Considering going meat-free? It's easy to power up your plate with veggies, says Louise Pyne
Putting vegetables at the heart of every dish is the simplest shortcut to improving your diet, and a growing number of us are warming to the idea of cutting out meat and upping our vegetable intake. Our eating habits have dramatically changed over the past few years. With greater concern for the environment, our wellbeing, and our purse strings, 56 per cent of us believe that meat isn’t a necessary part of meals, and what was once seen as a restrictive eating regime, is now easy and accessible. Findings from Yougov’s Meat and Poultry report commissioned last year reveal that over a quarter of Brits have decided to reduce or limit their meat intake, and if you follow suit and join the 1.2 million plus vegetarians in the UK, it could give you a golden ticket to better health.
14-20 May marked the start of National Vegetarian Week, a week-long initiative aimed at celebrating wholesome veggie food through healthy recipes, tips and downloadable resources all designed to help us make the most of a plant-based diet (nationalvegetarianweek.org). And in spring when the days are longer and (hopefully) warmer, and we get the first taste of the season’s nutritious fare, a veggie diet is the perfect way to celebrate these delicious flavours.
Everything from gorgeously green antioxidant-packed asparagus to fibrous artichoke and vitamin-rich peas can cram in the goodness to boost your health. “More evidence is linking diets high in meat (especially red and processed meat), to poorer health. In fact, processed meat such as sausages and bacon has even been classified as carcinogenic (cancercausing). This is because people who eat a lot of these meats have a greater risk of developing bowel cancer.
That said, there are a few things you should consider before making any drastic changes to your diet,” explains NHS consultant surgeon for health and weight loss Sally Norton, (vavistalife.com). Here we explore what you could gain from going vegetarian, how to tackle the pitfalls, and the best strategies to maximise health points. Choosing a plant-based diet offer the perfect opportunity to add more vitamins and minerals into your meals. “People on vegetarian diets are more than likely to meet the government guidelines of eating 5-a-day. They also often have low levels of saturated fat and cholesterol thanks to the exclusion of animal protein,” according to diet and nutrition advisor Flick Lucas (ridgewaynutrition.co.uk). Low levels of saturated fat and cholesterol have been linked to a reduced risk of diseases such as diabetes type two, heart disease and certain forms of cancer. “Given the higher amount of fibre in their diet, vegetarians are going to be at lower risk of conditions such as gallstones and diverticulitis,” adds Flick. And if you’re looking to keep your weight in check, ditching meat in favour of veggies, which are far lower in fat and calories could well be the way forward.
On the flipside however, vegetarians do need to make an extra special effort to get their required level of certain nutrients. These include protein, minerals like iron and zinc, vitamin B12, which is only available from meat, and omega-3 fatty acids (mostly found in fish and seafood).
An adequate iron intake (the current RDA for women is 14.8mg), is crucial to keeping red blood cells healthy and slashes the risk of conditions such as irondeficiency anaemia. There are two forms of iron- heme iron which is manufactured from animal products and non-heme iron which can be found in plant foods like legumes and greens such as broccoli and spinach. Non-heme iron is harder for the body to absorb than heme iron, and vegetarians may require 1.8 times as much of this mineral, in comparison with meat eaters. Thankfully there’s an easy way to assimilate nonheme iron. You just need to consume plenty of vitamin C sources (think carrots, peppers and broccoli) so that non-heme iron can be taken in more readily. Zinc is another important mineral. It’s vital for cell renewal and good sources to help you reach the 7mg RDA include pumpkin seeds, bread and cereals.
Another factor to bear in mind is that the required daily vitamin B12 level of 1.5 mcg can be difficult to reach when excluding meat, but you should be able to ace the recommended quota by upping your intake of dairy products and fortified cereals. Since this vitamin keeps both the nervous system and red blood cells healthy, keeping your levels high is a must. Additionally, you’ll need to be super-savvy when it comes to protein.
“This macronutrient is important to keep our bodies healthy. We need 22 different kinds of amino acids in order to be fully functioning,” says Sally. “We can create 13 of these amino acids (nonessential amino acids), within our bodies, but the remaining 9 (essential amino acids), have to be sourced from foods – namely in the proteins that we eat. Many plants, such as nuts and seeds, legumes, grains and vegetables provide us with a source of protein, but lots of these plant-based proteins are incomplete.” This means that they lack one or more of the 9 amino acids we need.
But the good news is that eating a variety of sources such as eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds throughout the day and combining complementary foods will ensure that you achieve the right amounts of amino acids required. For example a burrito bowl made from rice with beans or almond butter on wholemeal toast will give you an ample dose of all essential amino acids. “One thing to remember is that protein acts as building blocks for our bodies, being a key part of skin, muscles, organs and glands. These all wear out with use, so we need a constant supply in order to help our bodies continue rebuilding parts of our bodies that need repairing,” explains Flick.
Before embarking on a vegetarian diet, getting your nutrient levels tested at your GP or via a registered nutritionist is a shrews move. This will identify any deficiencies, potential supplement requirements, and areas where your diet could do with improvement. To avoid running the risk of low nutrient levels, forward-planning and a creative approach is a vital element of a vegetarian diet. “There are so many exciting combinations you can try. Breakfast could be freshly squeezed orange juice with fortified cereal, lunch a tofu stir-fry with brown rice and dinner a cheese omelette with corn on the cob for dinner. For snacks try crudités with hummus and a piece of fruit with almonds,” says Flick. The options are endless!