Plants or meat? The answer may surprise you.
Sunday, 13 October 2019
Vegan diets are growing in popularity. As a nutritionist, I want to show how to embrace the vegan diet in a nutritionally complete way.
The complete guide to a nutritionally balanced vegan diet
Vegan diets (a diet that excludes meat, eggs, dairy products and all other animal-derived ingredients including honey) are growing in popularity, with plant based menus, cafes and restaurants taking the highstreets by storm. Some of the main reasons given for these changes are that; veganism was a choice based on ethical or environmental reasons and for others it was for the various health claims that accompany it. Even though these promote positive justifications, for some people this drastic change in diet is simply because ‘my friends went vegan so I tried it too’. The vegan diet shouldn’t be taken lightly as it restricts access to foods that contain some pretty important nutrients and therefore with its growing prevalence, it’s an equally growing concern that the vegan diet could lead to malnourishment, which can have all sorts of health ramifications. As a nutritionist, I find it so frustrating when I look through vegan cookbooks and see a ‘cauliflower curry’ or ‘veggie noodles’ that contain little to no complete proteins and show little effort to replace the missing nutrients through other foods. Education of how to embrace the vegan diet in a nutritionally complete way needs to take a higher precedence… so i’ll make a start in this blog post and hopefully you can help spread the word to any vegans you know!
So let's dive in and take a closer look at the vegan diet…
Is cleaner better?
The first myth to bust here is the ‘we were never designed to eat meat’ claim… Looking way back to the diets of our predecessors, paleontologists have determined that a plant based diet provided too little calories to provide sufficient energy to promote the significant growth in brain and body size that accelerated our evolution. During this time, meat and fish provided ideal sources of fat which have a number of different roles in the body: fat helps to promote absorption of minerals to help bone growth, it helps regulate body temperature and hormone production, but most importantly, it provides a large source of energy. We don’t have canines for nothing you know! It is really important to highlight that meat back then was hunted and eaten fresh and differs considerably to the commercialised meat that we buy off the shelves today. Farming is commonly modified now to produce a high yield for a lower cost, which means the use of growth hormones and antibiotics that can remain in the meat when we eat it. Further to this, we now have the option of purchasing processed meats which have not only been correlated with increased risk of inflammatory diseases but also pushes us even further away from the fresh diet of our predecessors. Based on this, it’s no wonder that vegetarian and vegan diets have been linked with lower rates of coronary heart disease (CHD), cancer, obesity and diabetes.
Taken at face value, you could therefore assume that the vegan diet is the healthiest of them all… but this isn't necessarily the case.
‘Let’s not take this at face value... I am an academic after all, and it’s my prerogative to be critical of scientific claims’
Firstly, meat, eggs and dairy are typically higher in saturated fat and cholesterol than plant based foods. The vegan diet therefore minimizes the intake of foods that have been implicated in increasing the risk for chronic diseases and encourages the intake of fruit and vegetables which are rich in fiber, folic acid, antioxidants and phytochemicals, all of which are associated with protective health effects such as lowering blood cholesterol, blood pressure and therefore lowering the risk of CHD. Additionally, vegans typically consume higher amounts of whole grains, soy and nuts which also provide significant cardioprotective effects and protective actions against cancer. It has been evidenced that a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, wholegrains and nuts will contribute to better overall health, and this is independent of meat and fish consumption. Having said that, the NHS recommends that red and processed meat should be limited to 70g max a day, as these can encourage inflammation in the body if eaten in excess which correlates to an increased risk of developing chronic diseases.
Further to this, vegans typically consume fewer calories in the day because plant based foods are less calorie dense. Therefore they are usually slimmer, which protects against obesity that is correlated with an increased risk of diabetes and CVD.
The final argument is that the type of individual that chooses the vegan lifestyle is more often than not the type that already leads a healthier lifestyle with more physical activity and lower alcohol and tobacco consumption, all of which promote health and longevity.
Despite the health benefits that arise from veganism (whatever their cause), the negative effects should not be overlooked and the vegan diet is at high risk of leading to deficiencies of some nutrients, vitamins and minerals, that are highly concentrated in animal products and may be difficult to replace….
So the question is…. If you choose to go vegan, how do you make sure you get all the nutrients you need to stay healthy? Look out for my next post where I explain how to get all the missing nutrients in to your vegan diet.
This piece was written by Beth Cragg, Brookes University Masters Student in Sports Nutrition and Brookes Sport Ambassador. You can find Beth on Instagram
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