Friday, April 08, 2005

Vegetarianism : Pros and Cons

Many people think that going Vegetarian means missing out not only on the taste of their favourate butter-chicken and meat kebabs, but also on some essential nutrients. And until recently, deficiency was the theme of most nutrition research into vegetarianism. But now the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. Scientists have researched and found health benefits in meat free diets. Studies have linked a vegetarian diet to increased life expectancy and a lower risk for heart disease and diabetes. And high intake of beans like rajma, soy and Channa - which often replace meat as a source of protein in a vegetarian diet - may strengthen bones and prevent osteoporosis.
An increasing number of studies are finding health benefits from a low or no-meat diet.
Last year, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the top journal in the field, published a special supplement on vegetarian diets. Here are some of the Benefits of Vegetarianism as highlighted by the journal:

Longer Life

Researchers reviewed six studies on the effects of meatless (or low meat) diets on longevity. Four showed that vegetarians live longer than people who eat meat. In one study, about 34,000 members of the Seventh-day Adventist religious group were surveyed about their eating habits and followed for 12 years. Those who ate no meat had a 15% lower chance of dying than who ate meat at least once a week.

Health Benefits

Numerous studies have shown that a vegetarian diet lowers blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood lipid (fat) levels. That adds up to a lower risk of heart disease. The one problem might be for vegetarians who don't eat fish, because they are missing out on the best source of Omega-3 fats, which have a variety of benefits for the heart. Flax and walnuts contain a version of omega-3's that may make up for the lack of fish. But it is hard to imagine they could do it completely.

Diabetes Management
Nuts, soy products, legumes and whole grains in a healthy vegetarian diet reduce cholesterol levels. Lower cholesterol levels are especially good for diabetes because heart disease is the most common serious complication of the disease. Eating lots of fiber seems to help diabetes with blood sugar control. One important factor to keep in mind is that a vegetarian diet can be unhealthy if it contains a lot of junk food (like pizzas, chaat foods ,cookies etc), saturated fat (butter, cheese, ghee) and refined carbohydrates (white rice, sugar, maida) and is devoid of fruits and vegetables.
But a well balanced vegetarian diet that entails eating more whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables offers the most health benefits as it translates into higher fibre, vitamin and antioxidants intake.

Bone Building
Although the evidence is still incomplete, some research suggests that animal protein may be bad for your bones. The reason being - it makes your blood slightly acidic, and acidic blood pulls calcium out of the bones. Proteins from plant sources is less acidic.

There is also some evidence that the estrogen-like effects of soybeans may prevent bone loss. It is well established that women lose bone mass after menopause, when estrogen levels drop. Studies of post menopausal women suggest that soy may slow that process. But cautious researchers say that they don't know enough yet to make any firm recommendations. In any case, you don't have to depend solely on soy. The bone protecting substances it contains, namely phytoestrogens and calcium are also present in other beans like Channa, urad, chowli and in peas.

Some deficiency risks in embracing a pure vegetarian diet

Iron: Iron deficiency anemia is believed to be widely prevalent in many parts of the world, and in India, fortification of salt has been used as a method in preventing iron deficiency. Meat, particularly red meat, contains hemoglobin iron, which is much more readily absorbed than the non-hemoglobin form in plant foods. Other dietary factors affect the absorption of non-hemoglobin form in plant foods. Enhancers include vitamin C. Inhibitors include pyric acid in whole grains, legumes, lentils and nuts; polyphenols in tea, red wine, and other food; and possibly soy protein. But while vegetarians do tend to have lower iron "stores" in their bodies, recent research suggests that lower iron stores may actually offer some health benefits.

Protein: Studies show that most vegetarians get the 50 gms of protein per day recommended by nutritionists as part of a standard 2000 calorie diet. Lentils, pulses, beans, dairy products, eggs and nuts have plenty of protein. Vegetarians used to be told that they needed to be careful about getting complementary proteins because plant based proteins don't come with all the amino acids contained in meat protein. But because most vegetarians in India are eating a varied diet these days and tend to combine cereals and pulses (that have complementary proteins), they end up getting the full set of amino acids.

Vitamin B12: B12 deficiency per se is not widespread in India, despite a predominantly vegetarian diet. Experts aren't quite sure exactly how people meet their requirements of this vitamin. Diary foods and eggs are good sources of vitamin B12 for vegetarians. The stricter vegetarian diet, which doesn't include any animal-based foods, could theoretically lead to shortage of B12.

Healthy Meat Eating
Even if you don't want to become a complete vegetarian right away, you can steer your diet in that general direction. Start by skipping meat at a few meals per week. Stick with low-fat or healthy-fat sources of protein, such as beans, tofu, low-fat dairy products, lean meat, or best of all fish. And, of course all of us would be doing our health a big favour if we ate less packed and processed food and more whole grains, nuts, beans, fruits and vegetables.


nikhil said...

I have been a vegetarian all my life. And I do not have any deficiencies stated above. I think following a well balanced diet is the key to pursuing vegetarianism in a succesful manner.

David Engel said...

I am not a vegetarian, though I know many people who are, and I have considered it often. I just don't know how to take the first step. In the United States, the most common problem for people beginning a vegetarian lifestyle is social: they will normally need to deal with a large number of negative people.

I think one of the dangers for new vegetarians -- especially new vegans -- is a too limited variety of diet, or making poor replacements for meats. Just because cookies don't have meat doesn't mean you should make a diet based on them.

Rebekah said...

I think people should stick to a 'normal' diet with meat, just cut back on the red meats and processed foods. I hardly eat any red meat and am healthier than most in my family.

Alex Swanson said...

I am a vegetarian and I don't have any problems with malnutrition. Plus I don't have a guilty conscience when I eat my meals. I have encountered manyy people who insult me for my lifestyle choice and eat meat in front of me just to disgust and spite me. It really is not all that hard to become a vegetarian. Heres all you have to do: gradually replace meat in meals with vegatables, or replacement meats like tofurky. Once you are a full vegetarian, you can get fun recipes to try, and go to your doctor to make sure you don't have any nutrition problems. I lost my excess weight and am overall heathier now as a vegetarian.

Celia said...

I have been Vegetarian for about 7 months now, and it has gotten a lot better. It was really an overnight change. At first it was difficult to prepare meals, but with time and patience, I have gone from making peanut butter and Jelly sandwiches to veggie enchiladas! I realized that by going vegetarian it has helped be avoid fast food places and quick fix meals that are high in fat and sodium. I have lost 20 pounds and still losing.

Andrew Taylor said...

Thanks so much for your advice. I'm 13 and I'm going to become a vegetarian. I am thinking of how I will balance out with a no meat and no fish diet. Thnaks again for all your help. - Andrew Taylor

x said...

You want proof of the benefits of a balanced diet that includes plenty of animal protein, especially meat? google "Natural Bodybuilding". I'm a natural bodybuilder myself, I don't use any performance enhancing drugs and eat plenty of lean meat and plenty of fish, and I'm in the best shape (exterior and interior) of my life.

Anonymous said...

I am planning on becoming a full vegetarian when I go off to college in like seven months. I have limited myself to the meat one time a day or meat only three times a week. I am afraid though because I am an extreme anemic. Even now with eating meat I still have to take iron pills three times a day. Now that my dreams of donating blood are down the shoots. I want to do at least one thing that I am supporting. It's just I am concerned that it will not work well for me. Any suggestions?

Andrew said...


Being an anemic will have no effect on becoming a vegetarian! I read that you are iron deficient and are taking iron pills often. These iron pills add haemoglobin into your blood supply. Haemoglobin carries oxygen from the lungs to your organs.

Yes, eating meat is a rich source of iron, but eating beans, brocolli, asparagus, watercress, spinach, tofu and many other vegetables are equally good sources of iron, and the major plus to it is that you are not harming animals.

I have been a vegetarian for half a year now and I'd enourage you becoming one too.

brett said...

love to see this discussion! It’s great to see you all working through the issues and also, it’s great to see recommendations for testing. In the end, it’s what your actual users do and prefer that should be your biggest driver in making these decisions.

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Jenn said...

I like most North Americans eat pretty well. This past Christmas I made the choice to cut out sugary drinks from my diet. I wasn't a pop drinker but had 3 sometimes 4 coffee's a day, each coffee with 3 sugars. After 2 weeks I noticed a difference. Our diet even got better - major increase in veggies! We finally kicked meat to the curb over 2 weeks ago - I've never felt better! I think you have to make the choice that's right for you. I will say that yes - if you make the choice to go vegetarian, you will get flack from friends & family. They think it's such a drastic move. Media has fed you what & how to eat. Do your research! I won't go back - I've been feeling like a million bucks! I have suffered from enemia in the past but haven't really had to revert to pills in a couple of years as I've included lots of foods high in iron that aren't meat! I also eat plenty of fruit which helps in the absorbing iron. We made the choice (hubby & I) for ethical, green & health reasons. Best choice I've ever made!