Dr Tony Vendryes: Eat more plant foods
"Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet." – Albert Einstein
For decades, I have been vegetarian, and used a plant-based diet as a powerful tool to promote optimal health. A good vegetarian eating pattern is based on a wide variety of plant foods that are satisfying, delicious and healthy.
Vegetarians avoid meat, fish and poultry. Those who include dairy products and eggs in their diets are called lacto-ova vegetarians. Vegans are ultra-pure vegetarians who eat no meat, fish, poultry, eggs or dairy products at all. Vegetarian diets offer several health benefits and may significantly reduce the risk of a broad range of common disorders.
Heart disease, the number one killer worldwide, is generally less common in vegetarians. They also tend to have lower cholesterol levels than meat eaters. Vegetarian meals are low in saturated fat and contain no cholesterol, since cholesterol is found only in animal products. A vegan diet is entirely cholesterol -free.
The type of protein in a vegetarian diet provides another important advantage. Many studies show that replacing animal protein with plant protein lowers blood cholesterol levels, even if the quantity of fat in the diet stays the same. Those studies demonstrate that a vegetarian diet with adequate protein has a clear heart -healthy advantage over other diets.
Research from as far back as the 1920s shows that vegetarians have lower blood pressure than non-vegetarians. In fact, some studies have demonstrated that adding meat to a vegetarian diet rapidly results in significant elevation of blood pressure levels. Individuals with high blood pressure, who change to a vegetarian diet, may be able to reduce or eliminate their need for medication. Of course, they should continue to monitor their blood pressure.
Recent studies on diabetes indicate that a diet generous in plant protein (notably soy) and complex carbohydrates (vegetables), but low in fat, starch and sugar, is the best dietary prescription for controlling diabetes. Many Type 2 diabetics have used this approach to avoid any need for diabetic medication and instead use food as their medicine. Even insulin-dependent diabetics can significantly reduce their insulin needs with this kind of plant-based diet.
Studies of vegetarians show that death rates from cancer are up to 50 per cent less than those of the general population. Researchers from the University of California at Berkley found that persons with low fruit and vegetable intake experience about twice the risk of cancer compared with those with high intake.
Breast and prostate cancer rates are dramatically lower in countries where diets are typically plant-based, but when people from those countries adopt a Western, meat-based diet, their rates of these cancers soar. Vegetarians also have much less colon cancer than meat eaters and meat consumption is more closely associated with colon cancer than any other dietary factor.
A vegetarian diet helps protect against cancer in several ways. First, they are lower in fat and higher in fibre than meat-based diets. Vegetarians usually consume more antioxidants, like vitamin C and beta-carotene. These natural substances strengthen the body's cancer-fighting system - the immune system. Plants also carry many compounds called phyto-nutrients that have anti-cancer properties. Examples of these are the polyphenols in green tea, the isoflavones in soy, and the lycopene in tomatoes. Many other anti-cancer aspects of a vegetarian diet are yet to be fully understood.
Vegetarians may also lower their risk for osteoporosis. A high animal protein intake encourages the loss of calcium from the bones while replacing animal protein with plant foods reduces the amount of calcium lost. People who live in countries where the diet is plant-based have little osteoporosis, even when their calcium intake is low.
The fact that vegetarian diets are richer in magnesium than plant-based ones may be part of the reasons for the above observations. In addition, vegetarians are less likely to form either kidney stones or gallstones.
Possible pitfalls for the vegetarian include:
- Not having enough protein. Even though whole grains, beans, nuts, peas and some vegetables are good sources of protein, I strongly encourage vegetarians to add protein shakes to their diet. Protein powders and nut milks from soy, rice, almond and hemp are extremely useful in making protein shakes. Select high-quality sources.
- Vitamin B12 deficiency is not uncommon and strict vegetarians should be particularly sure to include a good source of this vitamin in their diet. Vitamin B12 for the vegetarian is found in many fortified foods and commercial breakfast cereals, fermented soy products like miso and tempeh, and nutritional yeast.
Vegetarians in particular should have their vitamin B12 levels checked regularly with a simple and inexpensive blood test. If the results come back low or low normal, start supplementing with B12 immediately.
- Obesity can be a problem in the vegetarian whose carbohydrate consumption (starch and sugar) is too high for their level of physical activity. The solution is to optimise your dietary protein and fibre, cut back on the carbohydrates and exercise more.
Although plant foods are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals, you can boost your supply of these vital substances by taking supplements daily. With the many deficiencies in our modern diet, even the conservative American Medical Association now recommends that everyone (including vegetarians), take daily supplements for optimal nutrition.
- You may email Dr Vendryes at firstname.lastname@example.org or listen to An Ounce of Prevention on POWER106FM on Fridays at 8:15 p.m. Details of his books and articles are available on his website www.tonyvendryes.com.