Vegetarian and vegan diets are the best - here's why...
By Juliet Gellatley, Founder & Director,Viva! and VVF, Nutritional Therapist and Amanda Woodvine, Senior Nutritionist, VVF
Introduction by Audrey Eyton
- Veggie vitamin chart
- Food chart - what to eat each day
Introduction by Audrey EytonAudrey Eyton is the author of several books including The F2 Cookbook, The F2 Diet and TheFPlan Diet, the latter being one of the fastest selling British books of all time and a worldwide bestseller. Her books are credited with having made lasting changes to our national eating habits. For the past 35 years Audrey has written on health and nutrition and has played a huge part in encouraging people to reduce their consumption of animals.
"Going vegetarian? But what about your PROTEIN? What about your HEALTH? It can't be good for you!?"
Or, so say some people. Wrong!
Let's compare two of today's most common diets and see which one appears better for your health.
A typical Western diet:
This diet, packed with animal products such as hot dogs, sausages and cheeseburgers, has been described by a top nutritionist as "the most atrocious diet in the world".
There are scientific facts to support that opinion. There is a great deal of evidence indicating that eating too much meat and dairy products, as well as consuming too little fruit, vegetables and complex carbohydrates, are major factors in promoting the development of heart disease, stroke and many forms of cancer.
In other words, the typical Western diet is a bigleague culprit in killing off the majority of people in the UK before their time.
A Western vegetarian diet:
(For the types of vegetarians, click here). Vegetarians rely on fruits, vegetables, pulses (peas, beans, lentils), pastas, breads, cereals and other wholegrains as well as other kinds of plant foods to provide most of what they eat. Vegans follow a similar diet but eat no animal products of any kind, including eggs, dairy and honey.
Many scientific studies comparing vegetarians with typical Western diet eaters have found that vegetarians are considerably healthier and less likely to suffer from a wide range of illnesses than meat eaters, and they tend to live longer. What's more, there are apparently no illnesses to which vegetarians seem more prone to develop than meat eaters.
Since 1898, nutritionists have been telling us that: "No single factor is more important in determining the outbreak of cancer in the predisposed than high feeding. Many indications point to gluttonous consumption of meat as likely to be especially harmful". (Scientific American, December 1898.)
Many more modern studies have now confirmed this early finding and have added a significant number of other diseases to the list that afflict meat eaters more than vegetarians.
A study published in the British Medical Journal in December 1998 cautions against meat's links with cancers of the bowel, breast, prostate and pancreas - and possibly even lung.
In their position paper on vegetarian diets, the eminent American Dietetic Association (ADA) notes that vegetarian diets are associated with reduced risk for a number of chronic diseases, including obesity, coronary artery disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, prostate and colon cancer. (Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 97 (11), June 2003, Volume 103  pp748- 765.) These diseases have become the major cause of death among adults in almost all countries - regardless of income.
This follows a worldwide trend of replacing carbohydrate-rich foods (such as cereals, roots and tubers) with meat, dairy products and oil crops.
So why have some people got it wrong - including a lot of doctors and journalists, for that matter?
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, nutritionists advocated large protein intakes to 'assure good health'.
Since the 1980s it has become evident that more protein is not better. In fact, too much protein can damage the kidneys, heart, bones and significantly increase the risk of colon cancer.
Now, leading health authorities in Britain, the USA, Australia and other countries are agreeing on the need to shift away from animal products towards plant-based diets.
Despite all this, there is confusion, and not all of it is accidental. When a piece of research that suggests that meat-based diets are healthy makes the news, it is often found out later to be poorly done, unreliable and paid for by companies that sell animal products.
Nevertheless, as doctor and nutritionist, John McDougall, M.D., states, "People love to hear good news about their bad habits," and "It is used as a justification to continue consuming the disease-inducing, standard Western diet."
It is no secret that food is a very political issue. Big companies make huge amounts of money from animal products and wield enormous power - so governments are not very willing to challenge them.
There hasn't been the political will to change the national diet, even though the World Health Organisation says that's what urgently needs to happen.
But, some people say, we're meant to eat a diet based around meat.
No we're not! Over millions of years, human beings have evolved to eat a diet based upon plant foods.
From the very earliest times, right up to the middle of this century, the vast majority of people obtained most of their nutrition from vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, roots, seeds, nuts and other plant-derived foods.
According to William C. Roberts, M.D., the distinguished editor-in-chief of the prestigious medical publication, the American Journal of Cardiology:
"Although human beings eat meat, we are not natural carnivores. No matter how much fat carnivores eat, they do not develop atherosclerosis (clogged arteries).
When we kill animals to eat them, they end up killing us because their flesh, which contains cholesterol and saturated fat, was never intended for human beings, who are natural herbivores."
Not only did early humans eat many times the plant food we eat today, they ate only a fraction of the animal food.
So when both nature and cardiologists are in agreement, it makes sense to listen to what they say.
Whatever fears people may have about a vegetarian diet, the really unhealthy way to eat is to continue consuming the typical Western diet.
A vegetarian diet is an excellent way of nourishing your body, which will not only leave you pleasantly full but positively glowing with good health!
So, what exactly is nutrition?
By Juliet Gellatley and Amanda Woodvine
Whether you are a vegetarian or vegan, variety is the key to a healthy, well balanced diet.
All food contains a mixture of nutrients in different quantities known as protein, carbohydrates (including fibre), fat, vitamins, minerals and trace elements. Wholefoods contain a mix of all these nutrients, but are often grouped according to the main nutrient they provide.
Protein is needed for growth, repair of tissue and protection against infection. Protein is made up of small 'building blocks' called amino acids. Vegetable-based foods contain all the amino acids the body needs. By eating a range of whole, plant-based foods you will get all the different amino acids you need - and in the right proportions.
Especially good sources of high quality protein include soya products (eg soya beans (sold frozen in many supermarkets), tofu, soya milk, veggie mince), cereals (eg brown rice, pasta, wholemeal bread), pulses (eg baked beans, chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans), nuts and seeds (including the protein-packed 'superfood' quinoa which quickly cooks and is often used like rice).
Meat contains all the amino acids that comprise protein, but that doesn't mean it is better for us than plant protein. Animal protein is linked to cancers, heart disease and many other diseases. Also, eating large amounts of animal products, even leanlooking meats, means eating saturated animal fats and cholesterol. It is these artery-clogging substances which are a main cause of heart disease, kidney failure and stroke, as well as many cancers.
Meat also contains little carbohydrate, no fibre or calcium, and few vitamins - but frequently contains dangerous microbes such as Salmonella and E. coli. The problem of food-borne infections is a growing one.
In view of all this, it is a comfort to know that a well-balanced vegan diet supplies all the protein you need, whether you are a growing child or a mature adult.
How much protein do we need?
Not as much as we think - recommended amounts have more than halved in the past 20 years as several chronic diseases have been linked to eating too much animal (not plant) protein. The average adult needs to consume between 45 and 55.5 grams of protein per day.Protein requirements (grams needed per day)
The figures below give the recommended daily amounts of protein per age group, but it can’t be stressed too often that you will not go short of protein, so don’t worry about it.
Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI),
g per day
Females Males 11-14 41.2 42.1 15-18 45.4 55.2 19-50 45 55.5
To give you a comparison between some meat and vegetarian products, a standard 50g beef burger contains 10.2g of protein and three (90g) fish sticks 12.l g; half a can of 225g baked beans contains 11.5g of protein; an average serving of pasta (190g cooked) contains 8.5g, an average serving of kidney beans (160g cooked) 12.4g, and a small packet (25g) of peanuts contains 6.1g.
Carbohydrates are our main and most important source of energy and most carbohydrates are provided by plant foods.
There are three types of carbohydrates:
- 'fast releasing'
- 'slow releasing'
- dietary fibre
'Fast releasing' carbohydrates (simple sugars) are found in fruit, sweets, syrups and many processed foods. Much of it is refined sugar - the kind you sprinkle on your cereal - and is best avoided, as it provides energy but no fibre, vitamins or minerals.
'Slow releasing' or complex carbohydrates (starches) are found in wholegrains (eg brown bread, brown rice, pasta, oats, barley, rye etc), some root vegetables such as potatoes, and most fresh fruit. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that 55-75 per cent of our diet (as energy) should come from slow releasing carbohydrates, as they are vital to good health. Typical meat eaters don't get enough complex carbohydrates while vegetarians and vegans tend to get plenty.
Dietary fibre is the indigestible part of vegetable foods (whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, cereals and beans). Despite its indigestible nature, fibre is essential for the digestive system to work properly. It acts like a broom in the intestines, sweeping away toxins, lowering 'bad' cholesterol and helping prevent diseases such as colon cancer.
Eating red meat frequently can increase your chances of colon cancer by 20-40 per cent! While a vegetarian diet high in plant foods contains plenty of fibre, meat contains none.
Carbohydrate-rich foods should be consumed in as unrefined form as possible; for example, brown rice, wholegrain pastas (eg wholegrain spaghetti instead of white) and brown breads, whole beans - as they are more health enhancing, containing more fibre and vitamins.
Fats and oils
We need a little fat (essential fats, also called omega-3 and omega-6) in our diet every day as they are essential to good brain, eye and nerve health and are part of our cell membranes. They also repair tissue, manufacture some hormones and carry some vitamins.
We tend to eat too much omega-6 (as processed vegetable oils in junk foods) and too little omega-3. The best source of omega-3 is flaxseed oil; other good sources of essential fats are pumpkin seeds, walnuts, ground flaxseeds, hemp seed oil and soya products, as well as other nuts and seeds such as almonds, Brazil nuts, sunflower and sesame seeds.
The best fat for cooking is virgin olive oil which although not an essential fat, is still beneficial to our health.
Fats can either be saturated or unsaturated (which includes mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated).
A rough guide is that saturated fats are normally solid at room temperature and they include animal fats such as lard and butter.
Unsaturated fats are normally liquid at room temperature, such as sunflower or olive oil. There are few vegetable fats that contain saturated fat - coconut oil and palm oil are the most common ones.
Saturated fats (mainly from animal products and processed foods) are not needed in the diet and we are better off without them!
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance called a sterol. It is found in all animal foods but is completely absent from all plant foods. The body can make all the cholesterol it requires so we do not need to (and should not!) include it in our diet - at all!
Saturated (and hydrogenated) fats increase the level of 'bad' cholesterol in blood while unsaturated fats can help to lower it. Too much of the wrong kind of fat is linked to cancers and other diseases.
The single biggest dietary cause of clogged arteries, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes is our animal fat and refined sugar-laden diet. The more of these there are in your blood, the greater your risk of getting one or all of the above diseases.
One in five men and one in six women die of heart disease in the UK - that's how huge an epidemic there is. And it looks set to get worse as young people consume ever greater amounts of fat - mostly animal fats - as well as sugar.
Vitamins and Minerals
Click here for the vital functions of vitamins and vegetarian sources.
Vitamins in fresh fruit and vegetables actually protect us against some 60 or more diseases, including the big killers, cancer and heart disease.
Especially valuable are the vitamins known as antioxidants. This group is composed of betacarotene (vitamin A) and vitamins C and E - the so called 'ACE' vitamins. They are found abundantly in plant foods.
A recent discovery at Glasgow University in Scotland has identified another family of powerful antioxidants - flavonols, including lycopenes, found only in red fruits (eg tomatoes) and vegetables. Again, there are none in meat.
The reason why antioxidants are so important is that they are our main defence against damaging molecules called free radicals, which play a major role in diseases related to aging. Free radicals are molecules that have become unbalanced by losing an electron. To try and regain their missing electron, these molecules crash around like back-alley muggers, trying to steal an electron from other molecules. This theft can create a chain reaction in which DNA - the human genetic blueprint - becomes damaged and begins to produce diseased cells, which can lead to cancer and other health catastrophes.
High-temperature cooking - in particular, the frying or searing of meat - can damage our health. Researchers cooked beef burgers, bacon and soya burgers and found that both the beef burgers and bacon produced significant amounts of the most damaging free radicals while the soya burger produced virtually none.
Antioxidants are the 'heroes' who neutralize the damaging free radicals, and so protect the body against diseases.
Antioxidant vitamins are mainly found in fresh fruit and vegetables, and vegetarians and vegans usually eat much more fresh fruit and vegetables than meat eaters. This is probably one big reason why vegans are usually healthier and tend to live longer. To assure yourself of an ample supply of these valuable vitamins, eat a reasonably varied diet and don't live on chips and sweets!
Eat a variety of foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, cereals (eg wholegrain bread, brown rice, wholemeal pasta), all types of beans, as well as healthy snacks such as your favourite nuts, seeds or dried fruits.
Some of the most notable vitamins and minerals include:
Vegetarians and vegans get plenty of vitamin A from eating foods containing beta-carotene - in fact it's almost impossible to become deficient in this vitamin these days!
We convert beta-carotene into vitamin A in our bodies. Beta-carotene is found in green vegetables (spinach, kale, broccoli and watercress etc) as well as red and orange vegetables (carrots, yams, sweet potatoes etc) - and, as we've seen, it protects you from several diseases.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)
A daily source of this vital vitamin is required - easily available from foods fortified with it. Vegetarians get B12 from free-range eggs and dairy.
Vegans need to obtain cobalamin from eating B12-fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals, margarines, nutritional yeast (eg Marmite) and soya milk. Vitamin B12 from fortified foods is better absorbed than the B12 from meat, poultry and fish.
As with almost all vitamins, vegetarians and vegans get more of this from their diet than do meat eaters.
You'll find high amounts in fresh oranges, grapefruit, broccoli, spinach, cabbage, strawberries, green peppers and other fruit and vegetables. It's not in meat.
Calcium is important for healthy bones and teeth and for the working of muscles. It is virtually absent from meat products.
Excessive amounts of animal protein (from meat, dairy, fish and eggs) in the diet can actually leach calcium from the bones, weakening the skeleton and leading to osteoporosis. Therefore it is much healthier to obtain calcium from plants than from dairy.
Calcium is found in dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale, watercress and cabbage; pulses; dried fruits; tahini (sesame seed butter used to make hummus) and nuts and seeds (particularly almonds and sesame seeds). Many soya milks and tofu are fortified with calcium.
Iron deficiency can be significant, especially in women of childbearing age (who lose iron each month in the menstrual flow).
However, all the world's leading health advisory bodies agree that meateaters are just as likely to suffer from iron deficiency anaemia as vegetarians.
Everyone - especially women - should ensure a good supply of iron in their diet. It's needed for healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen to all parts of the body.
Good sources of iron are baked beans, wholegrain bread, molasses, leafy green vegetables, dried fruit (particularly apricots and figs), cocoa, pulses (all types of beans, peas, lentils) and pumpkin seeds.
Vitamin C increases the absorption of iron by a factor of four - another reason why fresh vegetables and fruits are so important in the diet.
Many reputable health organisations, including the World Health Organisation, American Dietetic Association and the British Medical Association, all agree that vegetarian and vegan diets can lead to superb states of health.
Any person who changes to a completely plant-based diet is greatly improving their chance of avoiding a number of deadly diseases.
In the process you will also help to bring an end to the horrors of factory farming, stop the onslaught which is destroying the world's oceans, begin to offer hope to the world's starving peoples and help the environment start to recover.
A vegetarian eats food that is free from any ingredients obtained from the killing of animals. A vegan eats food free from any animal products. Because there are so many foods that vegetarians eat, it’s easier to state which they don’t eat!
A vegetarian does not eat red meat (eg lamb, bacon, pork, beef), white meat (eg duck, chicken, turkey), fish and other watery creatures (prawns, lobsters, crabs etc), or slaughterhouse byproducts (eg animal fat, gelatine, as it is made from crushed bones, horns etc) or cochineal (crushed insects). A vegetarian may or may not eat free-range eggs, dairy products (eg cow’s milk, cheese, butter, yoghurt) or honey.
Vegetarians who choose to eat dairy products and free-range eggs, are LACTO-OVO VEGETARIANS.
Those who eat dairy products but not eggs are LACTO-VEGETARIANS.
Those who eat eggs but not dairy products are OVO-VEGETARIANS.
Those who avoid all animal products, including all dairy products, eggs and honey are VEGANS.
Guidelines for vegetarian products
If you see Viva!'s symbol on a product, you can be sure that it is vegan, and so dairy-free. And the gold star of the food symbols - the Vegetarian & Vegan Foundation's stamp of approval - means that the product is healthy too!