Is a Vegetarian Diet Healthier?

Seven million people in the United States call themselves vegetarians—those who don’t eat meat, fowl, or fish (but often include dairy products and eggs). But while vegetarians claim their diets are healthier, many carnivores and omnivores extol the virtues of eating high on the hog: Consuming meat, after all, is simply following nature’s dictate, for hungry humans have been devouring everything they could lay their hands on through at least the past 100,000 years of evolutionary history, and probably much longer.

So who’s got legitimate bragging rights?

Evidence has been building for two decades that people who eat a mostly vegetarian diet have the upper hand. But even scientific studies may not be enough to convince meat eaters to give up their lust for flesh in exchange for a longer, more disease-free life.

What we eat, of course, isn’t the only determinant of health. For instance, even with the best diet in the world people who aren’t active will fall prey to diseases of sloth. Sedentary Death Syndrome is estimated to cause 300,000 premature deaths a year in the U.S., mostly due to cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

The types of food consumed within a specific diet also will have an effect on health.

“It is important to point out that both [omnivorous and vegetarian] diets can be disastrous or healthy,” says Ryan Andrews, a dietician and exercise physiologist with the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center. “Jujubes and beers constitute a vegan [plant-only] diet. Cheese and sausage constitute an omnivorous diet.  Obviously we know these aren’t the best food choices for optimal health.”

A well-designed vegetarian diet, as opposed to a junk food vegetarian diet, would be low in fat and high in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds, says Susan Bowerman, Assistant Director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.

“These foods are all cholesterol-free, low in total fat and saturated fat, rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals which offer numerous health benefits,” Bowerman says. “The diet would also naturally be high in fiber, which is also of benefit.”

And what are these benefits? Numerous studies from around the world have shown that plant-based diets not only extend life spans but also protect people from a number of diseases that plague heavy meat-eaters. The longest-lived peoples in the world all consume a mostly vegetarian diet, with a small percentage of protein derived from meat.

Take Okinawans elders, for example. They live longer than any other people on the planet, with an average life expectancy of 81.2 years (the U.S. average is 76.8). Inhabitants of this Japanese island have 80 percent less heart disease and cancer of the breast and prostate than Americans, and half the rate of dementia and cancer of the ovaries and colon. Although genetics contributes to their longevity and superior health, the major player is lifestyle, scientists have found. Besides high levels of physical activity and low body fat levels, Okinawan elders  eat a lot of soy, vegetables, and fish, plus a moderate amount of alcohol. Compared to Americans, they  consume twice as many vegetables and three times more fruit, but 10 times less meat, poultry and eggs. (But paradise is being lost. Younger generations of Okinawans have switched to a more modern diet and lifestyle. Consequently, they have twice the rate of obesity as other Japanese, and more risk factors for heart disease. Dying at a younger age than their elders, younger Okinawans may eventually lower the average lifespan of the island.)

“Okinawan elders eat an average of seven servings of vegetables and fruit a day [the National Cancer Institute recommends five], two servings of flavonoid-rich soy products per day; omega-3 rich fish several times a week; and minimal dairy products and meat,” report the authors of The Okinawa Program.

What Research Has Shown

Research has shown that vegetarians are healthier than those who consume a lot of animal protein. “Vegetarians are at lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease and dying of ischemic heart disease,” says Sarah Trist, a clinical dietitian at Children’s Hospital in Seattle. “They have lower blood pressure, and lower cholesterol levels of LDL or “bad cholesterol.” They are less likely to be overweight or obese and have lower rates of type-2 diabetes, diverticular disease, gallstones, as well as some cancers including prostate and colorectal cancer. It may also be beneficial in the early stages of renal disease, protect against dementia, and slow the rate of bone loss women experience after menopause.”

And we’re not talking a few percentage point differences, but 25 percent to 35 percent less risk.

A meat eater might ask, “But aren’t humans designed to be omnivorous? Why would eating meat make us sick?” While it’s certainly true that our bodies are capable of digesting both animals and plants, our ancestors probably relied more on the latter than the former. Meat was a luxury, rarely eaten because it was hard to come by. Plants grew abundantly and didn’t run away. So the difference is in the amount of animal protein we eat today. Our bodies evolved to eat a little, but we now consume much more.

But what about protein and vital nutrients that animals provide, like iron, vitamin B-12 and calcium? Aren’t vegetarians pale, gaunt and weak?

Vegetarians can be deficient in these and other vital substances found mainly in meat—but not if they choose foods wisely. The reason many vegetarian diets rely on soy is that it’s the only plant that contains complete protein (all the essential amino acids). Beans, peas, and lentils are other good sources of protein. “Iron is more difficult to obtain,” says Bowerman, “because animal sources generally contain more iron per serving and is more readily available to the body. Iron can be found in iron-fortified cereals, as well as beans, nuts, and seeds.”

Fortified cereals and milk are also good vegetarian sources of another vital nutrient, vitamin B-12, which plants don’t offer. And while the dairy industry would have you believe that milk is the best source of calcium, research suggests otherwise. “When we think calcium, we tend to think dairy,” Andrews says. “But when you take a step back, the main source for all minerals-including calcium—is soil from the ground.” So plants such as bok choy, broccoli, collards, and kale are a good source of calcium. In fact, calcium from these plants is absorbed by the body twice as readily as calcium from cow’s milk.

One of the most convincing arguments for the health benefits of a vegetarian diet comes from China. In an exhaustive, large-scale study of Chinese eating habits and disease, spearheaded by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a Cornell University nutritional biochemist, scientists found that those who ate the most protein—mostly from animals—had the highest rates of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. The wealthier a person was, the more likely he was to eat animal protein. “Usually, the first thing a country does in the course of economic development is to introduce a lot of livestock,” Campbell told Jane Brody of The New York Times. “Our data are showing that this is not a very smart move.”

But it appears that little can be done to stop this trend. As Dr. Junshi Chen, the primary Chinese scientist involved in the Cornell study, told The Washington Post: “The natural tendency when you have more money in your hand is to buy more meat. For some reason, people just don’t want to buy vegetables, except when they have the knowledge and understanding. And even then …”

Source: Health & Fitness at MSN

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