Veganism and the plant based revolution (part II)

A week later than planned (as ever), here is the second part to my blog on plant based diets, this time looking at the final four FAQs that come my way as a Registered Dietitian. Some of it is a bit lengthy (and I promise future posts won’t always be), but it’s a huge topic and one that could probably have been split across about five blogs rather than two. I could easily have expanded on all of these answers, but it’s a start at least!

Q2. What about protein?

Protein remains all the rage, and people often worry that a plant based diet might waste away their sculpted muscles, leaving them a weak imitation of their former self. The media is to blame here –  it continues to purvey the myth that protein is endlessly desirable; that more is always better; and that it is a nutritional panacea, removing hunger and giving us all wonderful physiques. With meat and meat products being comfortably the biggest contributors to UK protein intakes (37%) and dairy the third biggest (14%), it’s easy to see how concerns about protein might arise if faced with the prospect of removing animal products from our diet…especially in the context of our misleading media.

But the reality isn’t as dramatic as that. Yes, protein is essential, for growth and repair among other things, but in general we massively overeat it in this country. We have a finite capacity to use the protein that we eat, and any leftover building blocks (amino acids) are split, with the nitrogen containing part converted to urea and flushed down the toilet, and the other half stored – not as muscle, but as fat.

And yes, protein requirements do vary somewhat with life stage and lifestyle, but the general reference nutrient intake (RNI) for protein in 19-50 year olds, for example, is 0.75g / kg body weight / day (roughly 56g per day for a ‘typical’ 75kg man). Bear in mind, then, that the average UK man eats 88g of protein / day, and it’s clear there’s plenty of room to play with.

I am not going to pretend that protein intakes come effortlessly with a plant based diet, but as ever, it just requires a little more thought into meal preparation, at least initially. The key is getting to know and love some good plant protein sources, and including one or two of them at every meal. Some of the classics (and among my favourites) are beans, pulses and grains (e.g. lentils, chickpeas, quinoa), as well as tofu, nuts and seeds. These are therefore all key features of the vegan diet, but even certain cereals and vegetables can be a surprising boost to protein intakes (e.g. rice, broccoli, spinach and kale). An added advantage of most of these plant-based protein sources is that unlike many of their animal equivalents, they are high in fibre and low in salt and saturated fat.

3. Any other nutrients I need to worry about?

Yes, without doubt. A vegan diet will usually be incredibly rich in many vitamins and minerals without even trying, but others will run the risk of deficiency.

Vitamin B12 is essential for our brain and nervous system, as well as red blood cell formation, but unfortunately is abundant in animal foods but scarce in plant foods (besides fortified products).

Calcium, crucial for bone and teeth health and nerve transmission, can be found in vegan foods such as almonds, dried fruit, kale and fortified dairy alternatives, but we all have high calcium requirements, and it’s undoubtedly harder to meet these targets once dairy is out of the equation.

Iron is vital for its oxygen carrying role in our red blood cells, but it’s another one of those nutrients that’s more concentrated (and better absorbed) from its animal sources than plants. That said, it is still available in a wide range of plant foods (e.g. lentils, nuts, seeds and fortified breakfast cereals), so it’s just a case of identifying and prioritising these.

The final nutrients that warrant a mention here are omega-3 fatty acids. Alpha linoleic acid (ALA) is considered ‘essential’ in the diet, because we can’t make it ourselves, although we are able to (albeit inefficiently) convert it to the very useful long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, known as EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA continue to be widely researched, and while we probably don’t yet know the full extent of their physiological roles, there is some consensus that they can reduce inflammation,  which is likely to play a part in their postulated roles in cardiovascular and mental health. Annoyingly, EPA and DHA are not found in many foods, and without oily fish in the diet (mackerel, salmon, sardines etc.), it can be difficult getting enough, which is why government guidance remains for us to eat one portion of oily fish per week. However, the fish don’t actually make their own omega-3s; rather they obtain them from the microalgae in their own diets. So, vegans have the option to cut out the middle man here and supplement their diets with microalgae. Additionally, vegans should be looking to ensure that their diets have plenty of ALA (which, if you remember, can be inefficiently converted to EPA and DHA), such as linseeds or chia seeds.

The bottom line here is that a vegan diet, although generally very nutrient dense, can also leave some gaping holes. These can be somewhat addressed by carefully considered dietary modifications, but I would also recommend a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement that helps fill the gaps. Of course it is better to obtain all nutrients from food rather than pills wherever possible, but I just feel this approach helps remove some of the worry. Unsurprisingly there are now vegan specialist supplements that focus on problem nutrients for a plant based diet. Unlike standard supplements, these would make sure, for example, that the vitamin D was not derived from sheep’s wool, or omega-3s from fish oils, but this level of strictness may or may not be necessary, depending on the individual.

4. What if you only eat good quality meat?

As I mentioned in the first part of this blog, people adopt plant based diets for a number of reasons, with animal welfare and environmental sustainability the most common. So the argument about only eating good quality meat is a very valid one – ‘good quality’ can usually be at least loosely associated with better farming conditions and perhaps (but certainly not always) a better standard of living for the animal. Ultimately though, the animal is still being raised and killed for human consumption, so it depends where your own ethical line is here.

Similarly, if we all just ate good quality meat in much smaller  quantities, then I feel that the sustainability argument would be hugely diluted too. My own opinion is that this is the ideal scenario – where good quality meat and fish is seen as a real treat, to be eaten on special occasions and enjoyed. If everyone had this approach, the future of our planet would instantly be far brighter. The problem is, this is never going to happen, or at least not any time soon. For most people in Britain, hardly a meal, let alone a day, goes past without meat, and this is nothing compared to the likes of the USA. And then the huge, rapidly developing nations of India and China need to be factored in, going through their economic and nutrition transitions simultaneously: a typical trend of increasing wealth and urbanisation linked to a dietary shift from plants to animals, much of it poor quality, processed convenience food. 

Given that a third of the world’s population lives in these two countries alone, I don’t feel that we have the luxury of waiting until everyone adopts the ideal pattern of eating. Instead, I think it has reached the stage where people who are sufficiently motivated need to take one for the team by making serious sacrifices. That said, I don’t think there are rules about how one adopts a plant based diet. Rushing from all to nothing isn’t likely to go well, so I would say it’s perfectly acceptable and natural to do it in stages…but then I would say that, as that’s exactly what I’m doing right now.

5. How do you live without bacon / burgers / cheese etc. etc. etc?

This is definitely something I used to ask vegetarians! Of course, that’s now been flipped and people are asking me those same questions. Unlike some plant eaters, I am not going to pretend that meat is suddenly not delicious. I spent 30+ years of my life eating and loving it, and my tastebuds have certainly not changed overnight. But it’s really not that difficult to live without certain foods. Turning down sizzling countryside bacon and Easter lamb with my family a couple of weeks ago was a challenge, but also a bit of a milestone for me. I think up until that point I’d thought that I would revert back to the ‘good quality meat as a treat’ option at some point, but I don’t think I will now.

If you feel passionately about anything, then you happily make sacrifices for that passion, be that your family, your hobbies, or your diet. Of course, as I have said before, your diet is something to be cherished and enjoyed; it is one of life’s great pleasures and not just a means of getting nutrients. But there’s a lot of enjoyment to be gained from becoming a better, more imaginative cook, while improving your health and the sustainability of the planet at the same time.

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