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:
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.
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.
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.
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.