People become vegetarians or vegan for many reasons, including health, religious convictions, concerns about animal welfare or the use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock, or a desire to eat in a way that avoids excessive use of environmental resources. Becoming plant-based has become more appealing and accessible, thanks to the year-round availability of fresh produce, more vegetarian dining options, and the growing culinary influence of cultures with largely plant-based diets.
Traditionally, research into a plant-based diet focused mainly on potential nutritional deficiencies, but in recent years, the pendulum has swung the other way, and studies are confirming the health benefits of meat-free eating. Nowadays, plant-based eating is recognized as not only nutritionally sufficient but also as a way to reduce the risk for many chronic illnesses.
Can becoming Plant-Based protect you against major diseases?
Maybe. Compared with meat eaters, plant-based tend to consume less saturated fat and cholesterol and more vitamins C and E, dietary fiber, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, and phytochemicals (plant chemicals), such as carotenoids and flavonoids. As a result, they’re likely to have lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and lower body mass index (BMI), all of which are associated with longevity and a reduced risk for many chronic diseases.
What about the health risks of being Plant-Based?
Concerns about a plant-based diet have focused mainly on the following nutrients:
Protein. Research shows that lacto-ovo vegetarians generally get the recommended daily amount of protein, which is easily obtained from dairy products and eggs. (Women need about 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. Because the protein in vegetables is somewhat different from animal protein, vegans may need 0.45 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.) There are many plant sources that can help vegans meet their protein needs, including peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, seeds, nuts, soy products, and whole grains (for example, wheat, oats, barley, and brown rice). Vegetarians and vegans used to be told that they had to combine “complementary” plant proteins (rice with beans, for example) at every meal to get all the amino acids contained in meat protein. Now, health experts say that such rigid planning is unnecessary.
Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products, but those products include dairy foods and eggs, so most vegetarians get all they need. If you avoid animal products altogether, you should eat foods fortified with vitamin B12 (certain soy and rice beverages and breakfast cereals) or take a vitamin B12 supplement to avoid a deficiency, which can cause neurological problems and pernicious anemia.
Iron. The iron in meat (especially red meat) is more readily absorbed than the kind found in plant foods, known as non-heme iron. The absorption of non-heme iron is enhanced by vitamin C and other acids found in fruits and vegetables, but it may be inhibited by the phytic acid in whole grains, beans, lentils, seeds, and nuts.
Zinc. Phytic acid in whole grains, seeds, beans, and legumes also reduces zinc absorption, but vegetarians do not appear to be zinc-deficient.
Omega-3 fatty acids. Diets that include no fish or eggs are low in EPA and DHA. Our bodies can convert ALA in plant foods to EPA and DHA, but not very efficiently. Vegans can get DHA from algae supplements, which increase blood levels of DHA as well as EPA (by a process called retroversion). DHA-fortified breakfast bars and soy milk are also available. Official dietary guidelines recommend 1.10 grams per day of ALA for women, but vegetarians who consume little or no EPA and DHA should probably get more than that. Good ALA sources include flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, and soy.
Now… Why going Plant-Based?
Reduce risk of the No. 1 killer – Heart Disease. Plant-based diets tend to be naturally lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and have a higher intake of plant nutrients than most meat-based diets. Vegetarians and vegans have been shown to have a 24% lower risk of dying of heart disease than non-vegetarians. Furthermore, world-renowned physician Dr. Dean Ornish found that patients on a low-fat vegetarian diet actually reversed coronary heart disease.
Cancer prevention. Regularly consuming a diet that contains fruits and vegetables is strongly associated with a reduced risk of some cancers. There is evidence that plant-based tend to have a lower overall rate of cancer compared to the general population. “Red meat and processed meat consumption is consistently associated with an increase in the risk of colorectal cancer.” Reducing your risk of cancer is a great reason to eat your fruits and veggies!
Live longer, slow the aging process. A 12-year Oxford study published in the British Medical Journal found that vegetarians outlive meat eaters by six years. Plant-based diets are generally rich in fiber, phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, which in turn strengthens the immune system and slows down the aging process. Additionally, a plant-based diet can prevent and reverse certain chronic diseases so it makes sense that vegetarians have a longer life span!
Lose excess weight and keep it off. On average, plant-based tend to have a lower body mass index (a measure of body fat) than meat eaters. More than two-thirds (68.8%) of the general public are obese. The Oxford Vegetarian Study found that BMI levels are lower in vegetarians of all age groups and for both men and women. Vegetarians may have lower BMI due to consumption of a diet that is high in fiber-rich and low-energy foods such as fruits and vegetables.
Avoid toxic food contaminants. Flesh foods can harbor contaminants such as hormones, herbicides and pesticides, and antibiotics. As these toxins are all fat-soluble, they concentrate in the fatty flesh of the animals. Not to mention the viruses, bacteria and parasites such as salmonella, trichinella and other worms, and toxoplasmosis parasites.
For our Planet – Reduce Global Warming. The United Nations said in its 2006 report that livestock generate more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. Most of it comes from carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide gases generated by manure. Therefore, the single most important step an individual can take to reduce global warming is to adopt a vegetarian diet.
For the animals. Animals on today’s factory farms have no legal protection from cruelty that would be illegal if it were inflicted on dogs or cats. Yet farmed animals are no less intelligent or capable of feeling pain than are the dogs and cats we cherish as companions. A plant-based lifestyle awakens our spirit of compassion and guides us towards a kinder, gentler society in which we exercise a moral choice to protect animals, not exploit them.
You can save money. Plant-based eating, especially if you eat in-season produce and don’t purchase gourmet foods and prepared / ultra-processed food (just start to cook with real food) can be quite cost-effective, according to research. A 2015 study in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition found that a vegetarian diet could save more than 600€ a year.
Enjoy the diverse, colorful, and delicious world of a plant-based cuisine. Plant-based meals can be tasty, fast, and easy!