If you think that going on a diet has something to do with nutrition, you don’t see the forest through the trees. It is a lifestyle. I know it sounds cliché, but you have to find things you love to do.
Vegetarianism has become increasingly popular in recent years.
According to the Vegetarian Society, in the UK more than 1 million people follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.
But what are the benefits and downsides of a meat-free lifestyle?
In this article, I will strive to cover the following basics:
If you are interested in vegetarianism or if you already follow a vegetarian diet, this article will be a good tool in your toolbox for optimal health.
A note of clarification: unless otherwise stated, the recommended daily intakes provided are based on current UK guidelines.
The meat of the problem: what nutrients are you potentially missing out on?
Of the many nutrients meat provides, these require special attention:
A potential protein deficiency is one of the main arguments against a vegetarian diet.
But is that a real problem? Not if you follow some simple guidelines.
First of all, not all protein is created equal.
Meat, fish, and poultry are rich in complete protein, essential for many physiological functions and for the maintenance and further development of your muscle mass.
Luckily, whey and casein (available as protein powders), eggs, and dairy, like yogurt and milk, also contain complete protein.
Among plant foods, soy products, like tofu and edamame beans, are considered complete protein, too.
Other plant-based foods have varying amounts of protein, but it’s incomplete. This means it lacks at least one or more of the essential amino acids that your body can’t produce on its own.
For this reason, it’s important to consume a balance of different plant-based protein sources.
I previously suggested appropriate combinations of plant-based foods for a single meal, but your body can absorb essential amino acids throughout the day, not only meal by meal.
So, as long as you have a variety of protein sources on a daily basis, you’ll have your needs covered.
At the same time, combining different protein sources at every meal may be easier than trying to keep track of all the amino acids you have yet to tick off your list.
Omega-3 fatty acids
The important thing to note is that not all omega-3s are the same.
There are three types of omega-3s: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both found in fish and some algae; and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which you can get from leafy vegetables, soybeans, nuts, seeds and seed oil – especially flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, and walnuts – and vegetable oil.
The problem is that our bodies can only convert small amounts of ALA into DHA. For this reason, vegetarians have been reported to have lower levels of EPA and DHA than omnivores (click, click, click).
There are nonetheless some fortified foods containing DHA as well as algae-based DHA supplements.
At the moment, it’s unclear whether a reduced consumption has adverse effects on health. In the UK, there isn’t even a specific recommendation for omega-3s, although guidelines recommend at least one portion of oily fish per week.
If you are pregnant, it could be especially important to ensure an adequate intake of all three omega-3 fatty acids and DHA in particular for the development of the baby’s brain and eyes.
The most important function of iron is to facilitate the delivery of oxygen from the lungs to the tissues, and the storage and release of oxygen in the muscle cells.
Iron is also a component of enzymes involved in other essential tasks, for example energy metabolism and immune function, but the highest concentration is found in the blood.
For that reason, a common cause of iron deficiency is blood loss. That’s why women with heavy menstruations are at increased risk.
The recommended amount of iron differs depending on biological sex:
There are two types of iron, called haem iron (in animal sources) and non-haem iron (in plant sources).
Haem iron is easier to absorb, so, if you are vegetarian, you may need a higher intake than if you were on an omnivorous diet.
Some good vegetarian sources of iron include:
You can also look at nutritional labels and select products that are “enriched” or “fortified” with iron.
Fortifying or enriching foods means to add nutrients to them that might or might not have been present in the original product. For example, white flour is fortified by law, because some nutrients are lost as the flour undergoes processing.
To maximise your ability to absorb iron, you can eat a source of vitamin C with it. An example would be a drizzle of lemon juice on a kale salad or an orange with a handful of nuts.
On the other hand, tea contains tannins, a compound that, unlike vitamin C, inhibits iron absorption and particularly that of non-haem iron. While you may want to avoid tea at meal times for this reason, you can still have some between meals!
Phytate, contained in soy protein and fibre, and calcium, contained in dairy foods, impact iron absorption negatively, too.
Fortunately, consuming iron with vitamin C appears to counteract these negative effects.
Calcium is a mineral that plays a vital role in bone health.
An average healthy adult should consume at least 700mg of calcium every day.
Fortunately, dairy foods are a fantastic source. If you eat them regularly, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about!
On the other hand, if you exclude dairy foods from your diet for any reason, or if you don’t eat a lot of them, you can get calcium from these other sources:
We need about 10mcg (micrograms) of vitamin D a day in order to absorb calcium and maintain bone health.
Our skin can produce vitamin D through regular sun exposure, but don’t cheat. It doesn’t work if you get sunlight through a glass window.
We also get vitamin D from food. Fatty fish and fish oil are very rich sources, but vegetarians can get some amounts from egg yolks and fortified foods, like fat spreads and some cereals.
These days, we spend so much more time indoors or covered up in bundles of clothes that we all struggle to get our daily dose of vitamin D, regardless of diet.
In particular, you may be at a higher risk of insufficient intake or deficiency if you:
You can get your vitamin D levels tested by your doctor. Since they can lower in winter and raise in the summer, you may want to check up on them around every six months.
Zinc is essential for cell repair and growth as well as protein metabolism and immune function.
Basically, it’s your best friend if you want to get maximum benefits from your training. However, zinc can be lost through urine and sweat, so athletes who sweat a lot may require higher intakes.
Moreover, since zinc is so important for cell growth and the immune system, older and younger vegetarians, at the extremes of the stages of human development, may need to be especially careful about getting the right amount than an average healthy adult.
The recommended daily intake of zinc is 7mg a day for female-bodied individuals and 9.5mg for male-bodied individuals between the ages of 19 and 64.
Fortunately, wholegrain cereals and legumes contain the highest amount of zinc alongside meat. Other valuable sources are:
Legumes and grains also contain phytate, as previously mentioned, and this can impair zinc absorption. As a result, it’s been estimated that vegetarians and vegans may need as much as 50% more zinc than omnivores.
It’s therefore all the more important to eat plenty of vegetarian-friendly animal products, like eggs and dairy, to boost your intake.
On the other hand, the body seems to adapt to a lower-zinc diet by increasing the amount of zinc it can absorb. This adaptation, however, takes place over a few months.
And even if the imbalance may fix itself over time, don’t underestimate the importance of zinc-rich foods in your diet.
Are you really at risk of a deficiency in vitamin B12 if you don’t eat meat?
The short answer is yes.
Vitamin B12 is fundamental for normal growth and development, so consuming enough during childhood and adolescence is critical. An average adult should aim for about 1.5mcg a day.
Other functions of this vitamin include, but are not limited to the production of red blood cells and the correct functioning and protection of nerve cells. Vitamin B12 is a goodness powerhouse!
Unfortunately, in a vegetarian diet the sources can be quite limited:
Even when including all these foods in the diet, both vegetarians and vegans are reported to have a lower intake of vitamin B12 than omnivores.
Nevertheless, if you aren’t vegan, then you could still reach the recommended target intake. If you have any concerns, it’s best to seek out advice from your doctor.
Can a vegetarian diet be sustainable then?
In the literature, a number of studies have demonstrated that a vegetarian diet can be just as sustainable as an omnivorous diet (click).
Moreover, this lifestyle appears to decrease the risk of developing life-threatening diseases and health conditions (click, click).
There’s one caveat, though: it has to be planned.
Any inefficiently designed diet can have a negative impact on your health. However, the more restrictive your way of eating, the fewer options you have to make up for poor nutritional choices.
On the other hand, a great aspect of vegetarianism is that it can increase awareness about healthy eating.
For example, taking an interest in a plant-based diet may be someone’s first interaction with nutritional education.
For others, who are already more informed, evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of this diet can result in further research into other ways to improve their eating habits, such as consuming vegetables and fruit of various colours to get a range of different vitamins.
For that reason, someone who becomes vegetarian or at least explores this possibility may gain a better understanding of how to reach and maintain good health and a healthy weight for them.
How do I get started?
If you have been eating meat and fish your entire life, cutting them out of your diet at once may seem a bit daunting.
Instead, try to reduce your meat and fish consumption over the course of a few weeks.
Start by having less red meat, then move onto poultry, and finally fish.
At the same time, work on increasing the amount of dairy, soy, eggs, and legumes you consume on a regular basis.
This gradual approach will be less stressful and will also give you plenty of time to figure out whether vegetarianism is the lifestyle for you.
Moreover, reducing and eliminating one type of meat or fish at a time can help you monitor your reactions and see if abstaining from certain foods makes you feel better or worse. For example, you may find that you would rather eat fish, but you’re perfectly happy without beef and chicken.
As a side note, special populations require special care. You may want to get professional advice on vegetarianism if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, are a child, an adolescent, or an elderly person, or if you compete in sports.
Ultimately, the way you eat should make you feel good on a physical and psychological level. For this reason, there’s no one-size-fits-all: you need to find what “feeling good” means to you.
In Future Episodes:
I spent one week trying out the vegetarian diet myself to see if it could be sustainable, convenient, and enjoyable for me and my individual fitness goals. Tune in next week to find out how it went!
Are you vegetarian or considering it? Leave a comment!
A personal trainer who likes superheroes, bread, lifting weights, and studying “fitness stuff”.
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