The Plant-Based Movement That’s Continuing to Sprout
By David Buice
While many of us might not quite be ready to give up our breakfast bacon or seared-off steak, anywhere from six to eight millions adults in the United States now follow some form of a vegetarian diet, for a variety of reasons.
Strictly speaking, vegetarians eat no meat, poultry, or fish. But within that broad classification there are many subcategories of vegetarianism, some of which also abstain from certain by-products of animals.
Lacto vegetarians eat dairy but not eggs, ovo vegetarians consume eggs but not dairy, and lacto-ovo vegetarians eat both eggs and dairy products. Vegans do not eat any meat, poultry, or fish, or anything derived from animals, including eggs, dairy products, and gelatin. And some “semi-vegetarian” diets avoid meat but may eat fish (pescetarian) or poultry (pollotarian).
Reasons to Go Vegetarian
People adopt vegetarian lifestyles for many reasons. For some, it’s an ethical decision based on their desire that animals not be harmed or killed. Concern for the environment is another motivating factor. Some vegetarians hate seeing our land, air, and water polluted by large quantities of animal wastes coming from factory farms.
Religious convictions can also be a major impetus. Hindus, believers in the concept of ahimsa, meaning “do no harm,” make up the world’s largest vegetarian population, and some Seventh-Day Adventists also practice a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.
In the past, much research on vegetarianism focused on the potential dietary deficiencies, but more recent studies tend to confirm the health benefits of meat-free eating. Today plant-based eating is recognized as not only nutritionally sufficient but also a way to reduce the risk of many chronic illnesses, including heart disease, colon cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
As dietary experts at Harvard Medical School point out, a healthy vegetarian diet must be “appropriately planned.” A diet of soda, cheese pizza, and French fries is technically vegetarian, but certainly not healthy. For good health it’s essential to eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. And it’s also vital to replace saturated and trans fats with those found in nuts, olive oil, and canola oil.
Even if you’re eating all nutritious, plant-based foods, you’ll still gain weight if you eat an excess of calories. No matter your diet, it’s essential to practice portion control and remain physically active.
Finally, there is one dietary way to get many of the health benefits of being a vegetarian without actually becoming one. A Mediterranean diet, associated with longer life and a reduced risk of several chronic illnesses, places an emphasis on plant foods and the modest consumption of meat. For many, this could be a good starting point toward experimenting with a meatless diet.
4 Tips For a Healthy, Plant-Based Diet
If you’re considering adopting some type of plant-based diet, Monica Reinagel, a board-certified, licensed nutritionist, and author of several books on healthy eating, recommends doing four things to get the nutrients needed to remain healthy.
Include some protein with every meal and snack.
Both eggs and/or dairy products are excellent sources of high-quality protein, but if you consume no animal products at all, tofu and other soy-based foods offer the highest protein quality and quantity per serving.
Get enough calcium.
Most dairy products are excellent sources of calcium, as are tofu and vegetables like bok choy, turnip greens, collard greens, and kale. To get the suggested 1,200 milligrams daily, you might take a calcium supplement.
Consider a B12 supplement.
Vitamin B12, found only in animal foods, is necessary for proper red blood cell production, nerve function, and metabolism. Unfortunately, as we age, we lose the ability to absorb this vitamin, a situation that’s complicated if you’re not consuming animal products. The recommended daily intake for those over age 14 is 2.4 mcg. The National Institutes of Health recommends that older adults get their B12 from supplements and fortified foods such breakfast cereals.
Consider a D3 supplement.
Vitamin D3 is a nutrient not widely available from your diet, especially if you don’t eat fish. The recommended daily intake is 600 IU, increasing to 800 IU if you’re over 70.
With any supplement, always check with your doctor about the proper dosage to take to enhance your diet.