Women’s health at risk due to rise in meat-free diets, scientist says

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Young women who consume little to no red meat and dairy are at risk of developing vitamin deficiencies that could lead to health problems later in life, a scientist has said.

Professor Ian Givens, director of the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health at Reading University, told a briefing at the Science Media Centre that half of young women aged between 11 and 18 were consuming below the minimum recommended level of iron and magnesium.

A quarter of women from this age group were consuming too little iodine, calcium and zinc, he added. Prof Givens warned that young women were more at risk of developing nutritional deficiencies than men, which could be because women were “more sensitive to the messages put out about how bad” meat and dairy products are for the environment.

During the briefing on alternative sources of protein, Prof Given said that while there were good environmental reasons for reducing meat intake, the move towards a more plant-based diet should be made “with some caution”.

“We already have a nutrition situation which is quite marginal in many ways and for some of the issues I think we will not know the outcome for quite a long time,” he warned.

“Teenage years are absolutely critical for bone development. If you don’t get it right it has major significance in terms of bone health in the elderly, increasing the risk of breakages which can reduce the quality of life.”

It comes as data from credit checking agency Finder revealed this week that 14 per cent of adults in the UK (7. 2 million) are currently on a meat-free diet, with a further 8.8 million people planning to cut down on meat this year.

Vegetarianism is the most popular meat-free diet, with around 3.3 million Britons adopting it, followed by pescetarianism (2.4m) and veganism (1.6 million).

Prof Givens said that broader comparisons between the benefits of meat and plant-based products should be provided, to show if meat and dairy alternatives provide the same amount of nutrients as their animal-based counterparts.

Anna Mapson, a registered nutritionist at Goodness Me Nutrition, told The Independent that teenage girls especially require high levels of iron and calcium in their diets. If they have deficiencies in these nutrients, it could lead to problems like anaemia and osteoporosis when they grow older.

While it is possible to eat a balanced vegan diet, it does require a lot of planning, understanding what nutrients are lacking in plant-based sources, and what supplements are needed to make up for them, Mapson says.

“For example, Omega-3 is really lacking in a vegetarian diet, but it is really important for brain health. Children between the ages of 11 and 18 have brains that are still developing and they need preformed DHA to support that.

“You can get Omega-3 through some plant-based products but you have to convert it into a suitable form, and you don’t get much of it. Walnuts, hemp seeds and flax seeds can give you a tiny bit, but I would recommend vegans take a preformed Omega-3 supplement,” she adds.

Other supplements she recommends for people on a vegan or vegetarian diet include B12, vitamin D and multivitamins. She urged people to see a qualified nutritionist or doctor if they are unsure of what they need.

Mapson also warns people who are thinking of switching to a vegan diet against switching to vegan meat alternatives without adding different types of vegetables to their meal rotations.

“Focus on a good plant-based diet instead of a junk food diet because then you’re getting more nutrients. Don’t just swap a sausage roll for a vegan sausage roll,” she says.

“Research has shown that eating up to 30 different plant-based foods a week is really good for your gut health, so that would be something to keep in mind if you’re planning to go vegan. Make sure you have as varied a diet as possible to ensure you’re getting as many nutrients as you can.”