein such as Quorn, grains such as rice, buckwheat or seitan|
|Iron||Legumes and pulses such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, soya beans, tempeh, fortified grains such as brown rice, nuts & seeds, and some green leafy vegetables|
|Calcium||Tofu, sesame seeds (e.g. tahini paste), calcium fortified beverages such as soya, almond, oat milk, nuts, brown or white bread|
|Vitamin D||Fortified dairy products such as yogurt or milk alternatives, breakfast cereals, eggs|
|Vitamin B12||Yeast extract or nutritional yeast flakes, breakfast cereals, certain brands of milk alternatives|
|Omega 3 Fats||Nuts and seeds such as walnuts and pumpkin seeds, vegetable oils such as hemp and linseed oil, algae derived DHA or fortified eggs|
|Zinc||Fermented soya products such as tempeh, miso, beans and fortified breakfast cereals|
|Selenium||Nuts (especially Brazil nuts), and eggs|
|Iodine||Iodised salt, seaweed, kelp|
The verdict you ask? Each to their own! There are so many benefits to incorporating more plant-based foods in your daily routine, whether you follow a vegetarian diet or not. The Louise Parker Method promotes striving for variety in your food choices within all food groups including vegetable, fruit, whole grain, fat and protein sources. If you can find a little inspiration in trying some plant-based proteins and jazzing up your plate with greens and colour, go for it! If well-planned, vegetarian diets are indeed health promoting.
If you would like to speak to a dietitian and get a programme tailored to you to ensure you are meeting your needs contact our lovely team on 0203 862 5401.
McMacken & Shah (2017). A plant-based diet for the prevention and treatment of T2DM
Kahleova, Levin & Barnard (2017). Cardio-metabolic benefits of plant-based diets
Le LT & Sabale (2014) Beyond meatless
Journal of Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics Position Paper on vegetarian diets