Life beyond meat?—?a look at vegetarianism

2013-06-06 00:00

OVER the past few years, I have come across an increasing number of patients who are eager to implement dietary changes before using chronic medications, where possible.

High blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease are just a few of the diseases caused by a poor lifestyle, and many patients are seeking to adjust their bad habits before throwing a handful of pills at the symptoms every day. There is an ever-increasing body of evidence that shows the dramatic health benefits of eating a plant-based diet. Traditionally, vegetarianism was a personal choice made on religious or moral grounds, but now there is growing interest across a wide range of the population. Having said that, eating a plant-based diet and limiting meat is certainly not the easy option for many South Africans, particularly men (including my husband).

Strictly speaking, the simple definition of a vegetarian diet is one that avoids all meat, poultry and fish. Many individuals choose to include the occasional fish or chicken meal, while avoiding all red meat. Vegan diets involve the complete avoidance of all animal products, in other words also avoiding eggs and dairy products. Given the wide variability of dietary practices among vegetarians, individually assessing the diets’ adequacy is essential. Well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets are nutritionally adequate, and can be followed during all the life stages, including infancy, childhood, adolescence, pregnancy and old age. It is important, however, to ensure that the diet is indeed well-planned, to prevent potential deficiencies and pitfalls.

Vegetarian diets offer a number of nutritional benefits, including a lower intake of saturated fat, cholesterol and animal protein, as well as containing more complex carbohydrates, fibre, antioxidants (such as vitamins C and E), and phytochemicals (beneficial compounds found in plants). When compared to non-vegetarians, many studies have shown vegetarians to have a lower body weight, lower blood-cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and reduced heart-disease mortality. Vegetarians also have a lower incidence of hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer.

A recent analysis of multiple studies showed that vegetarian men were an average of 7,6 kilograms lighter and vegetarian women 3,3 kilograms lighter than their non-vegetarian counterparts. The results are not restricted to adults, with vegetarianism being encouraged as a treatment against childhood obesity. A study in 2009 of more than 60 000 men and women showed that the prevalence of diabetes is more than double in non-vegetarians, compared with vegetarians. A low-fat diet, with little or no meat products, is associated with improved insulin sensitivity and decreased insulin resistance, thus helping to prevent and treat diabetes.

Due to the nature of foods that are typically excluded from a plant-based diet, the intake of a number of nutrients can be inadequate and lead to deficiencies if not carefully addressed. In order to ensure a healthy vegetarian diet, good planning and careful food preparation are needed. Without paying attention, vegetarian meals are sometimes prepared incorrectly, with high amounts of fats, such as added oil, high-fat cheeses and cream, while being inadequate in iron, the vitamin B group, omega 3 fats and calcium. The key is to focus on healthy eating and meal preparation, while increasing the intake of legumes, beans, whole grains, and nuts or seeds (in controlled amounts).

Next time, I will focus on the nutrients that can be overlooked in a typical vegetarian diet, and provide ways to making sound changes. In the meantime, I trust you are inspired, as I am, to try to increase your intake of plant-based meals.

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