In a world of constant messaging, news updates and Tweets, there is nothing but pressure to eat this and restrict that. Although certain dietary patterns may seem healthier than others, restricting foods or particular nutrients for whatever reason can be dangerous. So whether you are, going to be, or know a vegan and/or vegetarian – knowing what the key nutrients are in the foods being restricted or avoided can help prevent nutritional deficiencies and disease in the long run.
After all, we are what we eat.
Swap it, don’t stop it.
It is really important not to completely disregard certain types of food because, at the end of the day, all foods have a variety of nutrients that are important for many processes in the human body. Instead of restricting, having an understanding about what can replace each food that is no longer consumed will help to ensure every meal is as nourishing as it was before (assuming that the meals eaten before the change were exactly that).
So that said, swap it, don’t stop it!
Going, going, gone V.E.G.E.T.A.R.I.A.N?
Vegetables are a great source of nutrients and typically the more veggies the better. However, it may be a surprise to some people that vegetables are not as high in some nutrients as animal products. For example, a diet high and solely based on vegetables will notably low in iron, B12, protein, vitamin A (excluding beta-carotene) D, E and K. So, knowing the importance of key nutrients and where they may be missing in a vegetarian diet is important to ensure the body can function at its optimum (and complete daily tasks like blood clotting, maintaining excellent vision and being able to continually oxygenate the brain and other organs).
Even when it looks as though the nutrients found in plants are the same as those found in animals, typically this is not the case. The structure of these molecules can differ, affecting absorption and overall metabolism.
Let’s take iron for an example. The molecule iron can be found in two forms (heme and non-heme). Non-heme iron is found in both in both leafy greens and animal tissue but only meats are a good source of heme iron. Although both forms have ‘heme’ in their name, they are not exactly the same. Each is absorbed and metabolised in the body in a completely different way and interestingly, 90% of the iron is our bodies needs to be replaced daily due to the high prevalence of red blood cells breaking down.
Heme iron is absorbed more readily than non-heme iron, one of the biggest reasons for this difference is due to the presence of phytates in plants. These molecules bind to non-heme iron and prevent and slow absorption so this means non-heme irons has a lower bioavailability than heme iron. To account for this difference, a much larger proportion of green leafies is required to achieve an equivalent amount found in meat – I am talking handfuls upon handfuls compared to a meaty dish*. Although this is achievable, women actually need a massive 18mg of iron, up from a mere 8mg required for males (plus the recommended dietary intake (RDI) for vegetarians is 1.8x greater than omnivores). In order to reach the RDI for iron, incorporating other sources of iron such as beans and legumes and having a variety of foods at each meal will help achieve this iron goal.
To help the body absorb as much non-heme iron as possible:
- Eat iron sources with food sources that contain vitamin c (strawberries and citrus fruit varieties)
To be a REALLY well-informed vegetarian:
- Avoid caffeinated teas and drinks around meal times as these foods can further interfere with iron absorption.
To make things a little easier check out the brief meal plan below, showcasing iron (Fe, total = 34.46mg but only around 10-12% is absorbed by the body so extra is needed in addition to this!)
Breakfast: 100g of oats, (3.6mg Fe) topped with sunflower seeds (4.6mg Fe per 100g) and pepitas (10mg Fe per 100g).
Lunch: salad wrap with cashew cream, avocado, pan-fried halloumi and 100g tofu (2.96mg Fe).
Dinner: vegetable lasagna made with 1 cup of green lentils (7.5mg Fe per 100g), 1 cup of kidney beans (2.1mg Fe per 100g) and packed with sweet potato (source of beta-carotene), zucchini, 1 cup of spinach (1.2mg Fe per 100g), and pumpkin sprinkled with feta, fresh herbs and orange pieces (to help absorb the iron).
Snacks: 2 small handfuls of mixed nuts (2.5mg Fe per 100g), 1 banana
If this sounds complicated? Consider that this is only one nutrient required by the body to function at its optimum.
No cheese, dairy or honey either?
If veganism is more your style, there is even more to consider as restricting food to solely plants and no cheese, eggs or yoghurt reduces the bodies access to not only iron but also zinc, protein, and B12. Although plants such as beans and legumes are a source of protein, consumption of essential amino acids (e.g.histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine) is important as the body cannot make these. The reason proteins are so important is the body needs these to restore, build muscle mass and continually make enzymes (molecules that are required in pretty much all metabolic actions in the body!)
Here is a list of food sources that are excellent sources of protein*:
- Soy and soy products such as tofu (12g/100g) and tempeh
- quinoa, bulgar, brown rice (7.2g/100g), oatmeal (11g/100g)
- beans, peas and lentils (24.2g/100g)
- nuts and seeds such as peanuts (22.2g/100g) and sunflower seeds (26.8g/100g)
- falafels (8.9g/100g) and textured vegetable protein
Note the recommended dietary intake for women and men aged 19-30 is 46g/day, 64g/day respectively.
B12 is nutrient that is only found in food that are sourced from animal origins therefore when a person’s B12 stores are depleted the only way to counter-act this is to venture over to the other side or obtain regular B12 injections from a general practitioner. To prevent this, some products on the market such as ‘so good milk’, ‘Sanitarium veggie delight products’ and marmite are fortified with B12, however, the origins of whether this B12 is synthetic or obtained from animal sources is unknown.
There is more…
Vegan and vegetarians are not the only eating patterns that are at risk of nutritional deficiencies, people diagnosed with coeliac disease can also suffer. Although giving up gluten is much easier to do these days with an abundance of gluten-free products on the industry, gluten free diets must be extremely restrictive in order to give the gut lining a chance to recover. Even on a strict gluten free diet, a tiny fragment of gluten can trigger an immune response, and recovery of the gut function may not return to normal for up to two years. Considering this is an entire article in itself, I think its best to leave it there. Read more here and watch this space for an article solely on coeliac disease soon.
Don’t stress, just get informed!
Whatever changes you make today or consider making in the future, understanding that all foods (animal origin or not) have a role in nutrition and optimal body function. However, there is nothing wrong with choosing a certain way to eat, as long as it covers all bases and keeps you happy and healthy for years to come.
For extra guidance, or if you are considering changing your dietary patterns, seek out an Accredited Practicing Dietitian that can help address any concerns and design individualised meal plans and patterns for you and your family.
*(3.5mg/100g of non-heme iron is found in plants and 2.8mg/100g of non-heme and heme iron in animal tissues. It may seem that plants have more iron but with only 5-12% being absorbed by the body (vegetarian diet), compared to approximately 20% (mixed diet), those on a veg diet require almost double).
*protein per 100g is based on the raw product as per NUTTAB