Vegetarianism didn’t make headlines 100 or even 50 years ago, but the practice has been with us for thousands of years. Remember Daniel? He was famous for his trip to the lions’ den, but he makes his grand entrance into Biblical stories eating a plant-based diet. If you reflect back in time, you’ll discover that the original diet was meatless.
Adam and Eve’s daily menu possibly included a handful of Brazil nuts, sliced papaya and strawberries, sun-baked asparagus sprinkled with chopped tomatoes, a blend of rice and beans, and the beverage of choice – water.
Today, not only do menus like these make the cover of popular magazines, but millions of people commit to eating habits similar to these early diets – and the numbers are growing!
Why the sudden popularity of vegetarianism? Reasons vary from animal rights to environmental concerns, but one of the biggest reasons is health benefits.
According to various studies, those who eat plant-based diets tend to be closer to a healthy body weight than those who eat meat-based diets. Also, researchers have found that the vegetarians who participated in their studies suffered less from heart disease and high blood pressures, had lower risks for adult-onset diabetes, and fewer problems with constipation and diverticular disease as compared to nonvegetarians.
Scientists have not been able to put their finger on the exact reasons why vegetarians experience these benefits, but they suspect several factors:
1. Vegetarians bulk up on fiber. Fiber helps create bulky waste products that move quickly through the body. The swift exit of waste also means less exposure to toxins produced in the digestive process. Besides this, some fibers bind cholesterol, which may lower the risk of heart disease. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains offer a generous supply of fiber.
2. Vegetarians pack in antioxidants. Ordinarily, a balanced vegetarian diet offers a generous supply of antioxidants – vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene. These vitamins may assist the body by immobilizing compounds that can otherwise alter or destroy the body’s cells. These compounds are called free radicals, and they are associated with the formation of cancer and the development of certain heart disease. Citrus fruits are a good source of vitamin C, grains and oils contain vitamin E, and carrots and cantaloupe are great sources of beta carotene.
3. Vegetarians get “fight-o-chemicals.” Plants develop compounds called phytochemicals that help protect the plant from potential harm, such as insect attacks or too much sun. In turn, these phytochemicals may help the body fight diseases such as cancer. One of the commonly known phytochemicals is lycopene from tomatoes.
4. Vegetarians get the skinny on fats. Vegetarians have a lower intake of total fats, saturated fats, and cholesterol. How does this affect the body? Researchers asked the same question. Studies have shown that when subjects with cardiac risk factors consumed a low-fat vegetarian diet, their cholesterol levels dropped, blood pressure dropped and some subjects lost a pound or two.
6. Vegetarians adopt healthy lifestyle habits. Quite often vegetarians will exercise regularly, drink six to eight 8-oz glasses of water, and sleep six to eight hours each night. They will also avoid smoking and heavy drinking and develop effective methods to cope with stress. Each of these habits adds to the benefits of healthy living.
Vegetarianism is a healthy alternative that offers various health benefits but poor planning may create health problems. Careful research and planning can help eliminate potential health difficulties. So if you want to get started, here are a few points to consider:
1. Do your homework. Discover creative ways to include plant foods in your diet and replace animal products. There are hundreds of recipe books that provide a variety of delicious ways to prepare meals. (See http://www.vrg.org/ for more information.)
2. Develop a plan that works for you. You may want to gradually increase wholesome plant foods in your diet and decrease animal foods. Or you may want to stop eating animal foods altogether. Either way, consult your physician and/or dietitian for direction.
3. Eat a balanced diet. Include six to eleven servings of whole grains and breads and at least five servings of fruits and vegetables in the diet; and be sure to include two to three servings of plant-based proteins. For example, beans and rice, peanut butter and bread, tortillas and beans make great replacements for meat proteins. One more thing: if you exclude milk and dairy products from your diet, make sure your diet includes vitamin D and calcium.
4. Consider a multivitamin/mineral supplement. Vitamin B12 is found in meat and meat products. Seaweed, tempeh, and other fermented foods may contain traces of vitamin B12, but the body may not be able to use it. If you choose not to eat any animal products, consider fortified foods or a supplement to supply vitamin B12. Monitor your intake of calcium, iron, and zinc.
In a nutshell, vegetarianism is a healthy alternative that may offer various health benefits. At first it may be a little tricky to follow but once you get good habits in motion, you’ll join millions of people who have also gone meatless.