Anne Hathaway, Kate Winslet, Natalie Portman … they all said no to meat. It seems like eating meat is not cool any more. No wonder four million people are vegetarian in the UK, including twice as many women as men!
Apart from being trendy your health can also benefit from cutting out meat. The latest research says that going green can not only speed up our metabolism but also lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels and reduce risk of heart disease. However, is this new trend of going meat-free as healthy as we think?
We asked nutritionists to tell us what the possible risks are and how to be a smart vegetarian!
It might not be your first choice when buying supplements, but iron plays a crucial role in our body. Blood needs it to carry oxygen to our tissues, and then to take the CO2 back to our lungs to be expelled.
Vegetarians and people on low calorie diets typically have low iron levels. In addition, women during menstruation and menopause are in a group of higher risk, due to blood loss.
“Feeling tired and weak is one of the most common symptoms of iron deficiency. Lack of oxygen in blood can also cause dizziness, lightheadedness, fast heartbeat, and problems with concentration as well as anemia. Iron is also essential for generating heat in a body, so if you are lacking it you may experience cold feet and hands regardless of the weather,” explains Dr Marilyn Glenville, the UK’s leading nutritionist, author of The Natural Health Bible for Women (www.marilynglenville.com).
“Recently, there has been a growing tendency to cut down on red meat in our diet, which is a main cause of iron deficiency. It plays a vital role in supporting the immune system, as it helps to transport oxygen throughout the body. Without it, we become fatigued and tired. If you don’t eat red meat, your body doesn’t get a type of iron called heme iron, which is better absorbed than non-heme iron (plant derived),” says Michela Vagnini, nutritionist at www.naturesplus.co.uk.
“Coffee and tea can significantly slow down its absorption, so you might want to cut down on them. On the other hand, Vitamin C can help the absorption, so reach for red peppers, broccoli, kale and berries. Vegetarians can replenish their heme iron levels by eating tofu. During the process of making tofu, the iron changes from vegetable type to heme iron, making it highly absorbable. If you are vegetarian you should reach for dried fruits, lentils, spinach, parsley and pumpkin seeds. Alternatively, if you had your blood test and you are iron deficient, you can replenish it by taking a supplement, such as Iron by Nature’s Plus (www.revital.co.uk for £7.50),” says Cassandra Barns, nutritonist.
Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of every cell in the body (including enzymes, hormones and antibodies). It’s necessary for all growth and repair processes as well as muscle strength. “Without them our body can’t function properly, so since we don’t store protein in our body, we must obtain it in relatively large amounts from our diets. Try to eat pulses every day and combine them with wholegrains to get a complete amino acid profile that is an alternative to animal protein,” suggests Liana Bodiano, nutritonist at www.nutricentre.com, a natural health retailer.
“Pulses include lentils, peas and all kinds of beans (soybeans, chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans, white beans, adzuki, and pinto). These are packed with protein and complex carbohydrates including plenty of fibre, calcium, iron, vitamins and precious minerals,” says Dr Glenville.
Unfortunately, pulses contain anti-nutrient factors including phytic acid that prevent your body from absorbing the valuable nutrients the food contains. “However, sprouting, soaking or souring can reduce their levels so you can more than double your body’s absorption of key minerals, as well as aiding digestion,” explains Elouise Bauskis, nutritonist at www.nutricentre.com.
Good wholegrains to combine with pulses include millet, oats, rice and buckwheat. Quinoa and amaranth are great alternatives to rice or cous cous. “They are actually seeds not grains and are high in protein and iron, whilst being gently alkalising as well,” adds Michela Vagnini.
“Eggs (free-range and organic only) are an excellent source of protein, that can be enjoyed on a daily basis. A hard-boiled egg is also a great way of keeping hunger at bay. Add houmous, tahini and nut butters to your oatcakes and snack on nuts and seeds in between the meals,” suggest Dr Glenville.
If you are active and go to the gym, get your protein daily dose from a good quality protein powder advices Cassandra Barns.
Go for protein powders that are especially formulated for supporting muscle strength. As well as protein, they can contain ingredients such as green tea, guarana, caffeine for extra energy kick, which you might need if you don’t eat meat.”
Not a big fan of popping pills? “Mix protein powder (Spirutein Puretrition, Whole Foods, £48.00) with your favourite fruit, soya milk, flaxseed oil and lecithin granules to make a perfect, balanced breakfast,” says Vagnini.
Have you heard that Rita Ora gets Vitamin B12 injections on a regular basis? No wonder, as this powerful Vitamin is essentials for energy levels. It supports the production of red blood cells and keeps our cells happy, fed and healthy.
As B12 is almost exclusively found in animal tissues, vegetarians have a much higher risk of becoming deficient. What are the symptoms?
“In the beginning, you might just see changes in your mood and having memory troubles. Lack of Vitamin B12, also known as the ‘energy vitamin’, causes not only fatigue but, in the long term, it can lead to nerve damage, depression and behavioural changes. If you are a vegetarian, it is essential to supplement B12 in order to avoid its deficiency, which can take years to occur, but then by the time you see signs, the damage may have already been done! Try Vitamin B12 by Quest Vitamins (www.revital.co.uk, £5.63),” says Barns.
According to the Vegetarian Society there are also foods which provide high doses of B12. That includes cereals, fortified milk replacements, such as oat milk, coconut milk and almond milk as well as chlorella and spirulina. “These ‘superpowders’ will also replenish your iron levels, so you can add them daily to your juices for additional support,” explains Liana Bonadio. Go for ready mixtures, such as Green Lightning by Nature’s Plus (available from www.revital.co.uk, £26.40).
For more lifestyle advice, see our 10 tops tips to cut sugar.