According to recent statistics, the number of vegans in the UK has more than tripled in the last decade, and is only set to increase, alongside the number of vegetarians. Yet while adopting a plant-based diet has been proven to improve blood sugar and cholesterol, as well as prevent chronic illnesses and even reduce the risk of certain cancers, studies also suggest eschewing meat in favour of plant-based foods could be causing more harm than good.
We sat down with nutritionist Lily Soutter to find out the mistakes many vegetarians and vegans make and the deficiencies they may be exposing themselves to. Here’s what she had to say…
Not Getting Enough Good-Quality Protein
British adults should aim for 0.75g of protein for each kg they weigh – this equates to around 45g per day for the average female. That said, those leading a more active lifestyle may need to consume up to 1g per kg of body weight or even as much as 1.5g for the very active. The main problem plant-based eaters have is that no single vegetable contains all the essential amino acids one needs in their diet, unlike meat. And while vegans can definitely meet the daily recommendations for protein, it pays to be aware that not all protein sources are created equal. Therefore, you need to make sure you’re eating several different protein sources at each meal to cover your bases – think hummus and a wholemeal pitta bread, rice and beans, tofu and brown rice or almond butter on grainy bread.
Don’t be afraid of protein powders, either – they’re a great way to bump up your protein intake on busy days. And remember consuming your daily protein requirement is essential to the maintenance of muscle mass as well as healthy skin, hair and nails.
Too Many White Refined Carbs
Those on plant-based diets tend to have a greater proportion of their calories coming from carbohydrates. If most of this is made up of white refined carbohydrates, a huge amount of fibre is excluded from the diet and blood sugar imbalances may occur. Whilst we should aim for 30g fibre per day, many within the UK are only consuming 15-18g. Instead opt for fibre rich wholegrains such as brown bread, pasta, rice and oats as well as protein rich quinoa, beans and pulses. Regular consumption of these complex carbohydrates come with additional fibre and protein which can help to balance blood sugar and keep hunger at bay.
Vegans can be deficient in omega-3, which is essential for both brain and heart health – you’d need to eat a lot of flaxseeds and chia seeds to get the same amount of omega-3s found in a salmon fillet, for example. Omega-3s also play a positive role in preventing depression and anxiety as well as inflammatory conditions. If you follow a plant-based diet and have noticed your skin is particularly dry, your nails are soft and peeling and your hair is brittle and lifeless, it could be worth boosting your omega-3 intake in the form of a supplement.
Several studies have shown vegetarians and vegans are prone to deficiencies in vitamins B12 and D as well as calcium and iron. In fact, some 92% of vegans are deficient in vitamin B12, which is crucial for healthy blood formation and brain function. If you’re unusually tired, feeling forgetful or finding yourself with a lack of coordination, it could be worth taking a B12 supplement. At the same time, non-meat eaters are at an increased risk of an iron deficiency, which puts them at a greater risk of developing anaemia. Iron can be found in plant-based foods (think legumes, quinoa, tofu, tempeh, pumpkin seeds and dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale), but it’s not as easily absorbed as the form of iron found in meat. If you’re vegan or vegetarian you should also make an effort to add foods rich in vitamin C to your diet.
Compensating With Dairy
Ever noticed how the vegetarian option on a menu in a restaurant is almost always some form of goat’s cheese dish or feta option? While it’s a great source of calcium, be wary of overcompensating with dairy, which can be high in saturated fat. On the flip side, when choosing dairy-free milks, ensure they are fortified with calcium for optimal bone health – many plant-based milks are very low in nutrients, so keep an eye out for blends that have been boosted with added vitamins.
Not Enough Veggies
It may seem counterintuitive, but not all vegetarians and vegans are eating enough vegetables. You should be aiming for around five servings of fruit and vegetables on a daily basis to ensure you’re getting adequate levels of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Try adding a daily smoothie into your diet – this is a great and easy way to pack in more veggies – but keep it balanced with just one serving of fruit to even out sugar levels. Similarly, homemade soups are a great way to pack in veggies in one sitting.