Health

While vegans and vegetarians are sometimes regarded with scepticism, nutritional experts suggest Australians’ health could benefit greatly from an increased intake of plant-based foods. By Michele Tydd.

The benefits of plant-based eating

Grace Mitchell embraces her vegan diet.
Credit: SUPPLIED

Gold Coast teenager Grace Mitchell was 15 when she got the green light from her mother to switch to a vegetarian diet, on the proviso she met her nutritional needs and cooked her own meals.

The choice was complicated by the fact Mitchell had been an insulin-dependent diabetic since she was 12. An unfamiliar diet meant careful monitoring of her blood sugars, which could become dangerously high or low with the wrong balance of foods. Within a year of the switch, Mitchell, now 18, went a step further to become a vegan. Veganism not only eliminates meat, poultry and fish but also any other product derived from animals, including milk, eggs, cheese, honey and gelatine.

Mitchell made the decision on ethical grounds, as a stand against animal cruelty. She did not foresee the significant improvement in her diabetic blood sugar control, which is vital in reducing the risk of serious complications.

“My average blood sugar levels, which are tested every three months, were always within acceptable levels,” says Mitchell. “But now they’re the best they’ve been … my last one was the second-lowest of all the kids at the diabetic clinic.”

She puts the improvement down to the complex rather than refined carbohydrates contained in her plant-based diet.

In 2016, 11.2 per cent of Australian adults identified as vegetarian or close to it, up from 9.7 per cent in 2012, according to a Roy Morgan Research study. Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the statement: “The food I eat is all, or almost all, vegetarian.”

This growth of vegetarianism is attracting increasing attention among researchers whose traditional focus has shifted from the potential nutritional deficiencies to the health benefits.

Studies in the United States, Britain and Australia have established a balanced vegetarian diet can lower the risk of cardiac events as well as obesity, some cancers and type 2 diabetes. Plenty of literature now exists on how to get that balance to ensure vegetarians do not miss out on important nutrients such as iron, calcium and first-class protein.

The big question now for researchers, however, is how to get more people to move towards plant-based meals regardless of the particular diet they choose, says Professor Sarah McNaughton, a nutritional epidemiologist at Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition.

McNaughton, also an advanced accredited practising dietitian, says less than 4 per cent of Australian adults have the recommended five to six serves of vegetables a day.

“It is quite difficult to accurately find out how prevalent vegetarianism is in Australia because we don’t have very good data on that,” she says.

One of the reasons, she points out, is because the last national snapshot of dietary patterns in Australia – the national nutrition survey – was for 2011 to 2013. And it contained no specific reference to vegetarianism.

“It was the first survey since 1995 and I think that is too long a lag time to understand what is happening with our population,” McNaughton says. “Because if we don’t have a great understanding of the basics of how people are eating, then it’s hard for us to make any recommendations or to work out priorities.”

Her study focus is dietary patterns, and while there is increasing evidence that plant-based diets are beneficial, she says that does not necessarily involve having to totally exclude meat or meat products.

But a possible barrier to changing attitudes of what constitutes a healthy meal is the cultural link to the Anglo-Saxon diet where most meals are designed around meat. “Vegetables have a terrible reputation as quite boring and unappealing, which can make it hard to get people to change,” McNaughton says.

 

Grace Mitchell says ingrained attitude has been one of the hardest issues to deal with as a vegan.

“I wouldn’t say I got bullied at school, but there were some girls who were good at throwing around comments and jokes that were quite disrespectful,” she says. “They just didn’t get it, the connection between food and a living animal.”

Her parents are supportive, and will often happily share in the food she prepares, but big events such as Christmas and Mother’s Day with extended family and friends can often become difficult.

“It’s not like I bring up veganism at the table or comment on their food, but they [guests] start with the comments when they see I’m not eating what they are, and they don’t hold back,” Mitchell says. “These people have no idea how much cruelty is in these meals and yet they’ll make jokes about what I’m eating. It’s upsetting.”

Personal trainer David Coulter, 45, of Sutherland in Sydney has been vegan for two years after watching his beagle Angus suffer and die from cancer. “Around the same time I watched a few videos on animal exploitation and it changed my whole perspective on meat-based diets. I’d open the fridge and all I’d see was death and it got to me. As a personal trainer nutrition is part of my qualifications, so the switch was no problem. My partner converted from vegetarian to vegan at the same time so it makes it a lot easier than living with a meat-eater.”

Coulter says the positive health spinoff for him has been the improved recovery time after training sessions.But he agrees the social aspect of being a vegan has proved tricky. “I don’t go to barbecues anymore because it just ends in arguments. When you tell people why you’re not eating meat they are immediately on the defensive. They somehow feel you are suggesting they are unethical and it can escalate from there.”

Even invitations to friends’ homes for dinner have become problematic.

“It’s getting to crunch point with me because it’s hard now as an animal rights activist to sit down with friends when they have parts of dead cow sitting on the table,” Coulter says. “Socially we tend now to eat out … There are some great vegan restaurants which have menus that appeal to everybody.”

Helen Marston, 51, of Heathmont in Melbourne, says she has had an easier ride in the 40 years she has been vegetarian, 18 of those as a vegan. The CEO of Humane Research Australia says she is always happy to take her own food when invited to people’s homes, but says it is not usually necessary. “I was asked to a barbecue recently where the hosts went out of their way to make me stuffed capsicums and vegetarian sausage rolls. I find people in my life are interested in veganism and are more than happy to accommodate my diet or to share my food.”

Marston switched to a plant-based diet at 11 for ethical reasons but like Mitchell she has found positive health spinoffs. When diagnosed with oestrogen-receptive related breast cancer at the age of 44 she cast a critical eye over her vegan diet and decided to ditch the junk food and start juicing and including more wholefoods in her meals.

“Doctors at the time said I’d probably get sick on the chemo, but that didn’t happen and although I can’t say for sure, I’m convinced my diet did help,” Marston says. “Any diet, whether vegan or not, has the potential to be healthy or unhealthy. You can easily be a vegan and eat lots of chips and lollies.

“People assume when they see vegan it automatically means healthy … It still comes down to choice no matter what diet you choose.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 19, 2018 as "Power plants". Subscribe here.

Michele Tydd
is an Illawarra-based freelance journalist.