It’s never been more trendy to be vegan, but have you ever considered what would happen to your body if you gave up meat completely? We ask three nutrition experts to weigh in…
YOU MAY RUN LOW ON CERTAIN VITAMINS & MINERALS
“One thing that might change in our body when we give up meat is our iron levels”, explains Shona Wilkinson, nutritionist at Vive. “Iron is important for making red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body and is therefore incredibly important for overall health. The reason why our iron levels may change when we stop eating meat is because of the change in the type of iron we will be eating. Meat provides us with a type of iron called heme iron. Iron from other foods is known as non-heme iron.
The difference this might make is that we know heme iron is very well absorbed by the body but non-heme iron is usually less readily absorbed. One of the symptoms of low iron levels is unusual tiredness and fatigue. If you notice this when you give up meat, make sure you are eating enough of the foods which contain iron. The highest non-meat iron food sources include spinach, pumpkin seeds, tofu, beans and lentils.
Make sure you get enough of these foods in your diet to keep your iron levels up. Remember that you can help with the absorption of non-heme iron by eating it with some vitamin C containing foods such as cherries, broccoli, blackberries, kale and Brussel sprouts.”
“A lack of iron is a particular concern for young women as their requirements are higher”, says Nutritionist Jenna Hope. “Whilst iron can be found in plant-based foods it has a much lower bioavailability (meaning it can’t be absorbed and utilised as well). This means that the body won’t be gaining the benefit from the iron you’re consuming. You can add a source of vitamin C to help increase the bioavailability of plant-based iron. I recommend those on a plant-based diet get their iron levels checked regularly.”
“When we think of protein, we tend to think of meat as one of the best food sources”, explains Shona Wilkinson. “If you stop eating meat, take extra care to ensure enough protein intake. Protein is essential for growth and repair of the body and for the maintenance of good health. In fact, every single cell in our body contains protein and it is often known as the building block of life.
There is no reason why you can’t get enough protein in your diet even though you aren’t eating meat – you just have to be a bit more mindful of making sure you eat the right foods. Good non-meat sources of protein could include lentils, chickpeas, cashew nuts, sunflower seeds, cottage cheese and eggs. You could also have a protein shake but food sources are always better. It can be hard to know whether you are deficient in protein but we know that poor protein intake can cause impaired immune function, loss of muscle mass, liver problems, hair loss and reduced bone density.”
“Calcium can be obtained on a plant based diet through sources such as green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds as well as fortified milks. Calcium is vital for bone and teeth health and deficiencies can be difficult to detect as 99% of calcium is stored in the bone. When calcium in the blood is low it’s extracted from the bone to replace the losses. As a result deficiencies don’t always show in the blood”, says Jenna Hope.
“Zinc is crucial for our immune system health, taste, memory and hearing”, explains nutritionist Clarissa Lenherr. “Zinc is commonly found in red meat and shellfish, hence why vegetarians and vegans can often have low levels of this vital nutrient. So, if we give up consuming meat, or even reduce our consumption, then we may become deficient in this nutrient. Either make sure you are getting enough from shellfish sources or opt for vegetarian sources. Zinc can be found in pumpkin and hemp seeds, almonds and cashews, legumes and dairy products”.
“B vitamins and in particular B12 is fundamental for energy creation, nerve health and brain function. B12 is mainly found in animal products such as meat, but also in dairy products and fish”, Clarissa Lenherr explains. “So if you are used to eating a lot of red meat or you are cutting out all animal products including fish you may wish to consider supplement with B12. You can get vegan sources of B12 from fortified foods such as nutritional yeast, but you must make sure you are eating enough to avoid becoming deficient.”
“Omega 3 essential fatty acids help contribute to healthy cognitive function, boost our immune system health, increase hormone creation, help reduce inflammation and can help with those who suffer with insulin resistance. The main source of omega 3 fats comes from shellfish and fish oils, however we can obtain some forms of omega 3 from algae, walnuts and flaxseeds” explains Lenherr.
“Whilst you can obtain this on a plant-based diet it’s important to note that much like iron the plant sources of omega-3 (ALA) cannot be utilised by the body” says Jenna Hope. “It has to be converted into the active forms (EPA and DHA) for the body to use it. Therefore you may need to consume more plant based sources of omega-3. Nuts and seeds including chia seeds and flaxseeds are great sources”.
YOUR MICROBIOME CHANGES
“Several academic studies have shown that there are positive microbial effects associated with reducing or discontinuing the consumption of animal and animal by-products, including a reduction of harmful pathogens and an increase in protective microorganisms” says Lenherr.
“If you reduce your consumption of meat, and replace it with healthy components of a plant-based diet, it is more likely that you will fill its place with fibre rich foods including vegetables, complex carbohydrates and legumes. Fibre is fantastic for gut health, and as such this increased fibre consumption should help increase the health and diversity of your gut microbiome.
At first, you may actually experience more bloating or discomfort in your gut due to the fact that many of the plant based foods can cause bloating if you are not used to eating them in larger quantities, for examples legumes and cruciferous vegetables. To prevent this, make sure to soak your legumes over night and thoroughly cook your vegetables.”
“Inflammation is a process in the body, as part of an immune system response, where our cells, hormones and chemicals work together to fight pathogens, infections and other threats” says Clarissa. “Over half of our immune system is located in our stomachs, and therefore the food we eat directly impacts our immune system and thus the inflammation that is triggered in the body.
Animal products can contain inflammatory compounds such as saturated fats and endotoxins which can trigger and exacerbate inflammation in the body. Additionally, C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation in the body, has been shown to increase in those who have high meat consumption.
By contrast, plant-based diets are naturally anti-inflammatory due to their high fibre and antioxidant content. These bioactive compounds can actually help reduce pre-existing inflammation naturally [source].”