Vegan and Vegetarianism- Friend or Fad?
Updated: Jan 4, 2018
I will be the first to admit that I was sceptical of the sudden rise in popularity of the Vegan and Vegetarian diets that has occurred in the past year or so. This is not to say there aren’t a lot of Vegans and Vegetarians over the years that have successfully adopted the lifestyle, for ethical and/ or health reasons, but I couldn’t help thinking that many of the new proponents were experiencing a bit of the bandwagon effect.
That said, I am lucky enough to have been able to learn more about this area in the past year, and have come around to see just how beneficial they can be for certain people, as long as they plan their attack wisely . You can certainly live a happy and healthy life on these diets, PROVIDED you receive the right guidance and education. It is very easy, particularly at the moment whilst it is such a hot topic, to follow guidance from social media posts, but, like any change in lifestyle, you need to understand it and be aware of pitfalls, alongside the benefits, before you jump in.
Although I am a meat-eater, the majority of my week-day lunches are based on a vegan recipe, that I have modified and added chicken to. As long as they know their stuff, vegans can be incredibly proficient and resourceful in sourcing a healthful and varied diet.
WINTER BERRY BROWNIES- My own recipe – blog post will be up shortly
Meat free diets are associated with a decrease in incidence of type 2 diabetes, Cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, cancer, as well as lower Cholesterol levels (1); the biggest advantage of these types of diets, when done properly, is how nutrient dense they are. A large chunk of the diet will be coming from fruits, vegetables and beans, algaes (e.g. Spirulina and Chlorella), nuts and seeds and soy products - which cover a spectrum of different vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals, probiotics and various other antioxidants (2,3). I’ll likely write about these in a lot more detail in a later blog.
Whilst the diets have been shown to have a positive link with fat loss, and there are studies showing an association with a decrease in incidence of obesity (3) caution must be exercised for those interested in fat loss. If not done properly many fall into a reliance on a lot of carbs, which are very easy to overconsume, whilst deficiencies such as B12 and iron cause tiredness, known to negatively impact willpower as well as being easily mistaken for hunger.
With regards to performance, any issues a vegan/vegetarian diet may have will be down to deficiencies of a poorly thought out diet and would chiefly show up as fatigue and poor recovery. Some may also struggle to consume sufficient calories due to the high fibre content of such a diet (4) and protein as noted below. It is worth noting that any major dietary changes, such as moving to a vegan/vegetarian diet, should be done during periods where training schedule is less intense or a little lower in your priority list , as it often takes a while for the body to adjust.
It makes sense to now touch on the specific deficiencies of vitamins, minerals and other compounds essential for health - as well as performance - that commonly occur in this group, and I will go through a few below, but please note this isn’t a completely exhaustive list (I need to keep reminding myself blogs shouldn’t be essays!). If you want to know more about potential issues that could arise I can expand on these- just drop me a message.
Meat has the full profile of essential amino acids (the ‘building blocks’ of protein required by the body, from the diet) in the amounts required, however there are only a few vegan sources of protein –seitan, buckwheat, hemp, soya and quinoa - that have all of these in the amounts required . Of note to those that weight train, one of the ones that is lacking is Leucine, which is key for muscle building and recovery. Essential amino acids methionine, lysine and tryptophan are also often absent. Because of this, most vegan protein sources need to be combined in order to ensure we are getting the full array of the essential proteins we need. Although I strongly advise not getting the majority of your protein from supplements, most vegan blends of rice and pea protein powders are designed with this issue in mind and do fulfil the criteria ,I currently use Awesome Supplements Vegan Protein . Branched Chain Amino acids are also a consideration for those struggling with Leucine intake but, as is in the name, these should be supplemented alongside a wholesome , healthy diet.
IRON -This is needed by both women and men, although women that are of child bearing age need double that of men and postmenopausal women, so is generally seen as more of an issue in the former category. An important note here is that 50% of teenage girls do not get enough Iron, and with the rise in trend of Vegan and Vegetarian diets through social media, it is certainly something worth being aware of. Although certain non-meat iron sources are often described as being high/good source Iron- it is in a different ‘version’ to meat sources and is not taken up as well by the body (5). A work around is to ensure that you are still eating these non-meat sources (including beans and lentils, sesame seeds, green and leafy veg, dried fruit such as apricots and prunes) but food combination is key here as vitamin C improves its absorption - this can be found in green leafy veg e.g. Kale and broccoli (even a small portion of these can increase iron absorption by 65%), berries and kiwis.
CALCIUM -Although it is entirely possible for a vegetarian to get sufficient amounts, as the majority of calcium sources are dairy based ( cheese and milk) a vegan may struggle – vegans therefore need to be focusing on sources such as fortified soy and nut milks, nuts especially almonds, and dried fruits such as apricots and figs
B12- Is probably the most talked about deficiency as not only is it vital for so many processes in the body, it only occurs naturally in animal products (so vegetarians eating eggs and dairy should be ok (6)) . It does not occur naturally in plant sources but not in a form that can be used by the body. It does exist in a couple of algaes, Chorella (7) and Nori . Certain foods are fortified with it, such as yeast extracts (e.g. marmite) and certain breakfast cereals and soy products, although in most cases, for a vegan, a B12 supplement will be required.
A lot of people are put off vegan and vegetarian diets through fear that they are expensive (particularly the protein sources) - indeed certain supermarkets have taken advantage of the trend producing expensive ‘health foods’. However, the margins aren’t as huge as you would think - a serving of Tofu works out at approximately £1.59 in comparison with a chicken breast which equates to between roughly £1.00 and £1.30 (although that said, 3 eggs are about 45p)! Beans are a cheap and nutritious protein staples for vegans and vegetarians, but do keep in mind that these foods do need to be combined with others in order to get the full profile of amino acids needed.
Many argue that a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle can hinder your performance, both mentally and physically- however, turn to the list of athletes that adopt this lifestyle and you will find F1 racing driver Lewis Hamilton, tennis player Venus Williams, footballer Jermain Defoe, boxer David Haye, Ultra Marathon Runner Scott Jurek and even Olympic weightlifter Kendrick Farris and bodybuilder Barny Du Plessis. Some have done this for ethical reasons, but, far from affecting their performance some have credited this lifestyle for actually improving their performance. Indeed, there is some suggestion through scientific research that this might be the case for endurance athletes (8), although much more research is needed on the impact of vegan/vegetarian diets on sports performance
Vegan and vegetarian diets are fine and can be beneficial as long as they are planned properly and the person educates themselves properly. Even meat eaters should be looking at vegan recipes to improve the nutrient profile of their food. For guidance on this area please do not hesitate to get in contact!
A huge thank you to Farmacy UK for the imagery used in this blog.
1. Leitzmann C. (2005) Vegetarian Diets: What are the Advantages? Diet Diversification and Health Promotion. Basel, Karger: Forum Nutri, vol 57, pp 147-156.
2. Tamang et al. (2016). Functional Properties of Microorganisms in Fermented Foods. Front Microbiol, 7:578. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2016.00578.
3. Appleby PN, Key TJ. (2016) The Long-term health of vegetarians and vegans. Proc Nutr Soc 75(3):287-93. Doi:10.1017/s0029665115004334.
4. Rogerson D (2017) Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 14:36 doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9.
5. Menzie et al. (2007) Obesity –Related Hypoferremia is Not Explained by Differences in Reported Intake of Heme and Nonheme Iron or Intake of Dietary Factors that Can Affect Iron Absorption. J Am Diet Assoc, 108 (1) :145-8 doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2007.10.034,
6. O’Leary F, Samman S. (2010) Vitamin B12 in Health and Disease. Nutrients, 2(3): 299-316 doi 10.3390/nu2030299
7. Kittaka-Katsura et al (2002) Purification and Characterization of a Corrinoid Compound from Chlorella Tablets as an Algal Health Food. Hiroshima, Japan: J. Agric. Food Chem,50 (17) pp 4994-4997 doi 10.1021/jf020345w
8. Lynch et al (2016) Cardiorespiratory Fitness and Peak Torque Differences between Vegetarian and Omnivore Endurance Athletes: A Cross-Sectional Study. Nutrients, 8 (11): 726 doi: 10.3390/nu8110726
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