If we are to believe the latest headlines, veganism is now a life choice for up to 3.5 million in the UK and retailers are giving more shelf space for new vegan ready meal ranges.(1) The science is also growing that a diet based around more plant foods is critical for the nation’s and planet’s future health. But what is driving this trend and can it really be sustainable?
A key driver, for once, is not the search for the latest weight loss magic cure but instead the growing concern for a more sustainable planet. This is supported by a wealth of science that eating less meat, moderating dairy intakes and making our diets more plant-based is the way forward for both public health and environmental sustainability.(2,3)
The British Dietetic Association (BDA) launched its sustainable diets’ policy and One Blue Dot® (OBD®) dietetic toolkit last year highlighting that our food choices are responsible for up to 30% of UK greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe), uses up most of our water supply and is the leading cause of deforestation, biodiversity loss and soil and water pollution.(3) Interestingly, livestock production is by far the biggest dietary environmental contributor especially ruminants e.g. beef and dairy cattle. Additionally, following an extensive review of evidence, the BDA concluded that a diet based on predominantly plant foods is not only essential for the security of our planet but is also conducive to better health outcomes.(3)
The 2016 Eatwell guide also embraced sustainable issues increasing the recommendation for plant-based foods and prioritising plant food sources of protein over animal sources.(4)
Many health professionals however, have voiced their concerns with regard to the micronutrient quality of diets devoid of meat and dairy especially with regard to key nutrients such as iron, zinc, calcium, iodine and vitamin B12.
Putting the science into perspective for the mass population
The scientific evidence can no longer be ignored; reducing red meat and moderating dairy consumption is critical if we are to reduce the environmental burden and improve the nation’s health.(2,3,5,6) The science also emphasises that reducing food waste and consuming fish from sustainable sources are also as equally important.(7,8)
|The key public health message is LESS meat and MODERATE dairy intakes – not the complete avoidance. This is fundamental if we are to motivate the whole nation to come on board.|
The evidence is also robust that a more high quality plant-based diet will improve health outcomes and will not compromise nutritional status even with regard to micronutrients of concern such as iron and calcium.(3,5,9-12)
Veganism may not be for the majority, but we should not dismiss it as nutritionally inadequate
Going vegan is a personal consumer choice and is the ultimate environmentally friendly dietary pattern. However, from a mass population perspective, it may not be a dietary pattern likely to be achieved by the majority who are in most need of improved health outcomes.
Are there really 3.5 million vegans in the UK? This statistic is based on a survey by Compare the Market which simply asked 2,000 adults if they had ever followed a vegan diet. It did not actually ask if they were still vegan nor did it investigate what they were actually eating.
The Vegan Society provides more robust statistics and its 2018 estimate is that just over half a million (600,000) people in the UK are now vegan. More importantly, its review highlights the growth in demand for more vegan options and less meat consumption:(13)
• Going vegan was the biggest trend in 2018.
• 2017 saw a 987% increase in the demand of meat-free foods.
• Google searches for ‘vegan’ quadrupled between 2012 and 2017.
• 11% of the UK population has tried a vegan diet at some point in their lifetime.
• The 2018 Veganuary campaign saw a 183% increase in participation – 168,500 vs 59,500 in 2017.
• 28% of Brits have reduced their meat consumption and 35% have a meat-free day.
Can a vegan diet meet all macro and micronutrient needs?
There has been much debate and concern by health professionals with regard to following a vegan diet that provides adequate key nutrients found in meat and dairy such as iron, zinc, iodine and vitamin B12. However, the evidence does not demonstrate that those following a healthy balanced vegan diet are deficient in these nutrients. What it does show is that vegan dietary patterns are more conducive to better health outcomes such as lower incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancers.(5,6,14,15)
The evidence reviewed by the BDA OBD® highlights that well planned diets that contain less meat and moderate dairy intakes can meet all macro and micro-nutrient recommendations.(3,9)
January 16th saw the much awaited Lancet EAT report. Fronted by the Wellcome trust, a group of leading scientific experts came together to identify the most ideal dietary scenario for optimum health and environmental stability.
"Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth."
After an exhaustive review of the evidence, they have proposed a dietary pattern predominantly based on high quality plant-based foods with less reliance on (but not omission of) meat and moderate dairy food intakes as most conducive to optimum health and environmental sustainability. To achieve this, the report proposes changes in farming and food production processes, how healthier and more sustainable foods are marketed, priced and made more available and the importance of reducing food waste.
The BDA OBD® toolkit undertook an extensive scientific critique with regard to key micronutrients found in meat and dairy and the implications of following a more plant-based diet or a diet based purely on plants. The key nutrients of focus were: iron, calcium, zinc, iodine, selenium and vitamins B12 & D.
The overall conclusions were that individuals following a plant-based diet which includes some meat and dairy will not be nutritionally compromised. However, vulnerable groups avoiding all dairy produce and / or red meat and / or seafood and seaweed may require additional supplements of zinc, iodine and vitamin B12.
An extensive scientific critique regarding the implications of plant-based diets on iron, zinc, calcium, iodine, selenium and vitamins B12 and D status and intakes.
CLICK HERE to view
PLEASE NOTE: this resource is currently available for BDA members only
Putting the evidence into practice. Following the extensive scientific critique 'Nutritional Considerations', the BDA OBD Toolkit provides the practical implications of following both a sustainable and healthful diet. Focusing on the key UK and Irish nutrients predominantly provided from our higher than ideal consumption of meat and dairy, this guide provides an extensive list of suitable plant sources of the the below nutrients as well as highlighting current intakes and population groups potentially at risk of deficiency.
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
PLEASE NOTE: this resource is currently available for BDA members only
The BDA has taken some of the UK's favourite breakfasts and meals and demonstrated how easily they can be transformed to contain more healthful plant foods whilst meat and / or dairy is not omitted but simply reduced.
PLEASE NOTE: this resource is currently only available to BDA members.
To find out more about the BDA OBD sustainable diets project and access more resources:
1. The Independent. Number of vegans in UK soars to 3.5 million, survey finds [Internet]. 2018 [cited 1/9/2019]. Available from: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/vegans-uk-rise-popularity-plant-based-diets-veganism-figures-survey-compare-the-market-a8286471.html
2. FCRN Food Source. FCRN Food Source. Chapter 1: An overview of food system challenges [Internet]. 2015 [cited 8/27/2018]. Available from: https://foodsource.org.uk/chapters
3. BDA. One Blue Dot - Environmentally Sustainable Diet Toolkit [Internet]. 2018 [cited 1/9/2019]. Available from: https://www.bda.uk.com/professional/resources/environmentally_sustainable_diet_toolkit_-_one_blue_dot
4. PHE. The Eatwell Guide [Internet]. 2016 [cited 7/13/2018]. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-eatwell-guide
5. Scarborough P, Allender S, Clarke D et al. Modelling the health impact of environmentally sustainable dietary scenarios in the UK. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2012;66(6):710-5.
6. Cobiac L, Scarborough P, Kaur A et al. The Eatwell Guide: Modelling the Health Implications of Incorporating New Sugar and Fibre Guidelines. PLoS One.. 2016;11(12):10.
7. WRAP. Estimates of Food Surplus and Waste Arisings in the UK [Internet]. 2017 [cited Aug 2018]. Available from: http://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/Estimates_%20in_the_UK_Jan17.pdf
8. Government Office for Science. Food waste: A response to the policy challenge [Internet]. 2017 [cited Aug 2018]. Available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/643557/food-waste-policy-challenge-response_-_FINAL.pdf
9. BDA. OBD Nutritional Considerations [Internet]. 2018 [cited 1/9/2019]. Available from: https://www.bda.uk.com/professional/resources/obd_nutritional_considerations_home
10. Gonzalez Fischer C, Garnett T. Plates, pyramids and planets. Developments in national healthy and sustainable dietary guidelines: a state of play assessment [Internet]. 2016 [cited Jul 2018]. Available from: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i5640e.pdf
11. Horgan G, Perrin A, Whybrow S et al. Achieving dietary recommendations and reducing greenhouse gas emissions: modelling diets to minimise the change from current intakes. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act.. 2016;13:46.
12. Biesbroek S, Verschuren W, Boer J et al. Does a better adherence to dietary guidelines reduce mortality risk and environmental impact in the Dutch sub-cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition? Br J Nutr.. 2017;118(1):69-80.
13. The Vegan Society. The Vegan Society - Statistics [Internet]. 2019 [cited 1/9/2019]. Available from: https://www.vegansociety.com/news/media/statistics
14. Aleksandrowicz L, Green R, Joy E et al. The Impacts of Dietary Change on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Land Use, Water Use, and Health: A Systematic Review. PLoS One.. 2016;11(11):10.
15. Springmann M, Godfray H, Rayner M et al. Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.. 2016;113(15):4146-51.
16. EAT-Lancet Commissions: Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. https://www.thelancet.com/commissions/EAT