For decades I have used a plant-based diet as a powerful tool to promote good 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-ovo vegetarians. Vegans are pure vegetarians who eat no meat, fish, poultry, eggs or dairy products. Vegetarian diets significantly reduce the risk of a broad range of health concerns.
Heart disease, the number-one killer, is less common in vegetarians, who also have much lower cholesterol levels than meat eaters. Vegetarian meals are typically low in saturated fat and usually contain little or no cholesterol, since cholesterol is found only in animal products. A vegan, therefore, consumes an entirely cholesterol-free diet.
The type of protein in a vegetarian diet may be another important advantage. Many studies show replacing animal protein with plant protein lowers blood-cholesterol levels, even if the amount of fat in the diet stays the same. Those studies demonstrate a low-fat, vegetarian diet has a clear heart-healthy advantage over other diets.
1920s research show vegetarians have lower blood pressure than non-vegetarians. In fact, studies show adding meat to a vegetarian diet rapidly results in significantly raised blood-pressure levels. Individuals with high blood pressure, who change to a vegetarian diet, may able to reduce or eliminate their need for medication.
Recent studies show a diet high in plant protein (soy is a great source) 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.
A vegetarian diet helps prevent cancer. Researchers from the University of California at Berkley found persons with low fruit and vegetable intake experience about twice the risk of cancer compared with those with high intake. Studies of vegetarians show death rates from cancer are up to 50 per cent less than those of the general population.
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 as a high animal-protein intake encourages calcium loss from the bones. Replacing animal protein with plant foods reduces calcium loss. People who live in countries where the diet is plant-based have little osteoporosis, even when their calcium intake is low. In addition, vegetarians are less likely to form either kidney stones or gallstones.
Being vegetarian does not automatically mean your nutrition is healthy and balanced. However, a balanced vegetarian diet is not at all difficult to achieve. Possible pitfalls for the vegetarian includes - not enough protein. Grains, beans and many vegetables are good sources of protein. Protein powders from soy, rice and hemp are extremely useful in making protein shakes. I strongly recommend vegetarians add protein shakes to their diet.
Not enough vitamins. Green, leafy vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts and fruits are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals and this can be boosted by supplementing with vitamin and mineral tablets.
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 and nutritional yeast.
With the deficiencies in our modern diet, the American Medical Association now recommends that everyone (including vegetarians) take daily supplements for optimal nutrition.
You may email Dr Tony Vendryes at firstname.lastname@example.org, or listen to 'An Ounce of Prevention' on POWER 106FM on Fridays at 8 p.m. The programme streams live on the Internet.