Lately the spotlight has increasingly been on vegetarian and veganism. It has been a hot topic for various reasons; increasing price of meat, impact on the environment, prevention of disease and various moral issues.

What is the difference between vegetarian and vegan diet?

  • A lacto-ovo (lacto = milk, ovo = eggs) vegetarian diet includes grains, vegetables, fruit, legumes (dried beans, peas and lentils), seeds, nuts, dairy products and eggs. It excludes any meat, fish, poultry and any products that contain these foods.
  • While a vegan diet includes grains, vegetables, fruit, legumes (dried beans, peas and lentils), seeds and nuts. It excludes meat, fish, poultry, dairy and eggs and products containing these foods.

What are the benefits to following these types of diets?

  • Because of the high nutrient density, high soluble and insoluble fibre content as well as the low fat (specifically saturated and trans fats) there are many health benefits.
  • Including lower rates of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.

Are there risks associated with these diets?

These diets can be very restrictive, leaving out major food groups. This can negatively affect health and cause deficiencies. It may take planning to get enough protein, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamins D and B12 and omega-3 fats from foods or supplements, but fortunately there are substitutes:

Protein

Protein complementation helps ensure that enough protein is consumed.

A complete protein is when that protein contains all the essential amino acids (essential meaning your body cannot produce it/ create it on its own). If two plant based proteins are combined (e.g. peanut butter sandwich, brown rice and lentils) – it is called protein complementation because the essential amino acids that the one source lacks, the other source provides and vice versa.

Other options are:

  • Soy and soy products
  • Dried beans (kidney, black and white beans), peas (chickpeas and black-eyed peas) and lentils (red, brown and green lentils)
  • Grains (quinoa, brown rice, bulgur and oatmeal)
  • Nuts, nut butters (hazelnuts and almond butter) and seeds (sesame and sunflower)
  • Peanuts and peanut butter.

Iron

Vegans need about twice as much dietary iron as non-vegetarians because the iron from plant foods (non-heme iron) isn’t as well absorbed as the iron from animal foods (heme iron). To meet these needs, vegans should choose iron-rich foods daily. Good sources of non-heme iron include:

  • soy and soy products
  • dried beans, peas and lentils
  • fortified grain products
  • some nuts and seeds
  • vegetables like cooked spinach, kale and potatoes with their skins
  • blackstrap molasses

Iron from vegetarian sources is better absorbed when eaten with vitamin-C rich foods. Examples of vitamin C-rich foods include oranges, kiwis, mangos, cantaloupe, sweet peppers.

Vitamin B12

In order to prevent anaemia, nutritional yeast products such as Marmite, can be consumed. However, a vitamin B12 supplement is recommended.

Vitamin D

Luckily in South Africa this isn’t usually a concern, but ensure that you meet your vitamin D requirement by taking:

  • Fortified soy beverages and other fortified non-dairy beverages like rice and almond beverage
  • Non-hydrogenated margarines

Calcium

To prevent deficiency a calcium supplement is recommended. Other food sources additionally to the supplement includes:

  • Other fortified non-dairy beverages like rice and almond beverage
  • Almonds
  • Sesame butter (tahini)
  • Some fruit, like figs and fortified orange juice

Zinc

In order to meet your recommended amount of zinc, include rich sources such as:

  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Pumpkin seeds and sesame seed butter (tahini)
  • Whole grains and fortified cereals.

Linolenic acid (omega-3 fat)

Usually the more expensive food sources contain these Omega 3 fats. Consume the following foods, but do take your omega-3 supplement as well:

  • Oils like canola, flaxseed, walnut and soybean
  • Ground flaxseed
  • Soybeans, tofu and walnuts

Oftentimes a lifestyle change such as this means that the entire family will adapt to this eating pattern. If you have a little one, look out for the following when changing to a vegan/ vegetarian diet:

  • A vegetarian diet can meet your child’s nutritional needs for growth and development. However, it can be challenging to get enough protein, fat, omega-3 fats, vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, calcium and zinc from some vegetarian diets. Pay extra attention to these nutrients (the same facts apply as previous section)
  • Have your child’s weight and length measured regularly by your health care provider to ensure that he/she is growing well

Which one (vegan / vegetarian diet) is the healthier diet?

  • Whichever diet you choose; whether it is a normal, vegetarian or vegan diet, make sure that you pay extra attention to all the factors mentioned to prevent any possible deficiencies.
  • With a normal diet it is however easier to meet requirements than a vegetarian diet, similarly it is easier to meet requirements with a vegetarian diet versus a vegan diet.
  • Less restriction equals more variety.
  • Choose something that is sustainable and can be incorporated into your everyday lifestyle. If you can stick with it, it is more likely to become a lifestyle.
  • If you are unsure about the adequacy of your diet – consult your dietician to get the appropriate guidance.

Vegetarian and vegan diets have various health benefits, but should not just be followed blindly. Do your research and make informed decisions to prevent any possible deficiencies and other side effects.

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