VEGETARIAN FOODS ARE
POWERFUL FOR YOUR HEALTH
A vegetarian menu is a powerful and pleasurable way to achieve good health. The vegetarian eating pattern is based on a wide variety of foods that are satisfying, delicious, and healthful. Vegetarians avoid meat, fish, and poultry. Those who include dairy products and eggs in their diets are called lacto-ovo vegetarians. Vegans (pure vegetarians) eat no meat, fish, poultry, eggs, or dairy products. While there is a considerable advantage to a lacto-ovo vegetarian pattern, vegan diets are the healthiest of all, reducing risk of a broad range of health concerns.
A Healthy Heart
Vegetarians have much lower cholesterol levels than meat-eaters, and heart disease is uncommon in vegetarians. The reasons are not hard to find. Vegetarian meals are typically low in saturated fat and usually contain little or no cholesterol. Since cholesterol is found only in animal products such as meat, dairy, and eggs, vegans consume a cholesterol-free diet.
The type of protein in a vegetarian diet may be another important advantage. Many studies show that replacing animal protein with plant protein lowers blood cholesterol levels-even if the amount and type of fat in the diet stays the same. Those studies show that a low-fat, vegetarian diet has a clear advantage over other diets.
Lower Blood Pressure
An impressive number of studies, dating back to the early 1920s, show that vegetarians have lower blood pressure than non-vegetarians. In fact, some studies have shown that adding meat to a vegetarian diet raises blood pressure levels rapidly and significantly. The effects of a vegetarian diet occur in addition to the benefits of reducing the sodium content of the diet. When patients with high blood pressure begin a vegetarian diet, many are able to eliminate their need for medication.
The latest studies on diabetes show that a diet high in complex carbohydrates (which are found only in plant foods) and low in fat is the best dietary prescription for controlling diabetes. Since diabetics are at high risk for heart disease, avoiding fat and cholesterol is the most important goal of the diabetic diet, and a vegetarian diet is ideal. Although all insulin-dependent diabetics need to take insulin, plant-based diets can help to reduce insulin needs.
A vegetarian diet helps prevent cancer. Studies of vegetarians show that death rates from cancer are only about one-half to three-quarters of those of the general population. Breast cancer rates are dramatically lower in countries where diets are typically plant-based. When people from those countries adopt a Western, meat-based diet, their rates of breast cancer soar.
Vegetarians also have significantly less colon cancer than meat eaters. Meat consumption is more closely associated with colon cancer than any other dietary factor.
Why do vegetarian diets help protect against cancer? First, they are lower in fat and higher in fiber than meat-based diets. But other factors are important, too. For example, vegetarians usually consume more of the plant pigment beta-carotene. This might help to explain why they have less lung cancer. Also, at least one study has shown that natural sugars in dairy products may raise the risk for ovarian cancer in some women.
Some of the anti-cancer aspects of a vegetarian diet cannot yet be explained. For example, researchers are not quite sure why vegetarians have more of certain white blood cells, called “natural killer cells,” which are able to seek out and destroy cancer cells.
The Calcium Connection
Vegetarians are less likely to form either kidney stones or gallstones. In addition, vegetarians may also be at lower risk for osteoporosis because they eat little or no animal protein. A high intake of animal protein encourages the loss of calcium from the bones. Replacing animal products with plant foods reduces the amount of calcium lost. This may help to explain why people who live in countries where the diet is typically plant-based have little osteoporosis even when calcium intake is low.
Planning Vegetarian Diets
It’s easy to plan vegetarian diets that easily meet nutrient needs. Grains, beans, and vegetables are rich in protein and iron. Green leafy vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts, and dried fruits are excellent sources of calcium.
Vitamin D is normally made in the body when sun shines on the skin. Those who have regular sun exposure do not normally need to get vitamin D in foods. People who are dark-skinned or live at northern latitudes have some difficulty producing vitamin D year round. Vitamin D can easily be obtained from fortified foods. Some sources are commercial breakfast cereals, soymilk, other supplemental products, and multivitamins.
Vitamin B12 is plentiful in fortified foods. Some sources are commercial breakfast cereals, soy products, and Vegetarian Support Formula nutritional yeast. Although vitamin B12 deficiency is uncommon, strict vegetarians should be sure to include a source of this vitamin in their diet. When reading food labels, look for the word cyanocobalamin in the ingredient list. This is the form of vitamin B12 that is best absorbed.
Written by: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, PCRM
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