What to expect when you turn vegetarian
Plant-based living is on the rise, and with good reason. Some experts point out that people on a plant-based diet are consistently slimmer and healthier than meat eaters, with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. Today, we explore some of the benefits of adopting a vegetarian diet. If you’re considering it, are interested in incorporating more plant foods in your diet, or simply want to eat a vegetarian diet one day a week to participate in Meat Free Mondays, then read on to find out what benefits and challenges you can expect from adopting this lifestyle.
1. Happiness lies in your belly
It turns out that not only could a vegetarian diet reduce your risk of disease, but it could even make you feel happier! A study published in the Journal of Neural Transmission suggested that vegetarians tend to feel happier, on average, than meat-eaters. One of the reasons for this could be that as vegetarians don’t eat meat or fish, they’re more likely to fill up their plate with healthy carbohydrates in the form of fruits, vegetables, grains and pulses.
But why do carbs make us feel happy?
Well, firstly, they provide our body with glucose. The brain requires this monosaccharide to perform its basic functions, as well as to make decisions, focus or do mental calculations. Our brains can be a bit like a sulky toddler in need of a lollipop. When the brain doesn´t get the glucose it needs, you get crabby and distracted. In fact, “the brain needs glucose for energy and diets low in carbohydrates can be detrimental to learning, memory, and thinking,” says Holly A. Taylor, a psychology professor at Tufts University.
Secondly, eating carbohydrates increases serotonin production. Serotonin is a chemical found in the human body, which carries signals along and between nerves. According to the Mayo Clinic serotonin plays a key role in controlling depression because it is the body´s natural “feel good” hormone.
Finally, 90% of serotonin is produced in the digestive tract and vegetarians tend to have healthier digestive tracts as they consume more dietary fibre than non-vegetarians.
It makes sense, therefore, that if you want to feel happier or you´ve been feeling a little down in the dumps lately, that the healthiness of your digestive tract could have something to do with it.
The following tips will keep your digestive system working as efficiently as possible.
- Keep junk food to a minimum. As we age, a poor diet can catch up with us and result in low stomach acid. This means that our digestion of protein, carbohydrates and fats cannot be completed properly.
- Get your raw food-fix. Eat fibre and water-rich fruits and vegetables. Raw-foods are crucial for their nutrient value and serotonin-boosting properties. They´re great for your digestive tract as they’re very easy to digest. According to the NHS, people in the UK get about 14g of fibre a day, but you should be aiming for at least 30g
- Go straight to the source. Foods which contain completely formed serotonin include bananas, kiwis, pineapples, plantains, plums, tomatoes and walnuts
- Rev up your system with probiotics. Gut flora aids in the digestion of fats and proteins. To get more good bacteria in your intestines, and also fight off the bad, opt for a good probiotic supplement. You can also get probiotics from various vegetarian food sources including sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), miso soup, natural yoghurt (specifically ones with “live and active cultures”), kefir (a fermented milk drink), kombucha (fermented tea), spirulina, sourdough bread, pickles, tempeh, kimchi and soft cheeses
- Don´t stop chugging H2O. Drink lots of water to aid digestion. Water helps your body to break down the food in your digestive tract so that your body can absorb the nutrients
2. You´re likely to have more energy
When you´re eating enough carbohydrates and nutrient-dense foods from healthy plant-based sources, not only will you be feeling more satisfied, but you will also have more energy! Natural sources of carbohydrates are our bodies’ primary source of energy.
In addition, when you have more energy, you will naturally be inclined to exercise, and physical activity, in turn, gives you even more energy, and makes you feel good about yourself as a result of the endorphins flooding your system (plus, who doesn´t love that post-workout feeling?)
3. Keep an eye on these nutrients
Vegetarians can be at risk of developing a deficiency in vitamin D, iron and vitamin B12. However, “some studies have mentioned that the observed deficiencies are usually due to poor meal planning.” Let´s address these vitamins to learn a bit more about them.
- Vitamin D: it is rather difficult for our bodies to absorb this vitamin from food. Fortunately, it can be readily made by our bodies simply by exposing our skin to about fifteen minutes of sunshine (whilst not wearing SPF) every couple of days.
- Vitamin B12: it is estimated that our bodies can hold a one to three-year store of vitamin B12, however, if you are vegetarian you can be at risk of developing a deficiency in this nutrient if you don’t stay on top of it. Try adding plant-based sources of B12 such as so called superfoods Maca and Spirulina and foods which have been fortified with B12, including nutritional yeast, silken tofu and some non-dairy milks. Also -depending on the type of vegetarian diet you are following- including dairy and eggs, could be very helpful.
- Iron: “heme iron” found in meat and seafood, is better absorbed than the “non-heme iron” found in plant foods. However, the iron in plant foods is better regulated, causing less damage to the body. If you consume plant sources of iron with vitamic-C rich foods, absorption can increase as much as five times. Vegetarians can find iron in sunflower seeds, nuts, beans, dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, tofu and whole grains. In fact, pumpkin seeds contain more iron per 100g than chicken liver, oysters and mussels!
Maybe it’s not about what vegetarian’s get less of, but what they get more of. On a whole-foods vegetarian diet, you can expect to get more vitamins A, C and E, dietary fibre, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, beta-carotene, and phytochemicals (such as carotenoids and flavonoids), than those who consume meat and fish.
Vegetarian meals can be incredibly unusual, colourful and delicious, encouraging you to try different cuisines and recipes. You could end up trying tons of different foods and combinations which you wouldn´t otherwise have tried! On top of that, you could get healthier in the process. The American Dietetic Association concluded that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
Want to include more plant-based foods in your diet? Check out our In Season Fruit and Veg Shopping List!