Veganuary – What’s the deal?
ARE YOU CONSIDERING VEGANUARY OR TRYING A PLANT-BASED LIFESTYLE?
It’s that time of year when we are inundated with marketing content around diets, new-year, new-you, health and fitness offers and so on. Amongst this content you may be familiar with campaigns for Dry January and Veganuary, the latter along with commentary around “plant-based” lifestyles becoming very popular in recent years.
At Jessie McPherson we often get asked questions around gut-health and meeting nutritional needs, this comes from a variety of sources including gastroscience patients, cardiology and maternity patients.
If you are considering going vegetarian, vegan or plant-based whether for January or beyond, you may find the information below useful.
WHAT IS A VEGETARIAN, VEGAN OR PLANT-BASED DIET?
Although ‘vegetarian’ usually means ‘plant-based’ there are a few different types of vegetarian diets. Deciding on which version of a vegetarian diet to follow can depend on many things including health, environment, ethical, religious or economic reasons.
One of the most popular reasons people choose a plant-based lifestyles is due to the many reported health benefits, along with growing concern about animal welfare and the environmental impacts of consuming animal products.
Types of vegetarianism:
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarian – people who do not eat any meat and seafood, but include dairy foods (such as milk), eggs and plant foods
- Lacto-vegetarian – people who do not eat meat, seafood and eggs, but include dairy foods and plant foods
- Ovo-vegetarian – people who do not eat meat, seafood and dairy foods, but include eggs and plant foods
- Vegan – people who avoid all animal foods and only eat plant foods.
Two other diets that are not strictly vegetarian but still focus on reducing or limiting the amount of animal products eaten are:
- Pescetarian – people who do not eat any meat, but include seafood, dairy foods, eggs and plant foods
- Flexitarian – people who mainly have a plant-based diet but that sometimes includes small portions of meat and seafood; sometimes also called ‘semi-vegetarian’.
People following pescetarian or flexitarian diets often do so to get the health benefits of eating a largely vegetarian diet without giving up meat entirely.
WHAT ARE THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF A VEGETARIAN, VEGAN OR PLANT-BASED DIET?
Given that a plant-based diet is made up of predominantly whole, minimally processed plant foods such as fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, it’s not surprising that there are many health benefits. The key is to ensure a focus on a ‘well-balanced’ diet, avoiding too many processed and refined foods.
Lower Risk of Chronic Disease
A well-balanced vegetarian or vegan diet can provide many health benefits, such as a reduced risk of chronic diseases – when compared to a plant food and animal (omnivorous) diet – including:
- coronary heart disease
- hypertenson (high blood pressure)
- some types of cancer.
Vegetarians and vegans also have lower rates of illness and death from some degenerative diseases.
Healthier Gut Microbiota
That’s not to say that animal products are unhealthy; meat, poultry, fish and seafood, eggs and dairy offer a range of nutrients such as protein, iron, B12, omega-3 fatty acids and calcium.
One of the reasons plant-based diets can result in better heath is because they positively influence our gut microbiota, the bacteria living in our gut. Plant-based eating tends to be higher in fibre and also encourages a greater diversity of plant foods compared to an omnivorous (plant-food and animal) diet. Both of these
factors have been found to have beneficial effects on our gut bacteria, which in turn reduces inflammation and hence our risk of developing chronic diseases.
What is gut microbiota?
- microbes are tiny living things that exist all around us – in the air, soil, water, our food, and our bodies. They’re so small you can’t see them with the naked eye. They include bacteria, fungi, viruses and archaea.
- microbiota refers to the entire community of microbes that inhabit a specific place. In this article we’re referring to the human microbiota – or the community of microbes that lives in and on your body, with a specific focus on the bacteria in the gut.
- microbiome is what we call the genetic material of all of the cells in the microbiota. So this is not just the microbes themselves, but all of the genes in all the microbes.
Learn more about Gut Microbiome and Health from this New Scientist article and video.
WHAT ABOUT MEETING NUTRITIONAL NEEDS ON A VEGETARIAN, VEGAN OR PLANT-BASED DIET?
If you choose to be vegetarian or vegan, you must plan your diet to make sure it includes all the essential nutrients. Animal products are a major source of certain nutrients in our diet, particularly protein, iron, B12, calcium, zinc, iodine, vitamin D and omega-3 fats. Whilst it is possible to obtain sufficient amounts of these nutrients on a plant-based diet, you will need to be mindful of reducing your meat, dairy and egg consumption to ensure you don’t develop nutritional deficiencies.
This is even more important if you are pregnant, planning a pregnancy, breastfeeding or have young children following a vegetarian diet. Eating a wide variety of foods will make it easier to meet your nutritional requirements.
“Nutritional requirements increase during times of growth, such as pregnancy, breastfeeding, childhood, and adolescence and without careful planning, vitamin and mineral deficiencies and poor growth may develop. For example, the baby of a breastfeeding vegan mum is at risk of Vitamin B12 deficiency, which can impact growth and cognitive development.
With careful planning, it is possible for children to grow well on a vegetarian diet. More research is needed about vegan diets in very young children; they are not generally recommended due to risk of deficiencies and poor growth. Parents who are vegan may choose to include eggs and dairy (or even small amounts of meat) in their child’s diet.”
SO SHOULD I GO FULL VEGAN?
Despite the current popularity of veganism or a plant-based lifestyle, these diets are actually nothing new. The flexitarian diet is very similar to the Mediterranean diet, which has been around for centuries and has long been considered one of the healthiest diets in the world. Following a plant-based lifestyle also reflects the recommendations give in the Australian dietary guidelines, which encourage a diet rich in whole grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes with some healthy fats and moderate amounts of meat, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy (or alternatives), and minimal amounts of highly processed and refined foods.
So whether you go full vegan or flexitarian it is clear that the majority of us would benefit by including more plant-foods in our diet. From a health perspective, focusing on eating a wealth of whole plant-based food and reducing the amount of highly processed and refined foods is the key, not whether you include animal products or not.
Nicole suggests that you could try replacing meat with plant-based options, such as legumes or tofu, for two nights of the week. If buying pre-made meat alternatives, try to avoid ultra-processed products, look for whole food ingredients in the top three ingredients.
You may need to see an Accredited Practising Dietitian to plan your diet for your best health. Some people will require vitamin and mineral supplementation and regular blood tests to monitor for nutrient deficiencies in the longer term.
The other important factor is working out what is right for you and your family situation, you might find that smaller changes are more effective, and if you’re helping the planet in the long run then that is even better.
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Nicole Bando, Family & Paediatric Dietitian & Lactation Consultant (APD, IBCLC) Nicole provides evidence-based, sustainable nutrition and feeding advice that supports optimal health and growth, and meets a family at their unique needs.