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The rise in popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets is in the news, including stories in the Daily Mail INews. This comes following a release by Kantar Worldpanel of supermarket sales figures and analysis of consumer behaviour. It revealed:

  • Over January 2018, one in ten shoppers purchased a meat-free ready meal. This has increased by 15% compared with the same time last year.
  • During January 2018, 29% of evening meals were now free of meat and fish.
  • Britons consumed 3.9 billion meat free evening meals in the 12 months to October 2015. This rose to 4.3 billion in the 12 months to October 2017.
  • As a nation, we consumed 87 million more entirely vegan-friendly meals in 2017 than in 2015.

Announcements of product sales and ranges underscore these figures. In just two examples, it was also reported in the news this week that sales of Quorn (a meat substitute product) have increased globally by 16%. Last month also saw Tesco bring out their own vegan range, Wicked Kitchen, highlighting the increasing demand for more plant-based options.

Behind the headlines: the Nutrilicious dietetic view

There are many reasons why we could be seeing an increase in the popularity of meat free meals.

The trend of ‘Veganuary’ (where individuals adopt a vegan diet for the month of January) is likely to have contributed to the findings which related to the month of January 2018.

Richard Allen, a spokesman for Kantar Worldpanel, emphasised increasing access to meat-free foods: “The surge in vegetarian evening meals over the past year is down to the wider availability of products which make eating meat-free more attractive and practical.”

He continued: “Our ideas about what’s healthy are also changing – we’re more focussed on foods that are natural and less processed and eating a varied diet.”

What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?

The evidence for plant-based diets is growing and can offer many benefits. Indeed, the updated ‘Eatwell Guide’ saw that plant sources of protein were listed ahead of animal food sources of protein. The protein group now has the title ‘Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins’, highlighting the increased role plant-based diets can play.

Benefits of adopting a more plant-based diet include:

Health

  • Research has shown that vegetarian and vegan populations tend to have lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels and rates of cardiovascular disease compared to their omnivorous counterparts. This could be due to less saturated fat in the diet and more polyunsaturated fats, in addition to other cardio-protective components in the diet such as soya and nuts.
  • Plant-based diets tend to have a more balanced macronutrient profile. For example, the higher fibre content of plant-based diets is often accompanied by lower fat intakes. This can help reduce the energy density of the diet and thus help reduce the total energy (calorie) intake. This could help prevent people being overweight/obese, and therefore any related negative effects and co-morbidities (e.g. type 2 diabetes, increased cancer risk etc).

Environment/sustainability

  • Animal foods are resource intensive (energy, land and water) and thus tend to have higher greenhouse gas emissions compared to plant foods per unit weight.
  • Modelling work has shown that reducing the amount of animal foods in the diet will make a critical contribution to climate change mitigation.

Economic

  • Recent research has suggested that the British government could reduce its healthcare and societal costs by £5.21 billion if just 10 per cent of the UK population emphasised plant-based foods in their diet.

References: Clarkson V, Plant Food Sources of Protein for Optimum Health, Muscle Status and Sustainability – The Evidence and Practice and Schepers J & Annemans L., The potential health and economic impact of plant-based food patterns in Belgium and the United Kingdom. Nutrition 15th December 2017 (in press)

Does this mean meat is off the menu?

Gaining the benefits of a plant-based diet does not have to mean a diet no with meat at all. A ‘flexitarian‘ diet is predominantly plant-based without completely eliminating meat and can be extremely beneficial for health and reducing carbon footprints.

Indeed, meat, poultry and fish are nutritious foods and can provide a range of nutrients beneficial for health. We are advised by the NHS to have two portions of fish per week, one of which is oily. They also advise how meat can fit into the diet.

Takeaway points

We welcome findings that plant-based meals are being explored and becoming more popular. We encourage everyone to enjoy a varied diet featuring a wide variety of plant-based whole foods.

Overall, plant-based eating isn’t new. It’s not radical. And it’s definitely not about cutting things out. A plant-based diet shouldn’t be defined by what it excludes, but by what it includes. The core message is ‘put plants first’. Instead of planning meals around meat, bring veggies, fruits, whole grains, pulses, legumes, nuts and seeds from the side of the plate to front and centre.

It doesn’t have to be wholesale change: many benefits can be achieved by simply reducing intake of meat rather than following a strict vegetarian or vegan diet. We recommend making small steps to include more plant-based foods and meals in your diet, to benefit your health and the planet.

If you do decide to go further, the NHS gives advice on ensuring a vegetarian or vegan diet is balanced. The British Dietetic Association are part of an important alliance with the Vegan Society to share the message that all well-planned vegan diets can support healthy living in people of all ages.

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