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 less common 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 nonvegetarians. 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 the need for medication.
The latest studies on diabetes show that a vegetarian diet high in complex carbohydrates and fiber (which are found only in plant foods) and low in fat is the best dietary prescription for controlling and preventing diabetes. A diet based on vegetables, legumes, fruits, and whole grains, which is also low in fat and sugar, can lower blood sugar levels and often reduce or even eliminate the need for medication. Since individuals with diabetes are at high risk for heart disease, avoiding fat and cholesterol is important, and a vegetarian diet is the best way to do that.
A vegetarian diet helps prevent cancer. Studies of vegetarians show that death rates from cancer are only about one-half to three-quarters of the general population’s death rates.
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 lower rates of colon cancer than meat-eaters. Colon cancer is more closely associated with meat consumption 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. Plants contain other cancer-fighting substances called phytochemicals. For example, vegetarians usually consume more of the plant pigments beta-carotene and lycopene. This might help to explain why they have less lung and prostate cancer. Also, some studies have suggested that diets that avoid dairy products may reduce the risk of prostate and ovarian cancer.
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 lower than that in dairy-consuming countries.
Planning Vegetarian Diets
It’s easy to plan vegetarian diets that meet all your nutrient needs. Grains, beans, and vegetables are rich in protein and iron. Green leafy vegetables, beans, lentils, tofu, corn tortillas, and nuts are excellent sources of calcium, as are enriched soymilk and fortified juices.
Vitamin D is normally made in the body when sun shines on the skin. 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.
Regular intake of vitamin B12 is important. Good sources include all common multiple vitamins (including vegetarian vitamins), fortified cereals, some brands of nutritional yeast, and fortified soymilk. It is especially important for pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers to get enough vitamin B12. When reading food labels, look for the word cyanocobalamin in the ingredient list. This is the form of vitamin B12 that is best absorbed.