You’ve heard that eating vegetarian is a healthy way of life, and you’re ready to give it a try. You’ve got a few questions, though, such as how difficult it is to convert to a meat-free existence, and what does excluding animal products mean for your health?
“Becoming vegetarian is easy to do nowadays thanks to the wealth of information available for planning nutritious, meat-free meals,” says Susan Weiner, a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator with a successful private practice in New York, who is a contributing medical producer for dLife TV. “Nutrition facts labels are detailed today, there are more vegetarian foods at specialty grocery stores and a wider variety of vegan restaurant choices available,” she says. “Fifteen years ago vegetarians were considered a `different’ type of eater, but there’s nothing atypical about vegetarian eating today.”
True vegetarians eat no meat, fish or poultry. Those who eat eggs are ovo-vegetarian, while individuals who consume dairy products are lacto-vegetarians. Lacto-ovo refers to vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy, but no meat. People who refrain from eating any animal products, including dairy, poultry, meat, eggs and even honey, are vegans.
The American Dietetic Association approves of vegetarianism, stating that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are nutritionally adequate and help prevent and treat certain diseases.
“Many vegetables and herbs have cancer-fighting properties, such as phytochemicals,” says Weiner. “Such beneficial compounds alter metabolic pathways and hormonal actions that are associated with the development of cancer, stimulate the immune system and have antioxidant activity.”
Eating a lot of fruits and vegetables and replacing red meat with vegetarian protein can reduce the incidence of heart disease and improve lipid profiles,” says Weiner. “Soluble fiber in oats, beans, carrots and apples has been shown to reduce serum cholesterol, and studies show that legumes lower blood cholesterol levels, improve blood sugar control and lower triglyceride levels.”
Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that consuming fruit and vegetables three or more times a day compared with less than once a day was associated with a 27 percent lower incidence of stroke and a 42 percent lower stroke mortality.
An increased consumption of fruit, vegetables and nuts appears to contribute to the prevention of diabetes.
A study comparing vegetarians and non-vegetarians that appeared in the British Medical Journal found that vegetarian diets and a high intake of dietary fiber are linked to a lower risk of this common bowel disease.
You may have heard that vegetarians have a hard time getting enough protein and important nutrients from their diets. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) people who follow vegetarian diets can get all the nutrients they need as long as they eat a wide variety of foods and pay careful attention to getting sufficient protein, iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12.
Vegetable proteins are not complete by themselves and unless mixed with other vegetable proteins, they don’t provide the body with all of the essential amino acids that it needs for proper functioning. By making sure to get foods from both lists below throughout the day, you’ll get all of the essential amino acids that your body requires.
To get healthful benefits from the vegetarian lifestyle, keep an eye on the fat content of vegetarian foods when planning your meals, suggests Weiner. “Although `healthy fats’ (such as nuts) are an important part of a vegetarian diet, too much fat can lead to excessive calorie intake,” she says. “Packaged vegetarian products are also often high in fat and sodium, so read labels carefully. Eat meat alternatives, such as veggie burgers, with whole grains like couscous, quinoa and a large serving of vegetables.”
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