The Vegetarian Diet

The origins of a Vegetarian Diet and why it may benefit you.

A plant-based diet is booming in popularity for many reasons. According to population data, full time vegetarians account for 2-3% of the UK population with many more living semi-vegetarian lifestyles. If you are considering reducing animal-based food sources in your diet or simply want to know more about the vegetarian diet, then article is for you.

History of the Vegetarian Diet

Some studies suggest that despite popular belief, our caveman ancestors were actually vegetarians rather than meat eaters. The indications for this are blunt molar teeth for crushing nuts and seeds, rather than sharp teeth for tearing meat. Additionally, humans have evolved to see in colour unlike omnivore animals. Scientists have discovered that we may have this ability because we use colour as an indicator of danger in some plants and berries.

Pythagoras is thought to be the modern Father of Vegetarianism as he celebrated the health benefits of a meat-free diet as well as highlighting animal welfare. Despite this, history states that Egyptian civilisations used to abstain from wearing animal-derived products and eating ‘flesh’. This was believed to have karmic effects on reincarnation.

Reasons to go Vegetarian, according to Vegetarians.

According to Statista data from 2021 here are reasons why people become vegetarian:

  • 55% animal welfare concerns
  • 45% 'It’s better for my health.’
  • 38% Environmental Concerns.
  • 33% ‘I don’t like meat.’
  • 24% The food tastes better
  • 2% It is Fashionable.

Here are some statistics relating to Vegetarianism:

  • Becoming a Vegetarian saves around 24-110 animals per person, per year.
  • 21% of Britain are ‘flexitarians’.
  • According to 2021 data by Finder, the average vegetarian diet costs £1545 per person per year, whereas the average meat eaters diet costs £2,002 per person, per year.
  • According to the vegetarian society, eating a vegetarian diet contributes to x2.5 less carbon emissions than a meat-based diet. By eating vegetarian food for a year you could save the same amount of emissions as taking a small family car off the road for 6 months.
  • A chicken breast takes over 542 litres of water to produce, that could fill up your bathtub x6.5.

What Vegetarians do and don’t eat?

There are different types of vegetarians including lacto-ovo-vegetarian, pescatarian and flexitarian. However, in general here are the foods that vegetarians do not eat:

  • Meat
  • Fish and seafood
  • Products containing animal derived products such as gelatine.

What vegetarians eat:

  • Eggs
  • Dairy, such as milk, butter and cheese.
  • Honey
  • Cereals & Wholegrains
  • Nuts & Seeds
  • Beans and Legumes
  • Fruit and Vegetables
  • Imitation meat products, such as Quorn.

Common deficiencies in Vegetarian Diets

Below are some common deficiencies that vegetarians experience if they do not eat a balanced diet:

Protein

This is a common misconception that vegetarian diets are lacking in protein. It is true that the majority of vegetarian protein sources are less protein dense than animal-based protein sources. For example, on average tofu contains around 8grams of protein per 100grams, kidney beans contain 24grams/100grams, whereas chicken contains 27grams and beef contains 26grams. That being said, a vegetarian diet can supply more than enough protein in a daily diet.

As a guide each plate should contain about ¼ protein. Vegetarian sources of protein include:

  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Seeds and seed butters
  • Legumes and Beans
  • Eggs
  • Imitation meats such as Quorn
  • Dairy

The average person needs around 0.7grams of protein per kg of body weight. (Be mindful that this increases during illness, pregnancy, lactation or if activity increases). For example, a 70Kg person would need just 49 grams of protein per day (70 x 0.7 = 49grams).

Zinc

Zinc is an essential nutrient used in DNA synthesis, cognitive function, fertility, bone health, macronutrient metabolism and production of hair, skin and nails. The most dense sources of zinc are meat and shellfish however, there are some vegetarian sources too. These are discussed below:

  • Legumes
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Cheese
  • Milk
  • Oats

Iron

To be frank, it’s not only plant-based eaters that lack iron in their diet it’s meat eaters too. Iron deficiency and or anaemia is very common. The World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that up to 25% of the worlds population is deficient in iron. Iron can be found in animal and plant-based sources but Iron is not very bioavailable from any source, particularly in plant-based sources whereby between 5-12% of iron in food is absorbed. This is greatly affected by what it is absorbed alongside. For example, Vitamin C boosts iron absorption whereas tannins, calcium, and phytates inhibit iron absorption. Here are some great sources of vegetarian iron:

  • Green Leafy Vegetables – spinach and kale
  • Dried Fruits
  • Cereals that are fortified with Iron
  • Eggs
  • Beans and Legumes

Vitamin D

The most common sources of Vitamin D aside from the sun include oily fish and red meat. However, there are some options for Vegetarian-friendly Vitamin D, including:

  • Egg yolks
  • Some mushrooms
  • Fortified foods such as spreads and breakfast cereals
  • Algae supplements

Vitamin B12

Lastly, this is the main concern with any plant-based diet as there are there is very little Vitamin B12 found in a vegetarian diet. Here are a few options that you may like to try. Including, dairy and eggs or, you could try supplementation or product fortification, such as, nutritional yeast.

Health Benefits of the vegetarian diet

Here are some brief information bites about what a vegetarian diet can do for you:

  • Research shows that plant-based diets are a low-risk health intervention. That has evidence to show that it may lower body mass index, blood pressure, HbA1C (measure of blood glucose management in the body) and cholesterol levels.
  • Plant based diets have reduced the number of medications needed to treat chronic diseases and lower ischemic heart disease mortality rates.
  • In general plant-based eaters are able to maintain a healthier BMI compared to those with greater animal products within their diet. Vegans on average had the lowest BMIs, followed by vegetarians, both of which were in a health range.
  • A 2010 literature review found that plant-based diets were associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality compared with non-plant-based diets.
  • Reports show that most centenarian diets consist of beans, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and fresh non-GMO fruits and vegetables.
  • A UK study in 50,000 people were analysed for their risk of risk of stroke and other health problems over two decades. They found that rates of heart disease were 22% lower in vegetarians.

Resources for a Vegetarian Diet

If you would like to find out more about becoming vegetarian here are some organisations you could check out:

  • Vegetarian Society
  • Choose Veg
  • Food for Life Global
  • The Vegetarian Resource Group
  • NHS
  • Eat Right, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

References

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