Vegetarian diets are already part of the lives of many people in Spain. There are no studies that provide data on the percentage of Spaniards who follow a diet of these characteristics, but the reality is that there are more and more products aimed at this public and more restaurants whose gastronomic offer revolves around fruits, vegetables and legumes.
According to the Happy Cow website, vegetarian restaurant search engine, while in 2010 there were 200, in 2019 there are already more than 2,200 establishments of these characteristics.
In addition, “it is increasingly easier to obtain food such as seitan or tofu (products widely used by this profile of people) in any grocery store,” inform CuídatePlus Inés Mera, and Adriana Montoto, members of the Nutrition Group of the Spanish Society of Family and Community Pharmacy (Sefac).
On the other hand, according to their data “the distributors of products oriented to the vegetarian public has increased their sales and, even, meat and dairy companies offer vegan ideas in their new catalogs such as vegetable drinks or tofu burgers.”
Today, being a vegetarian is an eating pattern that, sometimes, goes beyond food. This choice may be due to several reasons:
- Religious: Hindu or Buddhism
- Health: there is a certain relationship between vegetarianism and the protective effect of chronic and degenerative diseases.
- Environment: respect for natural resources.
- Ethics: in defense of animal rights.
- Social: by influence of family members, close people or referents.
Apart from this, according to Patricia Lloves, nutritionist of the College of Dietitians and Nutritionists of Navarra, it is important to differentiate between several concepts: vegan diet (in which food of animal origin is completely suppressed), lactovegetarian diet (composed of vegetables and dairy products) ), ovovegetarian diet (vegetables and egg), lactoovovegetarian diet (vegetables, dairy and eggs).
Although the reality is that the prevailing practice is the last option in which “it is consumed, in addition, of vegetables, other products such as dairy and eggs,” highlight Mera and Montoto.
In relation to the question of whether these types of diets are healthy or not, it is important to remember the position of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) in this regard that indicates that, “they are healthy, nutritionally adequate and can provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases ”.
Of course, “as long as they are well planned.” Only then, “would they be appropriate during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, breastfeeding, childhood, childhood and adolescence.”
For Lloves, this aspect is important because “if they are done incorrectly, they can cause health problems due to a deficiency of some nutrient”. Therefore, when starting to follow this type of diet, it is essential to “have the advice of a dietitian-nutritionist.”
Thus, if it is done in a planned way, these types of diets can have an effect on the health of people who follow it and who go beyond weight loss. It is true, as Montoto and Mera point out that “the increase in the consumption of food from vegetables and the decrease in those that come from animals is associated with a decrease in weight.”
But in turn this loss “is usually associated with the decrease in blood glucose, the improvement of the lipid profile and blood pressure levels.”
In this sense, Lloves goes further and points out that, provided it is done in a planned and safe way, “vegetarian diets can be effective in reducing the risks of heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity and some types of cancer” .
As stated in the document Vegetarian children, healthy children ?, by Miriam Martínez Biarge, pediatrician and member of the Department of Pediatrics at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust Hammersmith Hospital, London, “studies on vegetarian children show that their growth and development it is within the normal range for its reference population, although they generally have a lower body mass index ”
These people tend to consume more fruits, vegetables and legumes so their intake of fiber, vitamins A, C and E, folate, iron, magnesium and potassium is usually higher.
Because of the high consumption of these products, proteins are not a problem in vegetarian food, although this has been one of the fears of health professionals and the general population.
According to Martínez Biarge, “all plant proteins contain all amino acids, both essential and essential as they are not, the only thing that varies are the proportions of some of them when comparing several food groups with each other.” For example, cereals have less lysine than legumes or some nuts such as pistachios.
In general, “it can be said that vegetarian food can cover the protein needs and daily intake of essential amino acids, thanks to the diversity of plant-based foods,” the pharmaceutical companies say.
According to the pediatrician “the best way to guarantee an optimal protein intake in a vegetarian diet would be to include at least two or three servings a day of legumes, nuts and seeds.” Examples of rations would be: “Half plate of any cooked legume, two tablespoons of peanut butter, a glass of soy milk or two soy yogurts, a hamburger or two tofu sausage and a seitan steak.”
On the fats, the good news is that these diets are usually low in saturated fats “unless the consumption of eggs and cheese is high or that many processed products made with palm oil or hydrogenated vegetable oils are taken, which you always have to avoid ”, according to Martínez Biarge. In addition, they are high in monounsaturated fatty acids, “which in itself confers advantages in relation to cardiovascular risk.”
In addition, they usually contain a higher iron content than those that are not. “The state of this nutrient is what determines its absorption, that is, non-heme iron from the plant world is absorbed less than heme iron from meat,” warn Montoto and Mera.
In addition, as they comment, “there are certain iron inhibitors such as filatos (present in legumes, nuts, cereal bran …) calcium, tea or coffee that inhibit or decrease the absorption of this nutrient” .
For this reason, to increase the use of this nutrient from vegetables, a possible alternative would be “take it with foods rich in vitamin C (guava, red pepper, cabbage, broccoli or kiwi), which enhance the absorption of non-heme iron and , to a large extent, to counteract the effect of filatos ”, they point out from Sefac.