How can a vegetarian diet boost your health and longevity?
Even if you don’t want to become a full-time vegetarian, you may want to explore a more plant-centered diet. What benefits can you expect from moving in this direction? One recent study states that a growing body of scientific evidence shows that wholesome vegetarian diets offer distinct advantages over diets containing meat and other animal foods. The benefits arise from lower intakes of saturated fat, cholesterol and animal protein as well as higher intakes of complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid, vitamin C and E, carotenoids and other phytochemicals.
In the past, vegetarian diets have been described as being deficient in several nutrients, but extensive research has since demonstrated that the apparent deficiencies are typically due to poor meal planning. Well-balanced vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including children, adolescents, pregnant and lactating women, competitive athletes and the elderly. In most cases, vegetarian diets are beneficial in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, renal disease and dementia, as well as diverticular disease, gallstones and rheumatoid arthritis (Forum Nutr. 2005;(57):147-56).
Certainly, more and more Americans are making the switch to a vegetarian diet, full or part time, as evidence continues to mount on the positive health benefits of doing so. According to the National Academy of Sciences, National Institutes of Health, Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, among others, a low fat, high fiber diet rich in fresh produce offers the best disease prevention across the board. Not only will consuming a nutritious plant-centered diet provide you with greater energy and well-being in the short term, it can help protect against the most serious health problems Americans face today, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Estimates from the International Agency for Research on Cancer suggest that as much as 50-90% of the cancer in this country could be eliminated if Americans adopted the diet and lifestyle of low-risk countries. Even the American Dietetic Association states that a well-planned vegetarian diet is healthy, nutritionally adequate and provides health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Some studies have shown beneficial results in obesity, cancer, Parkinson disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes mellitus and urinary stones, compared with meat eaters (Rev Clin Esp. 2007 Mar;207(3):141-3). Other research suggests that a low fiber diet featuring red meat may boost the risk of cancer, while a high intake of fruit and vegetables may lower risk. Specifically, a healthy vegetarian diet could decrease the incidence of breast, colon-rectal, and prostate cancers (Acta Biomed. 2006 Aug;77(2):118-23).
A well planned vegetarian diet is more likely to include the 6-12 daily servings of fresh fruits and vegetables recommended by the National Cancer Institute, as well as far greater levels of essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, fiber, flavonoids, and phytoestrogens than the typical American diet provides. Along with generous levels of nutrients and fiber, fresh fruits and vegetables contain unique compounds called phytochemicals. Many of these compounds exert anti-carcinogenic effects by both detoxifying and promoting the excretion of carcinogens, the suppression of inflammatory processes, inhibition of mitosis and the induction of apoptosis at various stages in the progression and promotion of cancer (Proc Nutr Soc. 2007 May;66(2):207-1).
World wide, populations that consume plant-based diets have considerably lower breast cancer rates than those with more Western-type diets. For example, death rates due to breast cancer in the United States are about five times greater than in China, four times greater than in Japan and three times greater than in Mexico, according to the American Cancer Society. As Neil Barnard, M.D. explains, populations consuming a plant-based diet not only have lower rates of prostate cancer, but also have a far lower rate of progression once cancer gains a foothold.
Additionally, those consuming a fiber-rich, plant based diet have lower rates of colon cancer than people consuming a low fiber, meat-centered diet. Colon cancer has been directly linked to meat consumption in numerous studies. This is in part due to the fact that foods rich in saturated fats appear to increase cancer risk in organs related to digestion, like the colon and rectum.
Clearly, the best cure for cancer is simply to prevent it altogether, especially since, as the National Cancer Institute estimates, as much as 80% of cancer cases are indeed preventable. A varied, plant-centered diet is an important anti-aging, longevity-promoting tool. Not only can it help in the prevention of cancer, but also can offer powerful protection against cardiovascular disease, which is still America’s #1 killer.
According to John McDougall, M.D., cardiovascular disease, which includes most illnesses of the heart and arteries, arises from an underlying disorder called atherosclerosis, in which cholesterol plaques block arteries throughout the body. Atherosclerosis is the cause of most heart attacks and a great number of strokes. He explains that the whole process of atherosclerosis begins with the consumption of foods rich in saturated fat and cholesterol which comprise the typical American diet, primarily animal products. Dr. McDougall asserts that the best way to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease is to decrease our dependence on the foods that promote it, targeting instead a low fat, plant-based diet.
Research suggests that in comparison with omnivores, lacto-ovo vegetarians, those that include eggs and dairy in their diets, had blood cholesterol levels that were 14% lower than omnivores, while vegans had an even better showing, coming in with cholesterol levels 35% lower (J AM Diet Assoc. 1991;91:447-453). Again, even modest efforts can make a difference in your health. Consider one meat-free meal a day to start, and increase from there. To learn more from the American Heart Association on this topic, go to: http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4777