With increasing concern about the link between processed meat and cancer, what is the best way to eat a healthy vegetarian diet?
Eating a plant-based diet is more popular than it has ever been. Lots of people go vegetarian or vegan, or cut down on how much meat they eat, to improve their health. There was recently a jump in the upward trend of stepping away from meat, triggered by a World Health Organisation report.
Does eating meat cause cancer?
The report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) evaluated the link between red and processed meat and cancer, and classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen1. Other Group 1 carcinogens are substances such as alcohol and tobacco. This does not mean that eating processed meat is as risky as smoking, but it does mean that there is a proven link between processed meat and cancer.
Processed meats such as bacon and sausages are in Group 1, which means they are a definite cause of cancer. Red meats such as pork, beef and lamb are in Group 2A, meaning they probably cause cancer. However, the risk from eating processed meat is less than other Group 1 carcinogens such as tobacco. For example, if no one in the UK smoked it’s believed there would be 64,500 fewer cases of cancer. If no one ate any red or processed meat there would be around 8,800 fewer cases2. Eating red meat increases your risk of in particular, and 21 percent of bowel cancers are caused by red meat2.
At BMI Healthcare we have lots of information on the different cancer types and the treatments available.
Eating a vegetarian diet is a good way to keep your body healthy and reduce your risk of bowel cancer. A healthy vegetarian diet includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, starchy foods, some dairy products and non-dairy protein sources such as eggs and beans. You can get advice on how to improve your vegetarian diet and make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need with a dietary consultation.
Protein in a vegetarian diet
If you are eating a vegetarian diet, you need to take extra care to make sure you eat enough protein. Milk and dairy products are good sources of protein, as well as containing calcium and vitamins A and B12. However, they can also be high in fat so try and choose low-fat options such as skimmed milk wherever possible.
Pulses, such as lentils, beans and peas, are low-fat sources of protein and fibre and a portion of any natural pulses also counts as a portion of vegetables. You can also try meat alternatives such as tofu and mycoprotein (which is in products such as Quorn). Remember, it’s important to get your protein from a range of sources so that your body gets the right mixture of amino acids to build and repair your cells3.
Iron in a vegetarian diet
Vegetarians are more likely to develop an iron deficiency, potentially leading to anaemia. However, there are plenty of meat-free sources of iron, so it is easy to keep your iron levels healthy. Eggs, pulses, dark-green vegetables and wholemeal bread all contain lots of iron. You can also try cereals that are fortified with additional iron, or take iron supplement tablets3.
Vitamin B12 in a vegetarian diet
Vitamin B12 only occurs naturally in animal products. This means that you probably get enough of it if you eat plenty of dairy products or eggs. If you don’t, fortified yeast extracts such as Marmite, and fortified breakfast cereals and soya products are also reliable sources3.
A vegan diet is entirely plant based, avoiding all foods that come from animals. This includes eggs and dairy products. A vegan diet provides the vast majority of protein and nutrients that you need, but you do need to be conscious of what you eat so that you don’t miss out on essential nutrients such as calcium, iron and vitamin B12. If you need more advice on how to make sure your vegan diet provides everything you need to be healthy, try a dietary consultation.
Calcium and vitamin D in a vegan diet
You need calcium to keep your bones and teeth strong. Many dairy alternatives such as soya, rice and oat drinks are fortified with calcium, as is shop-bought bread. Sesame seeds and tahini are good natural sources of calcium, along with most pulses4.
You also need to take on plenty of vitamin D to enable your body to absorb calcium. The best and most enjoyable way to do this is to get out in the sunshine, but remember to cover up and wear sun cream. Many breakfast cereals and soya drinks are fortified with vitamin D, and you can also take supplements. This is a particularly good idea in the dark winter months when sunshine is in short supply4.
Iron in a vegan diet
Vegans need to eat plenty of iron-rich foods to prevent iron deficiency and anaemia, as iron from plant-based foods is less easily absorbed than iron from meat. Pulses, wholemeal bread, leafy green vegetables and nuts are all good sources of iron, and are staples of a healthy vegan diet4.
Vitamin B12 in a vegan diet
Vegan sources of vitamin B12 are limited, as it only occurs naturally in animal products. Many foods are deliberately fortified with vitamin B12, including breakfast cereals, soya drinks and yeast extracts such as Marmite. You can also take a vitamin B12 supplement to make sure you’re getting enough4.
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