With more and more people becoming aware of the ethical, environmental and health benefits associated with vegetarianism and veganism, making the switch is now far more common and popular, largely thanks to social media.
Restaurants have also been making the switch, with most eateries these days offering more than salad leaves and chips to their meat-free eating patrons.
While there are numerous health benefits of eating a plant-based diet, there are certain things you should know when you make the change to ensure you are getting all the nutrients you need for optimal health.
"You may have heard the mantra for good health by Michael Pollan: 'Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.' He may be onto something here as vegan diets are usually higher in dietary fibre, magnesium, folic acid, vitamins C and E, iron and phytochemicals, as well as being lower in calories," Robbie Clark, dietitian and sports nutritionist, told The Huffington Post Australia.
"There is a substantial body of evidence supporting the belief that in general, vegetarians typically enjoy a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
"A vegan diet also appears to be useful for increasing the intake of protective nutrients and phytochemicals, and for minimising the intake of dietary factors implicated in several chronic diseases."
While many people thrive on plant-based diets, Clark warns that everyone's body is different and that it may not be suitable for everyone.
"At the end of the day, the optimal diet for any one person depends on multiple factors such as age, gender, activity levels, current metabolic health, food culture and personal preference," Clark said.
"Vegan and vegetarian diets may be appropriate and beneficial for some people, but not others."
The difference between vegetarian and vegan diets.
A vegetarian will base their diet on foods of plant origin. However, there are different types of vegetarianism, which vary the amount of food derived and eaten from animal sources. According to Nutrition Australia, the major types of vegetarianism are:
- Semi vegetarian -- eats poultry and/or fish, dairy foods and eggs, but no red meat
- Lacto vegetarian -- consumes dairy foods but no meat, poultry, fish or eggs
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian -- includes dairy foods and eggs, but no meat, poultry or fish
- Pescetarian -- includes fish and other seafood, but no meat or poultry (while eggs and/or dairy foods may or may not be eaten)
While there are different variations of veganism (from 'junk food' vegan to raw food vegan), according to The Vegan Society, veganism is "a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose."
A vegan diet only includes plant-based foods such as cereals and grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, soy, nuts and seeds. It excludes all animal-derived foods including meats, fish, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products (including products with casein, whey, rennet or gelatine), animal fats (e.g. lard and suet) and generally also honey.
It's important for vegetarians and vegans to be mindful of their nutrient intake, as essential vitamins and minerals typically found in animal products may be missed.
"There are some potential nutritional shortfalls for those who follow a strict vegan or restricted vegetarian diet," Clark told HuffPost Australia.
"If there is a lack of food variety in the diet, then the individual may be at risk of malnutrition and several nutrient deficiencies."
Some of these nutrient deficiencies may include:
- Vitamin B12
- Omega-3 fatty acids (particularly DHA)
- Vitamin D
"These nutrients are particularly important for certain population groups such as pregnant and breast feeding women, athletes, people with some chronic health conditions, children, adolescents and teenagers and the elderly."
Having a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet is of course possible, but it is important to take extra care to avoid nutrient deficiencies.
1. Eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods
"Be wary that not all foods are created equal in terms of nutrient value," Clark said.
"It's important to educate yourself about what foods and food groups contain the essential macronutrients, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which are important for good health.
"For example, sources of heme iron (from animal sources) are more bioavailable and better absorbed than non-heme (plant-based) sources. So, knowing what foods that are highest in non-heme iron can help a vegan optimise their intake for that nutrient."
One of the best ways to ensure you are getting enough nutrients is to make sure you have a well-balanced, seasonal and varied diet.
"Eat lots of different plants (the more colour the better), try to include plenty of vegetables (especially green leafy vegetables), plus fruits (including berries), legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains," Clark said.
For protein intake, make sure you include these plant-based protein sources.
2. Consider your individual needs
Clark says it's also important to understand what your individual nutrient requirements are for your stage of life, and to make sure you're getting enough of what you need in your diet.
"For example, are you an athlete? Are you planning to fall pregnant? Are you pregnant or breast feeding?" Clark said.
"As nutrient and energy requirements are generally higher for these population groups, it may be more challenging to meet the requirements if you do not have a varied diet or you are a fussy eater. A dietitian or nutritionist can help you formulate the best nutrition and diet plan for your individual needs."
3. Get regular blood tests
According to nutritionist Pip Reed, it's important for vegetarians and vegans to have regular blood tests to check if they are deficient in any of the aforementioned nutrients.
"Often when changing diets and lifestyles, we don't investigate properly and end up missing out on entire food groups, causing malnutrition and unnecessary stress on the body," Reed told HuffPost Australia.
"Nutrient deficiencies are a risk so it is a good idea to have regular blood tests to ensure you maintain your adequate levels and supplement where necessary."
4. Check in with yourself
Reed also recommends taking note of your energy levels and of any side effects you may be feeling which could be related to nutrient deficiencies.
"Check in with yourself often to see how you are feeling," Reed said. "Are you tired? Fatigued? Have a foggy brain or struggling to be productive? Are you short of breath more easily?
"All these are signs of a potential iron or B12 deficiency and should be tested for by your trusted practitioner."
4. Take nutrient supplements
As vegetarians and vegans are at risk of nutrient deficiencies, taking supplements is an easy way to help maintain optimal health.
"Be prepared to take supplements," Clark said. "All vegans should be aware that they are unlikely to meet their vitamin B12 requirements through diet alone. No unfortified plant food contains any significant amount of active vitamin B12."
To avoid a B12 deficiency, Clark recommends vegetarians and vegans should regularly consume vitamin B12 fortified foods such as fortified soy and rice beverages, breakfast cereals, B12 fortified nutritional yeast and even take a daily vitamin B12 supplement.
"Most vegans also require a vitamin D and iodine supplement, and some might require additional protein, calcium, iron and omega-3 (plant-based) supplementation," Clark added.
If you're thinking about making the switch to vegetarianism or veganism, here is some handy beginner's information and, as always, check in with a health professional to help you.