Vegetarianism has many supporters and opponents. If we decide to switch to plant foods and replace meat and poultry in our diet with tofu and nuts, we need to carefully study all the pros and cons of vegetarian diets, correlate this with our condition and capabilities, and be sure to consult a specialist. It is especially important to do this for people of mature age.
An abrupt transition to a different food system can bring health, not good, but harm. How much animal protein can be eliminated from the diet so as not to harm yourself? Scientists at Harvard University have studied this issue and share some useful findings.
Benefits of Vegetarianism
There are many vegetarian diet options. Among them, three are especially popular:
- the pescatarian diet allows for fish and seafood,
- ovolacto vegetarian diet includes dairy products and eggs,
- a vegan diet generally excludes seafood, dairy, or other animal products.
All options usually involve eating a lot of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils. These plant foods contain:
- a wide range of antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory properties and may help improve health,
- high in fiber, which helps prevent constipation, lowers LDL – “bad cholesterol”, controls blood sugar and weight,
- low in saturated fat compared to a non-vegetarian diet.
The benefits of such diets have long been researched and documented: a lower likelihood of developing heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, high blood pressure.
But the picture is not entirely straightforward. For example, a study published in September 2019 found that along with lower rates of heart attacks, vegetarians had higher rates of hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke compared to meat-eaters: three cases per 1000 people over 10 years. Most other studies have not identified this risk.
Forewarned is forearmed
Assuming plant foods are healthier than animal foods, should we be on a vegan diet? With the growing number of vegan products now being sold in stores and offered in some restaurants, we need to take a closer look at this issue.
It’s actually unclear if a vegan diet is even more beneficial than a less vegan diet. “Sticking to a vegan diet for long periods of time can be challenging,” said Katie McManus, director of nutrition at Harvard University Women’s Hospital.
For example, a recent study showed that when it comes to the amount of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids in the blood, the vegan diet is slightly superior to the pescatarian and ovolacto-vegetarian, and even more so the meat diet. However, this is only one study so far. And before referring to its results, you need to take into account the caveat: “Most studies do not separate vegan and vegetarian diets, so we do not have enough data regarding their comparison.”
There are concerns about believing that a vegan diet carries health risks, especially for the elderly. As Katie McManus notes, when a person avoids animal products, they may become deficient in certain nutrients, such as:
- Calcium. It is important for many functions, especially for the health of bones, teeth, heart, nerves, and blood.
- Protein. It is needed to build muscle, bone and skin, especially as we age and lose muscle and bone mass and wound healing becomes more difficult.
- Vitamin B12. Comes only from animal products and is essential for our DNA, red blood cell formation, new cell growth, glucose metabolism, and the maintenance of the nervous system.
In addition, following a strict diet can lead to a calorie deficit, and if you don’t give your body enough fuel, you are at risk of frequent fatigue or exhaustion.
What can be done
“When choosing a plant-based diet, you have to be careful and make sure you get enough calories and nutrients,” explains McManus.
Here’s how to get around the potential pitfalls of a vegan diet or any other type of vegetarianism.
Avoid calcium deficiency. Experts recommend consuming plant foods rich in calcium: almonds, dark leafy greens – cabbage, spinach, figs, tofu, oranges. A medium-sized orange contains about 50 mg of calcium, a cup of cooked kale contains 268 mg. Aim for 1000-1200 mg of calcium per day.
Get enough protein. To do this, you should choose a protein-rich plant food: soy products – tofu, edamame beans, tempeh (a fermented soybean product); legumes – beans, lentils; nuts – walnuts, almonds, chia seeds; spirulina – blue or green algae. For example, a cup of canned beans contains 20 g of protein, chia seeds – about 15.1 g of protein per 100 g of product, sunflower seeds – about 20.1 g per 100 g. A person needs 0.77 g of protein per day per kilogram of body weight.
Prevent vitamin B12 deficiency. To do this, you need to eat something that contains vitamin B12 – fortified plant-based dairy products such as almond milk or soy milk, or fortified cereals. Katie McManus says many dietary supplements require additional B12 supplements. She also recommends seeing a doctor and checking your blood vitamin B12 levels regularly.
Where to begin?
First of all, you need to consult with your doctor, and then seek the advice of a dietitian who will help you adapt the meal plan to your personal needs and characteristics.
Experts at Harvard Medical School recommend combining a variety of plant foods to maximize your vitamins and nutrients. For example, making soups, salads and smoothies with a wide variety of ingredients.
It is very important to switch to a new diet gradually. “Avoid red meat first, then poultry, and then dairy and fish,” advises Katie McManus.
The philosopher Lao Tzu argued that the sage avoids all extremes. When starting something new, it is worth acting gradually, avoiding radical decisions and sudden leaps. When choosing a vegetarian diet to improve your well-being, it is important at every stage to remain attentive to how the body responds to this “innovation.”
“The husband and his family eat exclusively legumes, vegetables, rice, milk and rarely eggs. Going to live together, we agreed that I can eat what I want, but then it turned out that I can only eat meat and fish outside the house and in no case cook them in the kitchen. ”
The world is a wonderful, interesting place, full of fascinating acquaintances, discoveries and opportunities. There are also various horrors and dangers in the world. How can you tell your child about them without intimidating them, without depriving them of the thirst for exploration?