Former President Bill Clinton follows a vegetarian diet. So do a growing group of celebrities, professional athletes and ordinary Americans. Is this just the latest trendy diet or are these human herbivores striving for something?
Research suggests they may have a point.
Health care is one of the biggest expenses for seniors. Canadian dietitian Visanto Melina, who has written several books on the subject and co-authored
Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets
For the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“Everyone dies eventually,” she says. But “instead of spending the past decade undergoing chemotherapy and taking 19 pills a day for heart disease,” people are more likely to stay healthier on a vegan diet.
Dietitian Dean Ornish, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, conducted research decades ago showing that a low-fat, whole foods, and plant-based diet, combined with exercise, stress management, and social support, can reverse diseases. The heart and blood vessels open the arteries.
“When I started doing these studies, it was thought that once you had heart disease, the condition got worse, and at best, you could slow your progression,” Ornish says. “We’ve shown that once people make bigger changes, we can actually reverse progress. Instead of clogged arteries and hearts, their condition improves.”
In recent years, doctors have helped stop or even reverse Cardiovascular disease with medicines called statins to lower so-called bad cholesterol, or LDL, to very low levels while reducing inflammation. Strict vegetarian diets are an attempt to achieve the same effects through food rather than medication.
People have been eating meat and dairy for a long time. Full of protein and important nutrients like iron, calcium and vitamin B12. Why do so many nutrition researchers believe we can improve our health by stopping eating them?
For starters, meat and full-fat dairy products contain a lot of saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease. But it goes beyond that. Many scientists now believe that animal protein — for reasons they don’t fully understand — causes inflammation and increases oxidative stress on the body, Ornish says.
The composition of the meat has changed over the years, too, becoming laden with fat as fattening fields begin giving grain to cattle to produce marbled beef, says Christopher Gardner, a professor and nutrition researcher at Stanford University. Grass-fed beef “was really different from meat today,” he says. In recent years, more Americans have started eating grass-fed beef, but it still represents a small percentage of the meat consumed.
The World Health Organization classifies processed meat as sausage as carcinogens He says red meat has the potential to cause cancer, too.
By contrast, plant proteins come along with protective substances such as the phytochemical lycopene, common in tomatoes, which contains protective effect On the human body, Melina says. She says plant foods are our only sources of fiber, which has been shown to help improve digestive health, get rid of cholesterol, and reduce the risk of colon cancer.
Of course, not all plant foods are healthy. “It would be possible to eat a really bad vegan diet,” Melina says. Potato chips and vegan soda.
Growing scientific support for a plant-based diet represents a radical change from conventional wisdom not so long ago. For most of human history, and in some parts of the world today, just getting enough calories and nutrients to stay healthy has been a challenge. So doctors and dietitians encouraged the consumption of meat and dairy products as a way to make sure people are well nourished.
Now Americans and citizens of other industrialized countries develop so-called excess diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and many cancers. Studies around the world show that people who eat traditional diets that contain less meat tend to have lower rates of these diseases.
if I were Interested in eating a vegetarian diet?You don’t have to make the switch all at once. Dietitian Alisa Scherban of Yale University recommends that people start by adding foods to their diet like whole grains or legumes rather than taking them away. “People are more open to adding rather than removing,” she says.
As you introduce more plant foods into your diet, it will gradually eliminate animal products and refined carbohydrates from your diet.
Note that many healthy plant-based diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, contain limited amounts of meat and dairy. “There is a lot of data to support a lot of variations on a vegan diet,” says Charban, who calls her diet “flexibility” and eats meat occasionally.
Some people adopt a stricter vegan diet, eliminating all animal products from their diet. Experts say you can get all the nutrients you need from a plant-based diet with one big exception: vitamin B12, which keeps the sheaths around the nerves safe and is key to brain health. B12 deficiencies can take years to develop but are serious; Vegetarians should avoid it by taking B12 supplements.
Others worry that they won’t get enough protein on a vegan diet. Meat and milk are complete proteins, which means they contain adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids. Most plant foods are not complete proteins, which has made some people hesitant to eat them in place of animal foods.
Nutritionists now say that getting enough complete protein is not a problem as long as you eat a varied diet that includes plenty of whole grains, legumes, nuts or seeds. Wheat, for example, is low in the amino acid lysine that humans cannot produce on their own while lentils are high in lysine. As long as you eat both foods, you are fine. The same with rice and beans.
“It was thought you should have had it at the same meal, and then on the same day,” Ornish says. “And now we know it’s really in the same week.”
And certain plant foods – soybeans are the most widely eaten – are complete proteins. Quinoa and buckwheat are other examples.
“Stop obsessing about protein,” advises Gardner of Stanford. “If you eat a varied diet, you will get enough protein.”
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