Busting the nutribabble about vegetarian diets

By Fran Taylor, the Brighton Nutritionist

Fran Taylor the Brighton NutritionistYou may have given Veganuary a go, adopted meat-free Mondays as standard, or tried a vegetarian alternative in the supermarket. There’s a greater choice of vegetarian and vegan food than ever before and plant-based diets and meals have been identified as one of the most popular diet trends of 2018.

Yet myths persist regarding how nutritionally adequate they are. Let’s look at some common concerns, consider the evidence and bust some nutribabble.

Vegetarians struggle to get enough protein

If you eat a variety of protein-rich plant foods you will be consuming enough protein. All plants contain some protein, including grains like oats and wheat. The best sources however are beans, pulses, nuts, seeds and soy products. You should eat some of these every day – and also vary your sources so you get a range of different amino acids, the building blocks of protein. For example, if you always cook with one type of bean, next time you could try a different variety.

For strong bones, you need dairy

Dairy is high in calcium, one of the nutrients needed for bone health. Vitamin D and protein are also essential. Each of these nutrients can be found in plant foods such as kale, broccoli, soy beans, almonds, calcium-set tofu and fortified plant milk.

Certain vegetables like spinach and rhubarb are good sources of calcium but also are high in oxalates, a compound which actually decreases calcium absorption. There’s no need to exclude these though. Just make sure you eat a wide variety of other leafy green vegetables more often.

Vegetarians tire quickly as they don’t get enough iron

Vegetarians and vegans do need to eat more iron than non-vegetarians as iron from plant sources is harder for the body to absorb than iron from animal sources. There are chemicals called phytates and oxalates found in plants that inhibit its absorption.

But there are several things you can do to help. Cooking foods like spinach removes some of these chemicals and makes the iron more available. Eating iron-rich foods with foods rich in vitamin C also helps with absorption (try spinach with red pepper). This also works with iron-fortified foods like cereals. So having some berries with your breakfast increases your iron uptake (and is delicious).

Soy messes with your hormones

It’s a common misconception that soy increases the risk of breast cancer, can cause breasts to develop in men and causes a drop in testosterone levels. This is due to the naturally-occurring plant compounds in soy products like tofu, soy beans and soya milk called phytoestrogens (plant oestrogen) that look similar to, and can behave like, human oestrogen.

However, phytoestrogens are known to exert a much weaker effect in the body and the evidence shows that populations which have higher intakes of soy in the diet have lower risk of breast and prostate cancer. As well as this, there is no evidence that eating soy develops man boobs!

Vegetarian diets aren’t suitable for everybody

Vegetarian and vegan diets are suitable for all stages of life, from infancy, through childhood and on to adulthood. But they need to be well planned and take into account specific nutrient needs. In particular:

  • Children, like adults, may need to eat slightly more protein if they aren’t having any dairy, eggs or fish as a result of how the body digests plant protein. Calcium is also a key nutrient and can be met by foods like fortified soy milk and green leafy veg. The ‘Young veggie’ section of the Vegetarian Society website and the veggie ‘Eat well’ page on the NHS Choices site both provide good guides.
  • Pregnant women should plan to include lots of iron-rich foods and combine them with good sources of Vitamin C – beans and ratatouille, fortified cereal with a small glass of orange juice, and spinach with berries in a smoothie are some options.
  • Athletes’ overall energy and protein needs are higher than the general population’s. Getting enough energy and nutrients to properly fuel training and to aid recovery and repairs means that a well-planned diet is key, especially if dairy and eggs aren’t eaten.

You can learn more about good health and delicious vegetarian diets on one of the regular Vegetarian Feasts cookery courses at the Community Kitchen.

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