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According to the Vegan Society there has been a 350% rise of veganism in the UK in the last 10 years; bringing it to a total of half a million people. Growing numbers are deciding to be vegetarian or vegan for health reasons. It’s known that a healthy diet, plenty of exercise and keeping weight in check helps to reduce menopause symptoms. But what about going vegetarian or vegan? Are there really further health benefits or are there downsides?

Vegetarian and vegan diets
Vegetarians don’t eat foods that consist of, or have been produced using, any body part of a living or dead animal. This includes meat, poultry, fish, insects, by-products of slaughter or any foods made with processing aids created from these.

Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat both dairy products and eggs; this is the most common type of vegetarian diet. Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but not eggs. Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but not dairy products. Vegans don’t eat dairy products, eggs or any other products derived from animals.

Health benefits
Risks of heart disease rise when your oestrogen levels fall. A vegan diet, in particular, can help offset risk factors for heart disease. Most vegans tend to be a lot leaner than non-vegans. This is good for your heart and reduces the risk of many cancers that become more common when your weight increases. BMI is a measure of how your weight relates to your height; the ideal BMI is between 19.5 and 24.9. The average BMI of vegans has been found to be 23.6 and that of vegetarians (lacto-ovo) 25.7. In vegetarians who also eat fish (pesco-vegetarian), BMI is 26.3. It is 28.8 in non-vegetarians.

A vegan diet tends to be low in saturated fat, so cholesterol levels tend to be lower in vegans. The lighter weight also helps to keep down blood pressure and reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes too. Increased fibre in these diets can help offset diabetes, cancers and heart disease.

Vegetarian diets that focus on plant-based foods will have similar advantages. Lacto-ovo vegetarians were found to have a 9% reduction in all-cause mortality, and vegans a reduction of 15% compared to non-vegetarian diets. The leaner body weight also means less inflammation and therefore fewer hot flushes during the menopause. A plant-based diet tends to mean you eat more phytoestrogens (plant oestrogens), such as those found in soya beans and food made from them such as tofu. This is also thought to help reduce hot flushes.

Plant-based diets tend to be higher in potent anti-inflammatory agents (such as anthocyanins), especially those found in colourful plants such as berries, sweet potatoes and red onion. Consuming these can help offset arthritic pain and reduce menopausal symptoms. Research also suggests it may reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Eating too much red and processed meat has been increasingly linked with colorectal (bowel) cancer; the incidence of which rises after the menopause. A more plant-based diet seems to protect against this and other forms of cancer, including female-specific cancers such as breast and ovarian cancer.

Remember that any benefits from vegetarian and vegan diets will only happen if they contain a complete balance of nutrients. It’s possible to eat junk food, even on a vegan diet, so careful menu planning is essential or you may end up with nutrient deficiencies.

Nutrient deficiencies
Your osteoporosis risk increases as your oestrogen levels fall during the menopause. Bone health will suffer if you don’t get enough calcium, vitamin D and protein. Vegans should have calcium-fortified products, such as alternative dairy ‘milks’ or foods such as tofu (calcium salts are needed to make this curd). Everyone is now advised to take a vitamin D supplement of 10 mcg in the darker months (October to March). This should extend all year round to vegans.

Vitamin B12 deficiency is serious, with symptoms ranging from a form of anaemia, numbness in the arms, memory loss and difficulty walking. As an essential nutrient, B12 is only found in animal products (including eggs and milk) and not generally in plant foods. In particular, older adults can have difficulty in absorbing B12 from food and develop a condition called pernicious anaemia. Vegans should supplement their diet with B12 or ensure they get enough from fortified foods such as yeast extracts.

Maintaining healthy iron levels is an important aspect of a vegetarian and vegan diet. Iron, however, is present in a variety of vegetarian foods. So getting enough of this mineral is about ensuring you eat a wide range of foods; good sources of iron suitable for vegans include pulses, including chickpeas and lentils, tofu, cereals and breakfast cereals (some are fortified), green leafy vegetables, nuts and dried fruit. In a meat-free diet, vitamin C helps with iron absorption. You can get vitamin C from citrus fruit and juices as well as some salad items and leafy greens.

It’s now recommended that older adults get adequate protein in their diet to offset any decline in muscle quantity and strength, a condition known as sarcopenia. As women start with less muscle mass than men, this can have more serious effect in women than men, making them frail and weak. A lack of protein can also lead to impaired wound healing and a weakened immune function. Vegans in particular need to take special care to make sure they get enough protein. They should have at least four helpings a day of protein-rich vegan sources such as peas, chick peas, beans, legumes, nuts and nut butters, hummus, bean burgers and dishes made with tofu.

Fish oils are a good source of EPA and DHA, offering a number of possible benefits including anti-inflammatory effects, protection against Alzheimer’s disease and helping to reduce the severity of rheumatoid arthritis. Your body can make these from plant sources (alpha linoleic acid) but in illness or with older age, the process is less efficient. Non-fish eaters may benefit from taking a supplement derived from marine algae.

About the author

Gaynor Bussell works freelance as a dietitian and a registered public health nutritionist specialising in women’s health and weight issues.

Created Summer 2017

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