Plant based diet
In the past 5 years there has been a significant increase in the number of people adopting a vegan diet, with the number continuing to rise yearly. According to the Vegan Society, since 2014, the number of vegans in the UK has quadrupled and it is estimated that a third of all Americans have reduced or stopped consuming meat.
You may have heard the term ‘plant-based’ diet, which doesn’t necessarily mean going completely vegan but instead reducing your overall consumption of meat and dairy. This could mean a vegetarian diet, eating meat only once a week or a ‘flexitarian’ diet which combines all. There can be a number of reasons someone would choose to go plant-based, including for health reasons, environmental factors and animal welfare. But is it really that healthy?
Are the health claims true?
You may or may not have seen the recent documentaries popping up on well known streaming services, and you may have some questions about the hype around vegan diets. There are a number of scientific studies which have found introducing a plant based or vegan diet can have a positive effect on both a reduction of your weight and your heart health. This is often due to a calorie deficit, a wider variety of foods eaten and a consumption of less saturated fat. However, there does need to be more robust and validated studies to all claims made regarding going vegan.
What about protein?
The common question when someone says they are vegan or plant-based diet – ‘what about your protein?’
Protein is used in the body as the building blocks for growing and repairing our cells, our muscles, bones and hair. Essential amino acids are those which cannot be synthesised in the body and therefore must come from the foods we eat. These are mostly found in meat, fish and eggs however there are plant-based sources which contain all nine such as tofu, edamame beans, quinoa and soy milk. Also a variety of vegetables, nuts and seeds contain some of these essential amino acids but not all, therefore the wider the variety, the more of these essential amino acids will be ingested. It is definitely possible to get all your protein from plant sources alone.
A plant-based food diet can contain all nutrients, vitamins and minerals if well balanced. This includes the fortification of common foods such as calcium enriched plant milk and fortified cereals.
Vitamin B12 – studies have found those with a vegetarian and vegan diet are more likely to have a lower vitamin B12 as it is found in fish, poultry, eggs and milk products. There are no unfortified plant foods which contains any significant amount of useful vitamin B12 so vegans should look for fortified products such as certain breakfast cereals, B12 fortified nutritional yeast or fortified soy beverages. Vegans could also consider taking a supplement to avoid deficiency.
Calcium – Found in dairy products, calcium is used to maintain strong bones, hair and teeth, as well as brain function. To ensure adequate consumption, those following a plant-based diet should eat plenty of green leafy vegetables, tofu and tahini. Other sources include calcium-fortified soy and rice ‘milks’ and calcium fortified orange and apple juices.
Iron – Iron found in animal sources is more easily absorbed then that from plant sources, however studies have found that iron deficiency anaemia is similar for vegans to that of meat eaters and vegetarians. Vegetarian sources of iron include dark green leafy vegetables, legumes such as chickpeas, black beans and lentils, nuts and seeds.
A well balanced plant-based diet can lead to a healthier lifestyle due to the likely increase in fruits and vegetables, but further studies into the relationship between vegan diets and diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer are needed. However, even if you do not feel going fully vegan is achievable, including more plant-based meals and reducing your meat consumption, can also help reduce carbon emissions produced by the farming and food industry. According to a new study, a plant-based diet can reduce a person’s carbon footprint by up to 73%, something that will benefit everyone in the future.