Why a Vegetarian Diet Is Good for Your Health and the Health of the Planet

One woman's foray into a meatless approach to cooking.


One woman's foray into a meatless approach to cooking.Don't Miss: 7-Day Vegetarian Meal Plan: 1,200 Calories

As a journalist, I've been following news on the health benefits of meatless eating for years. Recently I started toying with the idea of shifting toward a meatless diet myself. Some people skip meat for spiritual reasons. Many go vegetarian to help the environment (the United Nations determined recently that livestock is one of the top contributors to the world's most serious environmental problems, for example). But today, there's something else driving people-including me-to move toward a plant-based diet: health.

Science is showing that cutting back on meat is healthier for just about everyone, and more and more people are doing just that: today, 3 percent of American adults-over 7 million people-never eat meat, fish or poultry, up from less than 1 percent in 1994. The Meatless Monday campaign-a successful voluntary reduction effort in the U.S. during both World War I and World War II that was relaunched in 2003 at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to help Americans cut down on saturated fat-has become a full-blown movement. Cities like San Francisco have made official Meatless Monday proclamations; public school systems and college dining halls have adopted the philosophy; celebrity chefs like Mario Batali are leading the charge in restaurants. Meatless Monday programs are thriving in countries such as Korea, Brazil, Croatia and Canada. You probably know several people who've given up meat-maybe dairy and eggs too-every day of the week. Maybe you're one of them.

The more I learned about meatless eating, the more comfortable I became with the idea of changing my diet. The American Dietetic Association maintains that vegetarian diets are safe and healthful for everyone, from pregnant mothers to children to athletes, so long as they are planned with care. Research has shown that cutting meat usually means getting more dietary fiber, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium and unsaturated fat, and less saturated fat and cholesterol. Studies have shown that eating less meat reduces the risk of heart disease and perhaps even type 2 diabetes and some cancers. "Vegetarians have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels and tend to be a little bit thinner, so vegetarians are automatically going to be at lower risk of certain chronic diseases," says Virginia Messina, M.P.H., R.D., who has written extensively about vegetarian diets.

Inspired by these facts, my husband and I decided that our family of four (which also includes our 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter) would shift to more vegetarian meals.

A Case Study for Plant-Based Diets

We have, in many ways, a good model for a meatless society, and it's one I looked at closely as we made our choice to change our diet. In southern California's Inland Empire, a suburban valley spread some 60 miles east of Los Angeles, is a city called Loma Linda, home to several thousand people who are part of a religious group called the Seventh-Day Adventists. The Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) church believes the human body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and, as such, shouldn't be polluted with alcohol or tobacco-and, some members believe, meat. Some 30 percent of Adventists are vegetarian. In 1958, researchers from Loma Linda University, an SDA medical center, published an observational study showing that Adventists were significantly less likely to die from cancer, heart disease and other lifestyle-related diseases. In 1974, the researchers began looking at whether their diets might help to explain their better health. They found that eating less beef was in fact associated with lower risk of coronary heart disease.

Studies in other vegetarian populations have come to similar conclusions. For example, a 1999 compilation of several studies found that, compared to meat-eaters, people who were vegetarian for more than five years were 24 percent less likely to die of ischemic heart disease/coronary heart disease. (People who ate meat occasionally were still 20 percent less likely to die of these diseases.)

At first, I was heartened by these findings. As a family, we've always eaten mostly whole foods-including healthy staples like fruits and veggies, brown rice and whole-wheat pastas-and tend to stay away from highly processed foods. But the more I peered at our diet, the more I realized that meat-not vegetables or grains-defined our meals.

So I vowed that, for a month, I not only would cut back on meat and make healthy recipes from EatingWell's new book, EatingWell Fast & Flavorful Meatless Meals, I would also buy a bigger variety of fruits and vegetables, especially greens and colorful peppers and carrots. I would eat more beans. I would also make sure we were all getting enough of the nutrients that vegetarians need to pay closer attention to: vitamin B12 (only found naturally in animal products); iron (more easily absorbed from meat); DHA and EPA, omega-3 fatty acids (mainly in fish); zinc and iodine. To be safe, I bought everyone in my family multivitamins.

Meeting Our Meatless Month

At the beginning of the week, I headed to the supermarket to buy ingredients for our new dishes. That night, I cooked Sesame-Crusted Tofu over Vegetables. It was amazing. I actually craved it the next day and reheated the leftovers for lunch.

The rest of the week was just as tasty. The Bean & Hominy Potpie-total comfort food-was a particular hit. Cooking meatlessly started feeling like an adventure, and I began packing more "good stuff" into breakfast and lunch, too: I made smoothies with silken tofu, kale, blueberries, bananas and orange juice. They were so good my 3-year-old began asking for one every day. I boiled edamame and sprinkled it with sea salt and when my son successfully popped the soybean out of the pod into his mouth, he said, "I did it, Mommy! Mmmmm! I love soybeans!" Since soy has been linked to cholesterol reduction, and my family has a history of cholesterol issues, I was thrilled.

Lower LDL (bad) and total cholesterol levels may be a major reason for vegetarians' reduced risk for heart disease, say scientists. High cholesterol can contribute to plaque in our arteries, which can lead to heart attacks or strokes. Meat contains high levels of saturated fat, which raises cholesterol levels, while vegetables contain lots of fiber and plant sterols, which can keep cholesterol levels in a healthy range. Our new diet was, most likely, already improving our cholesterol levels, and helping our hearts.

Of course, "vegetarian" doesn't always mean heart-healthy. "Because vegetarian diets are defined, basically, as just eliminating meat, the word ‘vegetarian' labels a huge diversity of eating styles," says Winston Craig, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., of Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and the lead author of the American Dietetic Association's position paper on vegetarian diets. Case in point: A diet consisting of tons of white bread and loads of cheese is "vegetarian."

Using EatingWell's formula for healthy vegetarian meals (lots of veggies and whole grains, little high-fat dairy and moderate amounts of healthy fats, like oils and nuts), we started making simple changes to the rest of our diet. We limited cheeses and ice cream. I spread peanut butter, instead of regular butter, on toast. Many experts believe that a high intake of nuts, which contain cholesterol-lowering unsaturated fats, contribute to vegetarians' superior heart health. (Studies have shown that people who eat nuts more than four times a week suffer half as many heart attacks as people who eat nuts less than once a week.)

The minor dietary shifts felt so effortless that I began to believe this new way of eating could stick. A successful vegetarian dinner with guests underscored that notion: I served Tomato & Spinach Dinner Strata and no one noticed the lack of meat. My dad, a hardcore carnivore, went back for seconds.

An Evolved Eating Approach

After a few weeks, I had a realization: food is way more than just fuel. Eating can be a thoughtful, yet almost automatic way to live out one's beliefs (e.g., good health, humane treatment of animals, better environment). I'd become much more mindful of the food entering my body, and I was forced to make small decisions every time I encountered it. This made it much more difficult to mindlessly consume coconut-coated chocolate Sno Balls or dozens of chocolate chip cookies. "I think I have been practicing self control by eating more vegetarian meals; it gives me the muscles to control my junk food eating," I wrote in my journal.

Plus, I had doubled my consumption of fruits and vegetables and just felt great about the food I was putting into my body-and great generally. "Typically a person who goes on a vegetarian diet tells me they feel better all around," says Craig. I agree. Perhaps because being healthy was always on my mind and my taste buds were satisfied by the interesting flavors I was feeding them, I had fewer cravings.
I didn't feel restricted. I felt liberated. And it tasted good.

Rachael Moeller Gorman is a contributing editor to EatingWell and an award-winning science writer.

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