Nutrition Advent Calendar - Day 21

Vegetarian & Vegan Diets - Pros & Cons

Vegetarian & vegan style diets are very popular nowadays, including athletes. They are claimed to be the healthiest diet to follow because they prioritise naturally sourced plant based foods (fruits and vegetables). This is great and probably how all diets should be, but is this the only benefit and are there any downsides to a plant-based diet?

Just to be clear, I am in no way against vegetarian/vegan diets, I just want to outline any potential risks and help people who choose to adopt these diets to get the best results, whatever your intentions for it are...

Types of plant-based diets:
Pescatarian - includes chicken and fish
Lacto-ovo vegetarian - Also eats eggs and/or dairy
Vegan - avoid all animal products

Pros:
 Obtain a variety of fruits and vegetables each day
 Useful diet for weight loss
 Increased feelings of satiety (high food volume, low energy intake)
 High intake of fibre
 Non-vegans will have no issues meeting daily protein requirements 
 Naturally high carbohydrate diets to support endurance training

On the fence:
 Well-designed vegetarian and vegan diets neither hinder nor aid performance
 Not enough data on effects of body composition changes (muscle mass/fat mass)
 Mixed results on soy protein & effects on male hormone levels

Cons:
 Vegan diets can be low in protein and fat
 Common nutrient deficiencies 
- Vit B12 (both should supplement)
- Vit D (EVERYONE should supplement)
- Calcium (plant sources may limit absorption, only issue for non-dairy consumers)
- Iron (High in iron but absorption may be the issue, include vit C foods with meals and/or supplement (all non-red meat eaters; female vegan endurance athletes at high risk of anaemia)
- Zinc (potential problem for vegans)
- Iodine (potential issue for non-seafood/dairy/egg eaters)
- Omega-3 (non-fish eaters will need to supplement - algae based EPA/DHA)

 Vegans have more trouble achieving protein needs without using protein supplements
 When dieting, especially in athletes, higher protein intakes are advised to promote muscle retention & recovery, combat hunger and enhance mood
 Vegans therefore need more protein as protein quality of diet is lower compared to vegetarian & meat eaters

Take home messages
- Many health benefits to a plant based diet & for weight loss
- Be wary of nutrient deficiencies & supplement where needed
- Female athletes (esp vegans) should be checked for iron deficiency anaemia

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