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Fad or Fixture: Should You Try a Plant-Based Diet?

Gina Narramore

Gina Narramore

Author

Health & Wellbeing

Are you intrigued about vegan food and would like to know more about plant-based diets? Specialist Dietitian Kirsty Robinson, from The British Dietetic Association, explains everything you need to know.

Whether it’s for your health, the environment, your finances or lifestyle, giving your eating habits a shake-up is a great way to nourish both body and mind.

One diet in particular that’s becoming an increasingly popular choice is a vegan, plant-based diet, which now boasts everything from green credentials to celebrity endorsement and even a rise in new and interesting ‘cheat meat’ foods made from plant products and proteins. But how are we to know if this trend is just a fad, or whether it’s an established food fixture worth pursuing?

To find out more, we spoke with Kirsty Robinson, Specialist Dietitian - Older Peoples’ Services at Barts and The London NHS Trust, from The British Dietetic Association, who detailed for us how plant-based diets have grown in popularity and what perks such diets can offer the over 60s.

What is a Vegan Diet?

A vegan diet is a diet based on plant foods, that doesn’t include any foods derived from animals.

Foods from animals:

 Animal flesh (meat, fish or shellfish) 
 Meat, fish, or bone stock, or stock cubes containing the same 
 Animal carcass fats (including suet, lard or dripping)
 Gelatine, gelatine-based jelly, or aspic (jelly made from meat stock) 
 Products with ingredients derived from the slaughterhouse. For example, animal rennet in cheeses such as Parmesan
 Dairy products including cheese, milk, butter, cream, yoghurt and whey 
 Eggs
 Products with ingredients derived from eggs or dairy, e.g. albumen, casein, ghee, lactose or whey 
 Honey
 Shellac (Glazing agent made from lac bug)

None of these food groups and types would feature in a vegan diet.

What Are the Perks of Being a Vegan? 

#1 It Can be Good for your Health

No matter how old you are, a vegan diet can be a great opportunity to learn more about both nutrition and cooking. What’s more, the foods involved in vegan cuisine are often much better for your health.

Plant foods like whole grains, beans, fruit, nuts, seeds and vegetables are packed full of beneficial fibre, vitamins and minerals. Some research has linked vegan diets with lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.

#2 It’s Good for Our Planet

Up to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK link to agriculture and food production, and the environmental impact of the food that we eat is one of the key changes we can make to tackle the issue of climate change.

#3 It’s Good for the Animals

People may decide to follow a vegan diet to prevent the exploitation of animals. For many, this remains the key factor in their decision to go vegan and stay vegan.

What Should Someone Over 60 Consider Before Becoming Vegan?

If you are over 60 are interested in becoming vegan, or trying a vegan diet, then you should also think about the following aspects:

It May be More Challenging to Eat Enough Protein

People aged 60 years and over are recommended to aim for a daily protein intake of at least 1 to 1.2g per kg of body weight. For example, someone weighing 60kg would require a protein intake of at least 60 to 72g per day. This is 33-60% extra protein in comparison with the UK recommendation for adults younger than 60 years. 

People aged 60 years and over can help protect their muscles, and therefore strength, through a combination of daily activity and extra protein. You can find some additional advice for keeping fit in retirement here

The table below shows a clear comparison of animal and plant-based sources of protein and the differences between them: 

Animal-based sources  Approximate measure  Energy (kcals)  Protein (g) 
 Full fat milk  200ml  130  7
 Dried skimmed milk powder  1 tablespoon (15g)  55  5.5
 Lean chicken  1 breast (100g)  143  20
 Salmon steamed  1 fillet (100g)  251  23.1
 Beef (10% fat)  100g  217  26.1
 Large egg  63g  83  7.8
 Cheese (Cheddar)  60g  125  7.6
       
Plant-based sources  Approximate measure Energy (kcals)
Protein (g)
 Soya drink (unsweetened)  200ml  58  5.4
 Oat drink   200ml  84  0.6
 Coconut milk drink  200ml  40  0.2
 Soya beans  80g  113  11.2
 Soya mince TVP  100g  125  20.5
 QuornTM (Mycoprotein)   100g  85  11
 Kidney beans  80g  101  7
 Lentils  80g  92  7.1

A Vegan Diet Can Be Lower in Energy (Kcal)

An individual’s nutritional needs may change when they age. As people get older, energy (calorie) needs may decrease due to reduced muscle bulk (lean body mass), increased fat stores and reduced physical activity. This can then reduce something called your ‘basal metabolic rate’, which can lower energy (calorie) requirements.

We also hear some over 60s say they ‘don’t need to eat a lot, as they are less active’. However, it’s likely the decrease in energy (calories) is only 100-400 calories per day. It is therefore important that people still eat regular nutritious meals.

This energy requirement is why it’s important to note that a vegan diet can overall be lower in energy. However, there are ways to combat this such as eating more nuts, nut butter, ground almonds, seeds, soya creams and vegetable oils – as these can all increase the energy content of a vegan diet without significantly increasing the volume of food eaten.

You Need to Make Sure You Get the Right Amount of Vitamins and Minerals 

As we age, some of us can have higher nutrient requirements as a result of the body not absorbing vitamins and minerals as well as it used to. So, when on a vegan diet, it’s very important to ensure that all your meals are well planned and additional nutrient supplements are considered.

These supplements can include:

  • Vitamin B12 

B vitamins have a range of important functions in the body, including contributing to healthy red blood cells, metabolism, nerve function, healthy skin, vision, and reducing tiredness.

Long-term vegetarians and vegans should have their vitamin B12 status checked, especially as high folate levels can mask vitamin B12 deficiency.

Foods fortified with vitamin B12 such as cereals and yeast spreads should be eaten twice a day, and the BDA recommends considering a 10mcg daily supplement or at least 2mg per week.

  • Iron

Plant sources of iron include: dried fruits, whole grains, nuts, green leafy vegetables, seeds and pulses.

Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C to help the iron to be absorbed, e.g. citrus fruits, strawberries and peppers.

  • Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium for healthier bones and teeth. Even if you have a calcium-rich diet, without enough vitamin D you cannot absorb the calcium into your bones and cells where it’s needed. Evidence now suggests that most people do not attain enough vitamin D from sunlight and that this vitamin is beneficial for musculoskeletal health.

The Department of Health recommends everyone over the age of four takes a 10ug (0.01mg) vitamin D supplement, especially ‘at risk’ groups (this includes people who are over 65 years of age). You can buy vitamin D supplements containing 10ug over the counter at pharmacies. However, some vitamin D supplements are not suitable for vegans, so instead look for vitamin D2 and lichen-derived vitamin D3 alternatives.

  • Calcium

Calcium is important for the development and maintenance of the skeleton. We lose bone mass as we age, so it is important that we consume plenty of calcium.

Dairy foods are rich in calcium, but if you are on a vegan diet, make sure you obtain calcium from other sources like fortified, plant-based dairy alternatives. For example, fortified soya milk and yoghurts, figs, nuts such as almonds, leafy green vegetables, red kidney beans, sesame seeds, tahini and tofu contain calcium.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids

These fats are shown to be important for health and are commonly found in oily fish. However, if you are not eating fish, plant sources of omega 3 include walnuts, flax (linseed), hemp seeds, chia seeds and soya beans.

Oils such as hemp, rapeseed and flaxseed oil provide essential omega 3 fats and are preferable to corn/sunflower oils.

  • Zinc

Phytates found in plant foods such as whole grains and beans reduce zinc absorption, so it’s important to eat good sources of zinc-containing foods. Eat fermented soya such as tempeh and miso; beans (soak dried beans then rinse before cooking to increase zinc absorption); whole grains; nuts; seeds and some fortified breakfast cereals.

What are the Most-Common Misunderstandings About the Vegan Diet?

There are a number of misconceptions about vegan diets, some of the most-common include:

 

‘Vegan diets are expensive’

Dried pulses can be very cheap when bought in bulk and soya mince and Quorn is often cheaper than meat alternatives. If you’re living alone, then cooking dishes in bulk and freezing may be easier.

Fresh fruits and vegetables in season can be bought cheaply, also tinned and frozen fruits and vegetables are often just as good as fresh. As many others do, you may also find that the exclusion of meat and fancy cheeses can see you save a lot of money too.

‘Vegan diets are always healthy’

It’s important with a vegan diet - as with any diet - to have the correct balance of nutrients. This vegan plate reflects a healthy vegan diet people should aim for if they decide to follow a vegan diet: 

Source: Graphic from "Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition” (2014) and from “Becoming Vegan: Express Edition” (2013), both by Registered Dietitians Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina.

Is There Such Thing as ‘Superfoods’?

Simply said, ‘superfoods’ is a marketing term. There is no one ‘superfood’ which is going to reverse your ageing, speed up your running or make you invincible. Instead, I’d recommend you stick to the nutrition messages you’ve always heard – eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and legumes and you’ll be on the right track to a super diet that contains all the nutrients you need.

No one food contains all the nutrients you need. It’s the balance and variety consumed as part of a healthy diet that is key. I also wouldn’t consider any foods to be ‘super’ because it’s all about variety and quantity. Processed food may be high in salt, and sometimes fat, but even vegan processed foods can fall culprit to this.

What’s the Most Beneficial Vegan Thing for Over 60-Year-Olds to Eat?

We need the right mix of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals from our diet. I think the vegan plate is a great guide for those over 60 considering, or indeed following a vegan diet.

However, I have come across people following very unhealthy vegan diets, eating chips, crisps, bread, cereals, pasta and not a lot else. So, rather than focusing on one beneficial thing to eat, as a vegan its best to eat a wide variety of foods to meet our nutritional needs.

Are There Any Other Key Considerations For Over 60s to Make when Switching to a Plant-Based Diet? 

Regardless of whether you’re going vegan or not, I think it’s important to always consider the sustainability of our food systems – no matter what your age.

It’s very difficult at the point of picking up a food item in the supermarket to know what its impact on the planet to date has been. However, there is enough evidence to support some general principles that we can adopt in the UK to eat more sustainably, these are:

1. Eat a more plant-based, vegan diet.
2. Choose fish from sustainable stocks.
3. Reduce food waste in the home.

It’s also important to remember that dietary changes are often more challenging than people think. Rather than making drastic changes, gradual, small changes can be a good way of making a long-term difference. You should also think about:

  • What are your short/long-term goals from switching diets?
  • The potential benefits and risks of a new diet to your health.
  • What you need to do differently to make the changes sustainable.
  • How you will monitor your progress.
Find out more about nutrition and being vegan here.

McCarthy & Stone also have a wealth of recipes on our site, including many great and delicious vegan options. 

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