With vegetarian and vegan diets on the rise and an increased variety of meat-free alternative foods available – should we consider a switch from a typical meat-based diet? What are the benefits of being vegetarian or vegan VS a meat eater? I commonly see clients who have adopted vegetarian and vegan diets in order to eat healthier, lose weight or change their impact on animal welfare. But should we go vegan? Is it healthier?

What does it mean to be vegan vs vegetarian?

A vegan or vegetarian diet is usually chosen for moral or ethical principles including the improvement of animal welfare, to reduce environmental impact or to improve diet quality. A vegan diet requires planning and forethought, it relies on legumes, nuts and grains for protein. It includes grainy foods (breads and cereals), fruits, vegetables, soy foods, nuts and seeds.
A vegan diet excludes all animal products including meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, seafood and even honey. It avoids foods that contain animal derived components or ingredients. Those that are vegan also may choose not to use animal products in other aspects of their lifestyle such as clothing made with leather.

A vegetarian diet differs in that it may contain certain limited range of animal products such as dairy foods, fish or eggs.

Should I be vegan?

In Australia only 7% of adults are eating the recommended 5 serves of vegetables per day. The benefits of being vegan or vegetarian includes the increase in veggie consumption, as well as the reduction of many animal-based fast-foods, convenience and processed foods which tend to be higher in added sugar, sodium and saturated fat.

Whilst it is great to be increasing the nutrient-rich plant-based foods in our diet, a vegan diet carries the risk of not fulfilling all our nutrient requirements adequately, being deficient in vitamins and minerals such as B12, zinc, iron, calcium and omega-3 fats. Vitamin B12 found naturally only in animal products and has roles in DNA and formation of red blood cells. So it is essential to supplement or consume foods fortified with B12 to avoid deficiency and effects such as nerve damage. Most Australians get their calcium, essential for bone health, from dairy foods so substituting for plant-based alternatives that are fortified with calcium is another consideration to reduce the risk of osteoporosis.  

There is evidence that vegetarians who consume milk and eggs, compared to those with a high intake of meat, have less heart disease, less digestive issues and better blood pressure. 

Vegan and vegetarian diets are generally not recommended for children or pregnant women who have additional nutrient requirements. Those with a history of disordered eating may also find this way of eating triggering.

What about removing animal products for weight loss?

Even consuming a vegetarian or vegan diet a person can become overweight if their food intake is unbalanced or excessive. Some micronutrients are more bioavailable (readily absorbed) from animal products, such as ‘haem’ iron from red meat compared to ‘non-haem’ iron from spinach and legumes which is harder to absorb. A balanced intake including some animal products can be beneficial to maintaining a healthy weight and preventing nutritional deficiencies.

So, what do we do?

We need to be mindful of the environment our food supply comes from, to source more sustainable and ethical produce, and to enjoy our relationship with food.

If you choose to be vegetarian or vegan, do your research, do it for the right reasons such as animal welfare or environmental impact, not for weight loss or to be on trend. Grab the support of an Accredited Practicing Dietitian to make sure you don’t leave any nutrients out and have your GP on board to monitor for deficiencies such as iron which can leave you feeling flat and fatigued.
Vegan and vegetarian diets require planning, strategy and often supplementation to ensure you are well nourished, often servings are larger to ensure you get the same quantity of nutrients.

When it comes to our own diets, the most important thing is to not think about cutting things out, but making sure we are getting all that good stuff in. The how, where and why is just as important as the what you are eating – are you eating to your hunger and fullness signals, are you aware of emotional eating? Small tweaks of your existing diet can be much more beneficial and sustainable long term than extreme diets or quick fixes that only last temporarily.

I’m not vegan but what else could I do to improve animal treatment?

  • Download the CluckAR app from Choice to help select the best free-range, cage-free eggs.
  • Chose RSPCA approved meats – the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme provides higher standards than those recommended in the existing legislation.
  • Check out www.choosewisely.org.au for local cafes and restaurants near you that serve foods that are farmed with animal welfare as a priority.

Consider having one or two vegetarian meals a week which will also help focus on increasing your vegetable intake and food variety, try fibre rich lentils or chickpeas as your protein.

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