Nutrients, Vitamins and Minerals for Vegetarians and Vegans

According to the Vegetarian Society, 2% of the UK population was following a vegetarian diet in 2012. As the amount of people following this way of living has increased, particularly in those under the age of 25, the number is believed to be nearer 6% in 2017 (with around 2% believed to be following a vegan diet) and is continuing to grow. Good news then if you are a believer in the health, environmental and animal welfare benefits of living a whole food plant-based lifestyle. However, with meat-free dieting still relatively scarce in the modern world, information is still required as to how to maximise the health benefits of such a lifestyle and how to avoid vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which may be detrimental.


‘But where do you get your protein?’ is probably the first question that faces any non-meat eaters when the subject of nutrition comes up. Yes, meat does contain protein but there are also plenty of delicious plant-based protein sources that can be used as an alternative. These alternative protein sources can also have many other benefits, for instance portions of at least 80 grams of pulses contribute to being one of your 5 a day! Much research has also linked the consumption of red and processed meat to an increase in colorectal cancer, so getting your protein from plant based sources is arguably healthier all round. Protein doesn’t need to come from animal sources and you can get more than enough from plant-based alternatives listed below. How much protein do you need? The issues with this are discussed in a previous blog:

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Non-Meat sources: Chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, Quinoa, Nuts, Leafy greens, Tempeh and tofu

Vegetarian Options: Eggs, Quorn

Fats and Omega 3 and 6

Although the term ‘fats’ can give most people focussing on what they eat a scare, fats are essential for our bodies. Whilst high intakes of saturated fats are associated with increased cholesterol, heart disease risk and obesity, unsaturated fats can be beneficial for health. There are two types of unsaturated fats; Monounsaturated fats and Polyunsaturated fats. They can lower the amount of ‘bad’ cholesterol or LDL (Low Density Lipoproteins) and increase the amount of ‘good’ cholesterol or HDL (High Density Lipoproteins). Good news for vegetarians and vegans is that these fats are commonly obtained from plant based sources such as vegetable oils, olive oils, almonds, peanuts and avocados. However, Omega-3 fats, which have been previously associated with reducing Cardiovascular Disease and benefiting brain health, come from oily fish such as mackerel, kippers, trout or sardines and are therefore harder to get on a meat-free diet. However, more recent research (post 2010) seems to suggest that DHA and EPA, the derivatives from Omega-3 fats used by the body, although still important regarding brain health, aren’t as essential as previously believed regarding Cardiovascular Diseases. This has been argued to possibly be due to low doses used in trials or medical advances outweighing PUFA effects, which has seen fish recommendations from nutrition corporations such as The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) removing fish oil recommendations. Many do still see fish oils as diet essentials, especially regarding brain health, and therefore vegetarians and vegans may have to look towards supplementation or plant-based omega 3 sources such as flaxseed, hempseed, rapeseed and walnuts.

Omega 3 Non-Meat sources: supplementation, flaxseed, hempseed, rapeseed and walnuts

Omega 6 Non-Meat sources: vegetable oils, some nuts

Vitamin B12


Average adult woman (18+) = 2.4 mcg per day 

Average adult man (18+) = 2.4 mcg per day

With regards to supplementation, it is Vitamin B12 which is the most important vitamin, particularly for vegans, when following a whole-food plant based diet. This is because, although B12 is found in many animal products, including eggs for vegetarians, it cannot be supplied by a plant based diet alone. The worry with B12 deficiency is it can cause anaemia and nervous system damage whilst giving symptoms of extreme tiredness, a lack of energy, muscle weakness and even depression. Inadequate levels of B12 have also been shown to give rise to homocysteine, an amino acid found in the blood, that has been linked in some papers to a rise in cancer, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease. The issues with this are discussed in a previous blog:

Non-Meat sources: SUPPLEMENTS, yeast extract, fortified foods including cereals, soya milk

Vegetarian Options: Eggs, milk, cheese



Average adult woman (18-50) = 14.8mg per day 

Average adult man (18+) = 8.7mg per day

One of the most crucial minerals for vegetarians is iron, not necessarily because it is more abundant in animal products but because it comes in a different form in animal products. The iron found in animal products is haem iron, whereas the iron in plant foods is non-haem which is less easily absorbed. Although non-haem iron is more difficult to absorb, its absorption can be increased by eating foods high in Vitamin C (see below for sources) and avoiding tea and coffee which contain tannins which reduce iron absorption. According to the vegetarian society 75% of the iron consumed by meat eaters comes from non-meat sources so the worry about iron deficiency isn’t going to kill your meat-free dream as long as you make an effort in consuming iron from elsewhere.

Iron is required by the body mainly to produce haemoglobin which helps carry oxygen around the body and store it whilst it is also important in producing enzymes for energy transfer, digestion and nerve function. Iron deficiency can lead to iron deficiency anaemia symptoms of which include tiredness, lack of energy, shortness of breath, cracks and ulcers in your mouth and paleness. If you feel like you may have iron deficiency, which can be especially common in women of reproductive age, it is best to consult your GP.

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Non-Meat sources: Chickpeas, green leafy vegetables & sea vegetables, legumes (such as lentils, soybeans, tofu, tempeh, lima beans, nuts and seeds) and spinach

Other sources of key Vitamins and Minerals


Non-Meat sources: leafy green vegetables (collard, broccoli, kale and mustard greens), tofu, plant-based milk substitutes (soy, almond or rice milk), fortified cereals

Vegetarian Options: milk, yoghurt, cheese


Non-Meat sources: green leafy vegetables, wholegrains, cooked spinach, beans/legumes, almonds/nuts, breakfast cereals

Vegetarian Options: milk and cheese


Non-Meat sources: fruit and veg, nuts, dried beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, pinto beans, cereal grains, almonds, wholegrains, avocados, spinach, yeast.

Vegetarian Options: milk, cheese, eggs


Non-Meat sources: fruit and veg (particularly high in bananas, beetroot and mushrooms), potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, yeast extract

Vegetarian Options: milk, cheese, eggs


Non-Meat sources: cereal products, legumes, nuts, green leafy vegetables, pulses and pumpkin seeds.

Vegetarian Options: milk, cheese, eggs

Vitamin A

Non-Meat sources: carrots, broccoli, red bell peppers, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, cantaloupe, apricots

Vitamin C

Non-Meat sources: orange juice, citrus fruits, brussels sprouts, cabbage, collard greens, broccoli, tomatoes, strawberries

Vitamin D

Non-Meat sources: SUNLIGHT, fortified margarines, breakfast cereals, soya milk

Vegetarian Options: Eggs

Vitamin E

Non-Meat sources: vegetable oils, margarines, spreads, sunflower seeds, nuts, wholegrains

Vitamin K

Non-Meat sources: green leafy vegetables, green tea, cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes

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Is protein still the golden ticket to making you big in the gym?

Go into most gyms and there is one word on everyone’s lips. Protein. Want to get big and muscly? Then protein should be dominating your diet. Right? Bodybuilders and amateur gym goers have often prided themselves on the amount of protein consumed but do you really need huge excess amounts in order to make large scale ‘gains’ (the gaining of muscle)? The answer might surprise you and will probably be different to what protein powder manufacturers will have you believe. As with most things in nutrition, more isn’t always better. So, read on to save your money on protein supplements and eat smarter not just cleaner.

The big protein myth?

It should firstly be noted that eating more protein does go hand in hand with building muscle due to protein being extremely anabolic, allowing muscle growth. Protein also provides the body with the energy it needs to manufacture important substances such as hormones and enzymes. So, consuming protein, one of the most essential nutrients for the body, in order to gain muscle is far from a myth. The question is how much protein do we actually need before the benefits are outweighed by the negatives? According to research, strength athletes (those in the gym building muscle) need about 1.4-1.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight (far less than the often proposed 2.2-2.5 grams of protein per kg of body weight often cited as the optimal amount) and endurance athletes (those more focussed on cardio) about 1.2-1.4g/kg.

This means that going with the centre of these figures (1.6g/kg for strength, 1.4g/kg for endurance) someone of 84.0 kg, the average male weight in the UK, would need 134g protein per day if they were a strength athlete and 109.2g per day as an endurance athlete. The average female weight in the UK is 69.0 kg meaning they would need 110.4g protein per day if they were a strength athlete and 89.7g per day for an endurance athlete. It is important to note that the amount of protein required will also differ with your body type. The International society of sports states that ‘higher protein intakes (2.3–3.1 g/kg) may be required to maximize muscle retention in lean, resistance-trained subjects’ so, as with most things in nutrition, protein intake isn’t a one size fits all approach.

But surely more protein equals more muscle building, right? Sadly not. Excess amounts of protein consumption can cause weight gain and not through muscle building. The thing with excess protein is that the body can’t use it all at once. If the body receives too much from the diet it will convert some of the protein into sugar and then fat, as fat can be more efficiently stored. This can cause a rise in blood sugar level and add fat to your dream body. So make sure you give your body the right amount of protein when it needs it rather than overloading it all at once!


Working harder doesn’t mean more protein

Even if you are the hardest worker in the gym it doesn’t mean you have to be guzzling protein shakes every 15 seconds to keep gaining muscle mass. A study from 1992, which is still largely cited, showed that even bodybuilders training 1.5 hours per day, 6 days per week required just 1.65g of protein per kg of bodyweight to achieve the maximum protein benefits. This figure remains in the bracket of 1.4-1.8g/kg from the previous study and shows that, even for the hardest trainers, there is a limit to how much protein your body needs as those in the study consuming 2.4g/kg showed no further benefit.

But it’s what the pros eat

Without wanting to destroy the bodybuilding illusion some, but not all, bodybuilders use steroids which effects how much protein they can consume. Anabolic steroids, such as Dianabol and Androstenedione, increase protein within cells, especially in skeletal muscles, and will enable you to consume and metabolise far more protein than normal. If following the nutritional programme of someone who is using steroids, therefore, limiting the protein intake in comparison should be something you should consider.

Dangers of excess protein

It’s not just gaining fat excess protein consumers need to be worrying about. There is also some evidence overconsumption of protein can put excess strain put on the kidneys and liver. Although this evidence currently seems limited it can, however, be a problem in patients who already have some form of renal disease or have poorly functioning kidneys. This is because they will have a harder time excreting the excess nitrogen and urea brought about by the higher protein diet. The dangers around excess protein consumption also depends on the source. If you are planning to rely on surplus consumption of red or processed meat beware! High consumptions of these meat types have been linked to increased risk of colorectal cancer, especially in men. Healthier alternatives to red or processed meat include chicken, turkey, fish and seafood or, for those who stick to meat free diets, chickpeas, lentils or kidney beans amongst other things.

Still make sure you get enough!

Nutrition is all about balance and protein intake is a great example of this. Whilst too much protein isn’t always beneficial and can lead to dangers it is important for those physically active types to get adequate amounts. Protein deficiency can lead to muscle loss and fatigue, both of which will likely have a negative impact on you achieving your fitness goals, especially if they are muscle gain. Other benefits were shown in a 2002 study, which concluded higher-protein diets to ‘improve adiposity, blood pressure and triglyceride levels’ and it is still universally accepted that high protein intake, within limits, is essential to muscle building.


If you’re training big, protein can still be the golden ticket! But don’t waste your money

Don’t worry protein lovers. Your macro fave is still crucial to becoming the new Arnie! However, it’s all about consuming the right amounts when crafting your beach body. The recommended daily allowance (RDA), 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, is widely considered insufficient to meet the needs of intense trainers. However, the levels of protein recommended by some of 2-3g/kg of body weight certainly seem over the top and can actually have detrimental effects to your body goals. Instead of throwing your pay check directly into your nearest supplement store, eat smarter! Aim for 1.4-1.8g/kg of protein if you are a strength athlete and 1.2-1.4 if you are an endurance athlete but definitely DON’T miss out on getting your protein fix.

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Vegetarians and Vegans- Get your B12!

Once you’ve worked out that healthy, unsaturated fats can be obtained through seeds, nuts, vegetables and cooking oils and that vegetarian iron and protein sources are common in Chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans, you may think you’ve got the meat-free life sorted. However regardless of the reason you have decided to pack in meat there is one thing that isn’t as easy to get. Vitamin B12! Of all the vitamins essential for the body, Vitamin B12 is the only one not reliably supplied from a varied wholefood, plant-based diet meaning to hit your recommended daily allowance (RDA) as a non-meat eater it can be essential to actively seek out B12.

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What is it and why is it important?

Vitamin B12 is one of eight of the water-soluble B vitamins essential for DNA synthesis, fatty acid and amino acid metabolism. Importantly it cannot be synthesised in the body, as only bacteria and archaea have the enzymes required. This makes B12 an essential vitamin required from the diet. The problem with this is vitamin B12 is mainly found in meat or meat based products making it difficult to acquire for non-meat eaters, especially vegans. This is because animals eat other animal food and produce B12 internally due to their intestinal bacteria and farm animals are also supplemented with Vitamin B12. Vegetarians can achieve the RDA of 2.4 mcg (micrograms) through consumption of animal based products such as eggs, cheese and milk however, for vegans, the problem is slightly more difficult. Vitamin B12 is added to some breakfast cereals, milk alternatives and vegan spreads however, from these sources it can be difficult to reach the RDA. Deficiency can especially be a problem for the elderly, who can suffer impaired absorption of B12 due to gastric atrophy. For vegetarians and vegans, it can be difficult to get enough B12 even from an otherwise healthy varied wholefood, plant-based diet. Vegetarians were shown to be far more at risk to elevated homocysteine levels (53.3%) compared to an omnivorous control (10.3%), shown in a 2002 paper. But why is this a problem?


B(12)-ware of deficiency

Stupid pun aside B12 deficiency can be a major issue for non-meat eaters. Very low B12 intakes can cause anaemia and nervous system damage whilst giving symptoms of extreme tiredness, a lack of energy, muscle weakness and even depression. Complaints of tiredness and lack of energy in non-meat eaters are often assumed to be due to lack of calories or proteins within the diet. Although these can be the case, and if you are experiencing these symptoms you should seek advice from a trained professional, it could be due to Vitamin B12 deficiency making it an important condition to be aware of when cutting meat from your diet. Inadequate levels of B12 have also been shown to give rise to homocysteine, an amino acid that has been linked in some papers to a rise in cancer, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease. This is because B12 helps the enzyme Methionine synthetase convert homocysteine to the less dangerous methionine by a process known as remethylation, in which methyl (CH3) groups are added to homocysteine with the help of folate and Vitamin B12.

But I don’t want to take too much!

Although toxicity (taking too much) B12 is a possibility, it is extremely rare! Being a water-soluble vitamin, is far B12 is easier to extract (usually through urine) than fat soluble vitamins (such as A, D and E) leading to a reduced chance of build up within the body. So don’t be shy in getting enough B12!

How to stop or treat it?

The good news is its easily avoidable and treatable! Phew! For vegetarians, it is important to make sure you get enough eggs, cheese and milk and take supplements if you are still not getting enough. For vegans, the important sources are B12 fortified foods and B12 supplements in which the B12 is in a form that is more easily absorbed. Supplements can be bought from most vitamin stores or online. The vegan society recommends to take either at least 10mcg daily or at least 2000mcg weekly of B12 through supplementation and to aim for a daily intake of at least 3mcg of B12 from fortified foods. However, if you are unsure on supplementation dosage seek advice from a health professional. Don’t let vitamin B12 deficiency be the downfall on following your meat free dream!

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Do carrots really help you see in the dark?

At some point while growing up, you have probably been told that eating carrots will make you see in the dark. The theory supposedly goes back to World War 2, when the RAF contributed the accuracy of its fighter pilots to a diet full of carrots. But was this just a ruse to get children to eat there veg or is there genuine scientific evidence to carrots being the superfood that can turn you into the next superhero? The answer is both yes and no. Let me explain.

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Vitamin A

The important component in carrots that helps the eyes, is beta-carotene which is a precursor (inactive form) to vitamin A. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that comes in three different forms; retinal, retinol and retinoic acid and is needed by the retina of the eye in the form of retinal. Retinal is important in vision as it binds to a protein within the eye called opsin. Together they form rhodopsin. Why is rhodopsin important? Well Rhodopsin is a light-sensitive receptor protein, found in the rods of the retina, involved in helping you see. In dim light rods are involved in the visual processes by conveying objects as black-and white images through monochromatic vision. This enables us to distinguish between objects through differing shades, tones and tints of black. So basically you need rhodopsin, and therefore vitamin A, to see, especially in dim light.

Carrots for the elderly!

Vitamin A is particularly important for the elderly as they are the most likely to be deficient due to poor absorption and reduced intake. Some studies have linked vitamin A to delaying cataracts, a condition which causes misty or cloudy vision due to changes in the lens of the eye. It can also help the immune system fight infection and aid the combatting of skin problems.

Dry eyes and prolonged vitamin A deficiency

Whilst night blindness is far from what you want, prolonged Vitamin A deficiency can be even worse and can lead to permanent blindness through a condition known as Xerophthalmia. It sounds a bit complicated but Xerophthalmia is basically dryness of the conjunctiva and cornea, parts of your eyes, that can be brought about by vitamin A deficiency. Although the mechanism is not entirely known, Xerophthalmia is caused by lack of retinoic acid, a metabolite of vitamin A, and thought to be due to retinoic acid aiding good health in epithelial cells, such as those in the cornea. Vitamin A deficiency can increase the vulnerability of the eye to infections and lesions and cause hardening (keratinization) and opacity of the cornea.

Before you get too worried and start eating carrots by the bowlful like a crazed rabbit, vitamin A deficiency in developed countries is rare. So relax! However, if you feel you are struggling more and more to find your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you may want to consider adding some more vitamin A to your diet. Increasing your Vitamin A can decrease your chances of dry eyes and delay the onset of cataracts.

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How else can you get your Vitamin A?

Not a fan of carrots? Don’t worry you’re not going to be sent down a route of night blindness or hardened corneas. There are plenty of other ways to get your Vitamin A! The NHS website lists cheese, eggs, oily fish, milk, yoghurt and liver products such as liver pâté as good sources of Vitamin A. Don’t worry vegans you haven’t been forgotten! Along with carrots, there are plenty of good meat free vitamin A sources such as butternut squash, sweet potato and green vegetables. However, being a fat-soluble vitamin and therefore harder to excrete Vitamin A toxicity (too high levels) can be a problem. High levels of Vitamin A can increase your risk of osteoporosis, a condition that weakens bones, and can be harmful to your unborn baby if you have high amounts of it during pregnancy. The recommended daily allowance is 0.7mg a day for men and 0.6mg a day for women.

Catar-Act on your lack of Vitamin A

Disappointingly carrots will not give you superpowers making you able to see in complete darkness so put your dreams of becoming the next caped hero on hold. What they can do, however, is improve your sight to the level of a healthy person if your eyesight at night is impaired. They cure night blindness! Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of non-accidental blindness worldwide and causes more than 500,000 young children to lose their sight annually. Staggering numbers. So don’t let it happen to you! Make sure you get the right levels of vitamin A (and carrots!) in your diet even if they, dissapointingly, won’t fully let you see in the dark.

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Probiotics- Scam or Science?

You can’t sit through a single ad break without being flooded with promises about probiotics ‘helping you beat that bloated feeling’ and improving your gut bacteria. And whilst paying extra for the supposed beneficial effects is fantastic for the probiotic market, which hit $2.90 billion in 2015 and is expected to continue to grow, you don’t want to be forking out extra money unless there’s something in it for you. But are the promises of reduced bowel problems, bloating and even some cancers really scientifically robust or is it just an excuse to pinch your extra pennies? Let’s analyse whether probiotics are a corporative scam or the secret to a healthy gut.

But bacteria are always bad, aren’t they?

One of the promises of probiotics is helping improve your gut bacteria, but surely bacteria in your body isn’t a good thing? Don’t worry! There are 100 trillion bacteria living in your gut weighing at around 1-2kg but the large majority, believed to be over 90%, help metabolism, digestive function, absorption of nutrients and the immune system. Therefore you’re ‘good’ bacteria are essential to keeping you alive! Probiotics, which are live microorganisms which confer a health benefit on the host, function within the human body by increasing ‘good’ bacteria. This is especially important in the elderly, those on an antibiotic course or for balancing out the good-bad bacteria within people with high numbers of bad bacteria. But how well does this really work?

A waste of money or a cure for intestinal problems?

Good bacteria Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria are the most commonly used probiotics worldwide. But can they actually better your health? Studies pretty much universally say yes! Good news if you are a sufferer of bowel problems, bloating, reduced immunity or even urinary tract infections. Studies have shown Bifidobacteria to be beneficial for improving immunity, increasing cell phagocytosis (which is part of the body’s defence), reducing the severity of symptoms and duration of respiratory infections and targeting lysis (cell breakdown). Scientific research has also shown Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria to be beneficial against diarrhoea, a killer of 1.5million children annually worldwide according to the UN, and in particular antibiotic-associated diarrhoea (AAD) and traveller’s diarrhoea. In a 1997 study, it was shown that consuming adequate amounts (discussed later) of Lactobacillus reduces the risk of Traveller’s diarrhoea by half, even in those with a prior history and a 2007 meta-analysis (an overview of many research papers) showed probiotics to be hugely beneficial in comparison to placebos on treating diarrhoea.

One of the main probiotic claims, made by large commercial companies such as ‘Renew Life’ or ‘Bio-K+ Probiotics’, is reduction of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Common IBS complaints have all been shown to reduce with probiotics including, abdominal pain, bloating and flatulence. Emerging research has also linked them to having beneficial effects on reducing risk of colorectal cancer, stress and even depression! (although more research needs to be done before these claims should be seen as reliable). It must, however, be remembered that probiotics do not work like drugs. Although they can reduce the severity of diseases they cannot cure them and just because probiotics work for some people, it doesn’t mean the same effect will happen for everyone.

Don’t forget about prebiotics!

The alternative option, prebiotics, work slightly differently to probiotics, but can still be very helpful in enhancing ‘gut friendly bacteria’. They still increase the number of ‘good’ bacteria within the gut, but they do this by acting as fuel, allowing them to produce substances that acidify the colon. These have been shown in research to improve IBS symptoms, diarrhoea, immune function and mineral absorption! Interestingly some research has also linked them to reducing metabolic syndrome, a cluster of symptoms including obesity, high blood pressure and fasting glucose and low HDL (‘good cholesterol’). So, prebiotics, such as galactooligosaccharides and inulin, could help reduce obesity risk as well as helping fight bad bacteria!

How much do we need?

However, despite the health benefits, we can’t be guzzling down Activia yogurts one after another for the foreseeable future, as that would certainly be detrimental to the goal of healthy eating. So, how much probiotic do we really need? Although some studies differ, the aim should be to consume 1 x 109 viable cells in order to achieve the desired impact. This number is high due to the fact that much of the probiotic bacteria will die on their way to the gut, due to stomach acids breaking them down and other aspects of digestion, before they can be beneficial. However, each strain is different and therefore, there is no set dosage for each condition, but, with few side effects currently shown in studies, it is still worth trying to get natural pro and prebiotics through yogurts, Kefir and Sauerkraut.

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A small price for better health

So, if you are an IBS sufferer, you want to increase your gut health or you face any of the other conditions discussed earlier, you may want to start consuming pre or probiotics. However, it’s important to do your research, find out what supplements are most beneficial for your condition and consult a trained professional if the problems don’t go away. It should also be noted that probiotics are far from a ‘magical cure’ and should not be used as an alternative to a healthy, balanced diet. However, next time you’re doing your weekly shop, spare a thought for your gut bacteria and spend that little extra on probiotics!


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Cheating your way slim: Do Cheat Days really work?

Stuck eating chicken and brown rice when all you are craving is some chocolate? However much we want to lose weight and enjoy the healthy lifestyle, there seems to always be that desire for unhealthy food. For years dieters have been avoiding any slip ups on their clean eating regime, but there is, perhaps, evidence that sticking religiously to a clean diet can actually impact your weight loss journey negatively. Are cheat days, days where you allow yourself to indulge in your cravings, the route to dietary success? There is growing evidence from psychologists and nutritionists that allowing a cheat day into a diet is beneficial. This is because periods of break from your diet regulate hormone levels, aid motivation and curb cravings. Sounds good, right? However, many still disagree and others feel a cheat day can work, but it’s not as simple as spending 24 hours completely neglecting your diet. So, let’s see just how much truth there is behind cheat days being the road to dietary success.

This salad tastes

The psychology around ‘Bad’ and ‘Good’ food

Although it’s certainly not true for everyone, for many of us, sticking to a diet and training regime can be very hard. Clean eating can lead to dieters suffering from cravings and general unhappiness brought on by a lack of calories. There are also connotations of boredom and lack of motivation, which face long-term dieters who can’t see the end of the tunnel through a sea of green veg, salad and lentils. So perhaps a cheat day is the way of satisfying these cravings, keeping you from feeling deprived and motivating you to stick to your diet during the week. That end of the week pudding could therefore be the trick to your dieting success! Incentives to stick to your diet have been shown to be beneficial however, psychologically, there can be problems with labelling your day of dieting freedom with phrases such as ‘cheat day’ and ‘bad food’. The guilt associated with this can lead to reduced motivation and feelings of self-loathing. So, try not to think of the time spent eating traditionally unhealthy food as ‘bad’. Instead think of it as a reward for the hard work of sticking to your healthy lunch break snack or avoiding that extra glass of wine at a work dinner. Cheat days should be a reward, not a guilty binge.

Leptin to the rescue?

Motivation isn’t the only aspect of long term dieting that can be put under scrutiny from a harsh schedule. Leptin is the ‘satiety hormone’ produced by adipose (fat) tissue in response to the body having enough energy to function and therefore not needing food. Higher levels of leptin reduce hunger and, if circulating levels tend to be higher, people are less likely to overeat and become obese. Due to its effect on appetite control it is, therefore, essential to the science behind gaining and losing weight. But what does it have to do with cheat days? Well, prolonged caloric restriction and weight loss causes leptin levels to fall, which means that, as leptin decreases hunger, you crave food. The idea of cheat days is to regulate these leptin levels, reduce your hunger and speed up metabolism and fat burning. Leptin has also been shown to increase motivation, which is a bonus for those of you lacking dietary incentive! However, there are also arguments against the leptin based benefits of cheat days. This is due to the benefits felt from the metabolic changes not balancing out the cheat day caloric binge. There are also arguments that leptin rises after food binges will soon level out meaning the benefits to hunger may not be as large as first believed. So, it is good to treat yourself, but don’t consume too many calories on your day off the diet and don’t let one day off trigger long term diet neglect. Overindulgence could still negatively effect your long term dieting goals so make sure you still moderate!

Bad Boozing

Cheat days are all about eating (or drinking!) whatever you want, right? Well there might be a slight problem. The benefits of cheat days towards leptin control could be cancelled out by the negative effects of alcohol. Alcohol decreases leptin levels by suppressing leptin secretion from adipose (fat) tissue. Lower circulating leptin levels have been linked with an increase in hunger and increased obesity risk. This is not all, a 2001 paper has suggested that leptin may modulate withdrawal-induced cravings in alcoholic subjects, meaning that these reduced leptin levels may also increase the want to consume alcohol. Alcohol is also a known depressant so can also decrease your motivation and general happiness. So, steer clear of booze, even on your cheat days, unless you want to feel hungry, sad and crave alcohol over the next few days. Sorry guys!

Quench cravings but don’t go overboard

The take home message is whatever you do, do it in moderation. Overindulging on your cheat day can throw you off your regime but being too strict with yourself can lead to a lack of motivation and getting diet bored. Use moderation! Enjoy the pleasures of cheat day foods and use this as an incentive to work hard the rest of the time. At the end of the day, you need to have a break for a little bit of enjoyment from most things in life but, don’t forget your goals and most importantly, don’t forget why you made them!


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Sleep your way to that summer body

If I told you that the key to meeting your dieting goals is sleeping you’d probably think it was too good to be true. Well you are probably right, but studies have shown that getting enough sleep could be the final piece in the jigsaw for dieters. From a lack of energy on your after work run or an imbalance of important hunger regulating hormones, sleep deprivation can really send you down an unhealthy path. So, sleep your way to that summer body, but not too literally!

Short term tiredness leading to long term weight problems

One of the biggest problems facing those who don’t get enough sleep is fatigue. This can lead to skipping exercise or looking to unhealthy alternatives to cooking such as takeaways or fast food. There are also problems with the types of food your body craves when you are tired. Does drinking a strong coffee to get out of bed or grabbing a quick sugary snack to keep you awake from lunch until the end of your working day sound familiar? These foods will give you a temporary energy boost, but in the long term, habits like these will affect your waistline, as they won’t satisfy your hunger for long enough to keep you full like a substantial meal would do. These fast release sugars aren’t giving you enough of your essential nutrients, are bad for your teeth and can lead to an increased chance of obesity and type 2 diabetes. All in all, it is better to get a good night’s sleep when possible and avoid the ‘quick-fix’ addictive sugary substitutes for sleep!

Your hormones are making you hungry

Your body is an expert at knowing what you need. And while you sleep, your body is recovering from your day and preparing for the next one. There are two important hormones regarding hunger which are regulated when you sleep; Ghrelin and Leptin. Ghrelin, often referred to as ‘the hunger hormone’, regulates appetite and controls the distribution and rate of use of energy. Ghrelin is released when your stomach is empty, to trigger a desire for food. This makes sure you don’t suffer from prolonged starvation and enables the body to get extra calories when needed, although it has no effect on meal size. Essentially, when ghrelin levels are high, you consume more food. Leptin does the opposite. It helps to regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger, through action on the hypothalamus, an important region of the brain, and therefore is high when the body has enough energy to meet its needs. The balance of these two hormones is essential when we consume food.

sleep hormones

Not sleeping makes you want to eat

So, here’s where sleep (or lack of it) comes into play. During sleep, leptin levels increase and ghrelin levels decrease. This is due to the fact that, when asleep, the body requires far less energy than when awake and therefore needs less calories from the diet. Not getting enough sleep means the body’s hormone levels don’t level out as they normally should, meaning sleep deprivation leads to an increase in ghrelin and a fall in leptin levels. This affects the crucial balance of the two. This means that even when your body doesn’t need food, it will still crave calories. The imbalance will also affect the body’s metabolism as high ghrelin levels will reduce calorie burning, as the body thinks there’s a shortage, and low leptin levels can slow your metabolism, meaning it’s more likely that you will put on weight. Ghrelin has a role in the long-term regulation of body weight too, so therefore your problems could be amplified by long-term sleep deprivation. Ghrelin and leptin are trying to look after you, but, if you don’t get enough sleep, their imbalance can hinder your weight loss and give you an extra hurdle to achieving your dream body.


Maximising sleep time and quality

To help optimise your pattern of sleeping, the NHS recommends sleeping at regular times, making sure you wind down (relaxation exercises such as yoga can be very beneficial) and making your bedroom ‘sleep friendly’ (dark, cool, quiet, and comfortable). There are also apps and sleep monitors that can enable you to determine how well your sleep patterns are being established and whether you need to make changes to your sleep schedule. Sleeping is important for recharging your batteries for the next day, so try not to skimp on it! It could be a diet saver!


Try to get your 8 hours, but don’t strive for too much more

So, there are definitely benefits to avoiding sleep deprivation on your diet. Good news for dieters who love a good night’s sleep! However, people are busy and it is not always possible to get the recommended 8 hours (although the optimum may vary between people) when there are deadlines looming or your kids just won’t stop waking you up at 5am. My advice is simply to try and avoid sleeps shorter than 4-5 hours as much as possible and try and to keep your sleep patterns as consistent as your life lets you. This doesn’t mean sleeping for 12 hours will make you look like an extra from Baywatch either! It’s all about trying and to get the right amount of sleep and the benefits of your weight loss plan will start becoming more visible. Another hour in bed could be key to losing those last few pounds.


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‘Hangry’- the science behind the mood when you’re craving food

If you have ever snapped at a partner or become especially irritated with a co-worker when you are hungry it is likely you have experienced ‘Hanger’, the phenomenon of short temper and increased irritability experienced when famished. As the famous tag line for chocolate brand Snickers goes ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’. However there is a scientific reason for this increase in grumpiness and lack of emotional self-control when your body is craving food and its due to glucose, a simple sugar found in the diet.



Glucose- the sugar that keeps you calm?

Similarly to in diabetics where not enough glucose (hypoglycaemia) in the body can lead to irritability, confusion and difficulty concentrating, periods of short term starvation can have negative effects on the brain. Although the body can adapt to periods of long term starvation by producing ketone bodies, the brain tends to rely on glucose for short term energy as fats are too large to pass through the blood-brain barrier. The brain uses about 120 grams of glucose a day and, even when running on ketones, it still requires 30 grams of glucose. One of the most important parts of the brain regarding the ‘hangry’ process is the Pre-Frontal Cortex which modulates executive function, important in self-control and moderating social behaviour. This means that when the pre-frontal cortex is starved of glucose, for instance when you are hungry, it can be harder to demonstrate self-control. Therefore, there is increased likelihood of snapping or being unable to control anger. Bad news for those around you!


There is another reason why a lack of glucose can lead to the ‘hangry’ feeling and that is centred around the hormonal response to low blood glucose concentrations. The body will react to low glucose concentration, which occurs when your body has been given insufficient food, by trying to take glucose from the body’s stores in a process known as the glucose counter-regulatory response. When the receptors in the body detect threshold glucose concentration of about 3.9 mM it will react by releasing hormones to counteract the hypoglycaemic (low blood sugar) state your body finds itself in; Glucagon, Cortisol and Adrenaline. Wondering where you’ve seen that last one before? Adrenaline is a catecholamine essential for the fight or flight response. The body reacts to stressful situations by entering ‘survival mode’ and releasing adrenaline from the adrenal glands. This causes quickened heartbeat, faster breathing and, importantly regarding ‘Hanger’, a tenseness in your whole body. The same thing happens when the body releases adrenaline when hungry, meaning you get the same tension seen in the fight or flight response. This is an adaptation for survival, when in danger your body needs to be in a state ready to act and survive and, similarly, when you’re hungry you need to be ready to seek out food in order to live by foraging or hunting. Basically, being ‘hangry’ keeps you alive! If that’s not an excuse for being a bit moody when you’ve missed a meal I don’t know what is!

It’s in your genes

Another cause of the ‘hangry’ phenomenon is to do with the neuropeptides and receptors in your brain. Neuropeptide Y, important in feeding regulation, is orexic, meaning it drives feeding. Neuropeptide Y, however, is also important in regulating anger and aggression. This means that the same mechanism that makes you hungry can make you angry! A 2012 paper linked high circulating Neuropeptide Y levels with impulsive aggression and the level was higher in those with an anger personality disorder.

Is it just me?

Don’t worry it’s not just you who gets ‘hangry’, just ask anyone starting out a diet (or those around them!). Actually, there have been several studies confirming the link between being hungry and being in a mood. A 2014 study of 107 married couples showed that those with low blood sugar blasted their partners with unpleasant noises at a higher volume and stuck more pins in voodoo dolls of their spouse to represent their anger. Creepy! An older study, less representative of a 2000s-horror movie, from 1995 showed those with hypertension (high blood pressure) showed significant increases in tension measured by the UWIST Mood Adjective Checklist, whilst other research papers have confirmed the link between hypoglycaemia and irritability and moodiness.


How do I stop it?

If you are often upsetting those around you by showing frequent bouts of ‘hangry’ mood swings we have a solution! And a simple one. EAT. Slightly more complicated is what we recommend to eat. Getting that quick fix to solve your hanger can be a problem as junk foods induce large rises in blood-glucose levels that come crashing down fast and could, therefore, increase your problem. However, pairing faster release carbohydrates such as bananas to get your blood glucose up fast with slower release carbohydrates such as Non-Starchy Vegetables, Sweet Potatoes or nuts to keep them maintained over a longer period of time could be the magic cocktail in stopping you snapping as your body is craving food. So, eat sensibly and save those around you from your ‘hangry’ side!



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