At Together HQ we’ve all cut down on meat and about half of the team are now vegetarian or vegan. And it seems we’re not alone! More and more of us are moving over to the plant side with an estimated one in eight Britons now vegetarian or vegan (1). As nutritional experts, we thought we’d look at the impact of becoming vegetarian or vegan on our health and share our insights for anyone who’s made the change or thinking about it.
There are many reasons to switch. Ethics is a big one, as the truth about the cruelty of animals in the meat industry has surfaced, and health. We’re concerned about digesting hormones, steroids and antibiotics that have been used on animals, and here at Together we’ve noticed that we feel generally better with less or no meat in our diets. The impact on the environment has also motivated us as the cost of the meat industry’s impact on the planet becomes increasingly apparent.
What are the key nutrients that can be missing on a plant-based diet?
While plant foods provide many of the nutrients we need for optimal health, there are a few that are very difficult to obtain in the required amounts from plants, which are vital for our wellbeing.
B12 is only found in animal protein, so no surprise that it is one of the most common deficiencies amongst vegans and vegetarians. It works with folate, another B vitamin, in the synthesis of DNA and red blood cells, so a deficiency can cause anything from anaemia and fatigue to memory loss, neurological problems and even dementia. Tests have found that 66% of vegetarians and 92% of vegans are B12-deficient, compared with just 5% of omnivores (2).
CALCIUM & ZINC
One of the most extensive studies of vegetarians and vegans in the world found that vegans not only had the lowest intakes of vitamin B12, but also calcium and zinc (3). Inadequate levels of calcium can lead to osteoporosis over time, while not getting enough zinc in your diet can result in hair loss, lack of alertness and a reduced sense of taste and smell.
According to one study, 80% of vegans are iodine-deficient (4). Iodine is necessary for thyroid hormones which help keep cells and the metabolic rate healthy (5). It is usually found in fish and dairy products, although it can be found in cereals and grains, but generally at low levels depending on the amount of iodine in the soil where the plants are grown. Seaweed is a plant source of iodine, but the levels present can be unpredictable.
Iron can be obtained from plant sources, but the ferrous iron in plants is much harder to absorb than heme iron in meat, putting vegetarians at higher risk of iron deficiency.
Our bodies can't convert plant fatty acids into essential omega-3 fatty acids DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). Omega-3s are found in meat, fish and seaweed, but not in plants. They're critical for brain development and play a major role throughout life, affecting cognition, behaviour and mood. As the body can't make omega-3s, unless we have an adequate outside source we'll have suboptimal levels, which is detrimental to brain health.
What supplements can we take to help maintain our diet?
So that all sounds a bit worrying, right? 😳 Luckily, we’ve made it easy and created a B12 Vegan Complex that ticks all the boxes with a food form of B12, plus calcium, zinc, iodine and iron.
For optimal health, we also recommend taking our Omega 3 supplements which are completely fish-free and made from pure algae. You won’t find any of the nasty contaminants found in fish oil and the seaweed is sourced sustainably – important because 25% of the world’s fish catch is used to produce Omega-3, which is completely unnecessary.
Finally, if you are a health geek like us, you may want to get yourself tested for any deficiencies. We used Medichecks vitamin tests, which gave us peace of mind as well as some interesting, albeit unrelated data, with one of us in particular having rather high salt levels (just a little too keen on those family-size bags of hand-cooked crisps!). We now take a yearly test to make sure we’re moving in the right direction.
Have you switched to a vegetarian diet? What are your experiences?