The truth about vegetarian and vegan diets: What we know so far.

Are they bad for you? There has long been the assumption for some of us that these diets are bad for you. But the truth is far from black and white. That’s why I’ve decided to do all the hard work for you. I have used the most up-to-date research to give you nothing but the truth. But don’t just take my word for it, I’ll list my resources at the end of this article so that you can take a look for yourself.

First, I want to mention the different types of diets:

  • Vegetarian – May or may not include egg and diary products.
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian – Includes eggs and diary products.
  • Lacto-vegetarian – Includes diary products, but not egg products.
  • Ovo-vegetarian – Includes eggs and egg products, but no diary.
  • Vegan – Excludes egg and diary products, and may exclude honey.
  • Raw vegan – Based on fruits, nuts, vegetables, seeds, legumes, and sprouted grains. The amount of uncooked food varies from 75% to 100%.

Still following me? Great, now here comes the important bit. I’m going to discuss the benefits, the risks, and then I’m going to make an overall conclusion. So listen in, I’m also going to mention how risks can be reduced or prevented.

  • The benefits:
  • Decreased risk of ischemic heart disease – Also known as coronary artery disease, this evil disease is responsible for a major number of deaths world-wide. In the UK alone, it is responsible for 73,000 deaths each year.
  • Decreased risk of type 2 diabetes – People with diabetes have high levels of blood sugar. Type 2 diabetes is where the bodies cells stop responding to insulin, which plays a vital role in regulating blood sugar. It can also be where the body doesn’t produce enough insulin. Type 1 is where the body does not produce any insulin at all. Diabetes is a serious condition that can have deadly implications, not to mention the risk of amputation of limbs due to reduced blood circulation.
  • Decreased risk of certain types of cancer – Yep, sorry to break the news. Vegetarian diets carry less of an overall risk of cancer, and a particularly lower risk of gastrointestinal cancer. I’m sorry my fellow meat eaters, research has found this to be true, at least so far.
  • Decreased risk of diverticular disease – This condition affects your large bowel. It happens when small pouches, called diverticula, develop in the lining of your bowel before protruding through your bowel wall. In some people, this may cause symptoms such as pain in your tummy although many people don’t have any symptoms.
  • Decreased risk of eye cataracts – Cataracts occurs when changes in the lens of the eye cause it to become less transparent, resulting in cloudy vision.
  • Obesity – Those who consume high levels of meat will undoubtedly have excess amounts of saturated fats in their diet.
  • Cholesterol –  Vegetarian diets produce less low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, which is the bad cholesterol that likes to clog up our arteries.
  • Blood sugar – Veggie diets permit better serum glucose control, which is how good the body is at regulating blood sugar.

Now I would like to stress that these benefits are only permitted when a vegetarian diet is planned properly! Not eating properly could leave you with a deficiency that will make you sick, tired and malnourished.

  • The risks:
  • Veggies who are missing out their iron are vulnerable to anaemia, more on that in the minute.
  • Vegans need continuous sources of vitamin B-12. The bad news is that B-12 is not a component of plant foods, meaning consumption for vegans can ONLY be met through fortified foods and supplements. Vegetarians have a bit more option, they can find it in cheese, eggs, milk and yogurts.
  • Vegan diets are typically absent of the long chain fatty acids, EPA and DHA, which are important for development and maintenance of the brain, retina, and cell membranes and favourably impact the outcomes of pregnancy and the risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. The long term effects of reduced EPA and DHA in the diet is currently unknown. Despite this, vegetarian and vegan children do not appear to experience impairment in visual or mental development.
  • Iron – Iron is an integral component of blood, if we don’t have enough iron, our body cannot make enough oxygen-carrying red blood cells and this causes iron deficiency anaemia. Vegetarians generally consume as much iron or even slightly more, than omnivores. Despite having similar iron intakes, the iron stores of vegetarians are typically below those of non-vegetarians.
  • So why could this be? 
  • Iron is found in food in two forms, heme and non-heme iron. Now heme iron makes up 40 percent of the iron in meat, poultry, and fish, and this is well absorbed.
  • On the other hand, non-heme iron makes up the other 60 percent of the iron found in animal tissue and is all of the iron found in non-meat sources such as fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts and this form of iron is less well absorbed. However, non-heme iron absorption can be up to 10x greater in iron-deficient individuals compared with iron-replete individuals. This means that we can compensate with low levels of iron consumption by increasing its absorption rate ten-fold, literally, and absorb non-heme iron more effectively. Over time, we are able to adapt to lower intakes of iron and even reduce the amount of iron lost.
  • In one study, total iron absorption significantly increased by almost 40% after 10 weeks of consuming low levels of iron.
  • Zinc – Zinc is found in cells all throughout the body, and it’s needed for our bodies immune system to work properly. It also plays a role in cell division, cell growth, the healing of wounds, and the breakdown of carbohydrates. Zinc is also needed for the senses of smell and taste.
  • Compared with non-vegetarians, studies have shown that adult vegetarians have zinc intakes that are similar or slightly below omnivores, and serum (blood) zinc concentrations that were lower were still within the normal range. Currently, there does not appear to be any adverse health affects in adult vegetarians that are attributable to lower zinc intakes.
  • Zinc sources for vegetarians include soy products, legumes, grains, cheese, seeds, and nuts. Organic acids, such as citric acid, can enhance zinc absorption to some degree.
  • Iodine – Iodine is a mineral, and is important for a variety of functions in your body; including growth, metabolism, reproduction, nerve and muscle function, regulation of body temperature and blood cell production.
  • Plant-based diets may be low in iodine, and vegans who do not consume key vegan sources of iodine, such as iodized salt or sea vegetables, may be at risk of iodine deficiency. The iodine content of sea vegetables varies widely and some may contain substantial amounts of iodine. Intakes should not exceed the Tolerable Upper Intake Level of 1,100 micro-grams per day for adults. Vegan women of child-bearing age should supplement with 150 micro-grams a day of iodine. Sea salt, kosher salt, and salty seasonings, such as tamari, are generally not iodized. Dairy products may contain iodine, although amounts can vary considerably.
  • Calcium – Your body uses 99 percent of its calcium to keep our bones and teeth strong. The remaining 1% plays a key role in cell signaling, blood clotting, muscle contraction and nerve function.
  • Intakes of lacto-ovo-vegetarians, which includes eggs and dairy products, typically meet or exceed calcium recommendations, while calcium intakes of vegans vary widely and may fall below recommendations. Absorption from high-oxalate vegetables (oxalate meaning a salt or ester of oxalic acid), such as spinach, beet greens, and Swiss chard, may be as low 5%. So they are not good sources of calcium, despite their high calcium content. On the other hand, absorption from low-oxalate vegetables, such as kale, turnip greens, Chinese cabbage, and bok choy, is about 50%. Absorption from calcium-set tofu and most fortified plant milks is similiar to cow’s milk, at approximately 30%. Other plant foods, such as white beans, almonds, tahini, figs, and oranges, provide moderate amounts of calcium with somewhat lower rates of absorption at about 20%.
  • Vitamin D – The major role of vitamin D is to maintain normal levels of calcium and phosphorus in the blood. Vitamin D also helps the body to absorb calcium, which forms and maintains strong bones.
  • Status of this in the body depends on sunlight exposure and intake of vitamin D fortified foods or supplements. Foods that are fortified with vitamin D include cow’s milk, some non-dairy milks, fruit juices, breakfast cereals, and margarines. Eggs may also provide some vitamin D. Interestingly, mushrooms treated with ultraviolet light can be significant sources of vitamin D. If sun exposure and intake of fortified foods are insufficient to meet needs, vitamin D supplements are recommended, especially for older adults. Experts recommend daily intakes of vitamin D of 1,000 to 2,000 international units a day.
  • Protein – Vegetarians and vegans typically meet or exceed protein requirements when caloric intake is adequate (meaning when you are eating enough of the right food).
  • Vitamin B-12 –
  • Vitamin B-12 is an especially important vitamin for maintaining healthy nerve cells, and it helps in the production of DNA and RNA, our body’s genetic material.
  • Aging happens when our cells begin to wear and tear, and they age faster when our DNA doesn’t replicate correctly. Many factors may affect DNA replication; some factors include toxins in the blood, high blood sugar, and high levels of omega-6 fats in our diet. B-12 supports DNA health, and so it helps to keep our cells younger.
  • Vitamin B-12 also works closely with vitamin B-9, also known as folate or folic acid, to help make red blood cells and to help iron work more effectively in the body.
  • B-12 plays a key role in how your body creates energy.
  • It also protects the heart. Our heart and entire cardiovascular system needs B-12. One of its jobs is to remove a dangerous protein, known as homocysteine, from the blood. When homocysteine is permitted to roam through our blood, it damages our arteries which leads to inflammation and consequently, coronary artery disease.
  • Improves Mood and Outlook – Most have you have probably heard about the chemical, serotonin. Our brain uses serotonin to regulate our mood. If you aren’t getting enough B-12, you may find yourself feeling down.
  • Protects Brain Health – Researchers have noted Alzheimer’s patients have much lower levels of B-12 than those of a similar age who have sharp, clear memory. In the same way B-12 helps protect nerve cells, it also helps to protect the myelin sheaths of brain cells that are often lacking in Alzheimer’s patients.
  • Sources of B-12 for vegans include fermented foods such as nori, spirulina, chlorella, algae, fortified almond milk, coconut milk and soy milk. And also fortified cereals, Bob Red’s nutritional yeast is also a good source of B-12. Vegetarians can additionally consume some yogurts and cheeses, eggs, milk, and to a lesser extent, ice cream and vanilla.
  •  Vegans must regularly consume reliable sources from supplements or fortified foods or they will become deficient, this applies to all age categories.
  • Vegetarians should also include these B-12 sources in their diet, 1 cup of milk and one egg per day will only provide about two-thirds of the Recommended Dietary Allowance.
  • Moving on, I want to mention the early warning signs of a severe B-12 deficiency; this is unusual fatigue, tingling in the fingers or toes, poor cognition, poor digestion, and failure to properly develop in small children. Less severe B-12 deficiency results in elevated homocysteine, which can inflame our blood vessels. This leads to a restriction of blood supply to tissues, causing a shortage of oxygen and glucose needed for cellular metabolism, which is responsible for keeping tissue alive. So B-12 deficiency may also be a risk factor for coronary artery disease. People with little or no B-12 intake may feel healthy; however, long-term deficiency can lead to health complications including stroke, dementia, and poor bone health.
  • Conclusion: A well planned vegetarian or vegan diet, as claimed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is healthy; and provides health benefits when planned properly, although more research is needed on the long term effects of a vegan diet. A poorly planned diet, whether vegan, vegetarian or omnivore, is harmful. All of our diets should consist of two-thirds from vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. Saturated fat content should not make up more than 10% of our diet. Vegans should particularly ensure that they are consuming adequate levels of B-12 and vitamin D for optimal long term health.
  • So there you have it! When planned properly, not only are vegan and vegetarian diets healthy, but they may also help to prevent some diseases and also provide health benefits. Although please do keep in mind that more research is needed on the long term effects of vegan diets. Particularly the long term effects of a B-12 deficiency, and also the long term effects of the fatty acids, EPA and DHA, missing from the diet.

Thanks for stopping by!

Written by Christopher Cachia. Find me on Facebook at ChrisCachiaPTandSportsMassage.

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