Here’s our top tips to optimise your vegan or vegetarian diet.
Following the media success of Veganuary in January 2019 and huge numbers following Game Changers on Netflix more people are becoming interested in nutrition and considering trying some vegetarian/vegan meals each week or converting to vegetarianism/veganism. Here’s some reasons people have said they’re changing their dietary habits;
- Health – Game Changers is showing people that physical performance is not limited on a vegan diet, and performance could in fact be increased following a vegan diet
- Environmental – replacing meat with vegetarian sources can reduce carbon and greenhouse gases
- Compassion for animals
Whatever your dietary habit, it’s a personal choice, and should be an educated one.
Even if you’re not a vegan or vegetarian, including some vegetarian/vegan meals per week can be good for your health, helping to increase the amount of vegetables and fibre in your diet. If you’d like to include more vegetarian/vegan meals it’s important to make sure you still cover all the basic nutrition that your body needs to keep healthy. At a basic level making make sure you still eat a balanced diet which is made up of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Including these three macronutrients daily can improve health. Here’s a what the NHS suggest adults should consume per day:
- Energy: 2000/2500 calories (female/male)
- Total fat: <70g
- Saturated fat: <20g
- Carbohydrate: >260g
- Total sugars: 90g
- Protein: 50g
- Salt: <6g
This is just a guide – no two of us are the same so the list is not prescriptive for all. If you’re exercising regularly you may need to eat more protein and carbohydrates than stated.
Why macronutrition is important;
Carbohydrates are a quick and easy source of fuel and make up a large proportion of vegetarian/vegan diets, so generally vegetarians don’t struggle to include this group of food.
Proteins are important for muscle function and immunity. It can be a little more challenging to include enough protein in vegetarian/vegan diets. Complete protein comes from animals (meat, fish, dairy eggs), so dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt) and eggs where possible should be included in vegetarian diets. If you are vegan and dairy and eggs are off the menu getting enough protein is a little more challenging, but certainly not impossible! Non-animal complete protein sources are suggested to include; soya, quinoa, meat alternatives tofu, mycoprotein e.g. Quorn, textured vegetable protein, and tempeh. Protein is made up of 22 amino acids – 8 of which are called essential because our bodies cannot make them. All 8 are found in animal products, but for vegetarians/vegans two of the essential amino acids are harder to find in food (lysine and methionine). Wheat and rice are low in lysine, and beans and peas are low in methionine so adding cereals and legumes together to make complementary proteins is beneficial e.g. humous and bread or beans and rice.[i]
Fats are crucial for cell functioning. Some fats are better than others. Saturated fats (found in butter, cheese, sausages, bacon etc) should be limited to 24g per day (women), and 31g per day (men). Monosaturated fats (olive oil, avocado, flaxseed etc) should be limited to 29g per day (women), and 36g per day (men). Where possible try to increase omega-3 fats and reducing saturated and omega-6 fats. Switching sunflower oil to rapeseed oil is a good tip. A vegetarian/vegan source of omega-3 is algal oil (which comes from algae) instead of fish oil.[ii]
Watch out for:
Omega-3 – Marketing is very powerful. Many non-animal products are labelled “high in omega-3” e.g. flaxseeds (according to manufacturers) are a good source of omega-3 (EPA & DHA). However, due to genetics approx. 30% of the population are unable to convert ALA (found in flaxseeds) to the much needed and beneficial EPA & DHA (these are powerful anti-inflammatories and all round good for health). If you’re not vegetarian/vegan the best source of EPA & DHA is fish/fish oil, but for vegetarians/vegans adding flaxseeds into your daily diet is insufficient. Interestingly the conversion to EPA & DHA is also gender specific with only approx. 1% converting into DHA in men! So, if you’re looking to benefit from EPA & DHA it’s best adding them to your diet through vegetarian/vegan source EPA/DHA from a supplement (algal oil from algae or similar). It’s also worth reducing the amount of dietary omega-6 as it competes with omega-3 conversion enzymes reducing the chances even further of reaching EPA/DHA.
Iron is needed to make red blood cells which transport oxygen, but it’s harder to absorb iron from plant sources. Adding a source of vitamin C to the same meal (red pepper, green leafy vegetables, citrus fruit) and avoiding tea, coffee, and grains in the same meal these reduce the absorption of iron. If taking an iron supplement perhaps the best time to take it is with a source of vitamin C and away from other foods e.g. at bedtime. Some of the best vegetarian iron sources include;
- Dried fruit
- Dark green leafy vegetables (broccoli, spinach, spring greens)
- Wholemeal bread
- Cereals fortified with iron
B12 is only found in animal products and is essential for a healthy nervous system and red blood cell formation. When dietary sources are low you’ll feel tired and low energy. B12 can be taken as a supplement (1.5mcg per day) which is essential if you are vegan, but if vegetarian B12 can be found in;
- Fortified foods e.g. marmite, breakfast cereals, soya products
- Fermented products (tempeh, miso, spirulina) contain similar substances to B12 but don’t work in the body in the same way so not as reliable a source of B12
Iodine- is important for thyroid function and without iodine people gain weight more easily. Iodine is found in dairy – so milk, cheese, yogurt are all good sources for vegetarians. In a vegan diet need to include sufficient cereals and grains with the suggested amount of iodine 0.14mg day. Iodine can be taken as a supplement but it is not recommended unless advised by a health care professional as in excess iodine will alter the fine metabolism balance.
The UK Government suggest a vegetarian/vegan diet should include;
- 5+ portions of fruit / vegetables per day. 1 portion is the size of a clenched fist, and preferably no more than 2 fruit per day
- Meals should include whole grains and dairy / dairy alternatives (soya, oat milks which are fortified). Protein sources should be varied including; lentils, beans, peas, eggs, Quorn, soya products or textured vegetable protein. Good fats should also be included and are found in olive, rapeseed, sunflower and corn oil.
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