Within the last five to ten years, more Americans are interested in and committing to plant based diets for health, animal or environmental reasons. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics published a position paper in December of 2016 applauding the use of plant based diets for healthier bodies and a healthier environment. Today I’m going to breakdown the main points of the article (the link to the article will be posted below if you want to check it out).
Vegetarian and vegan diets are beneficial to overall health and wellness because of the increased intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fiber. Studies show that vegan and vegetarian diets reduce the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer and also are helpful in managing chronic diseases. A meta-analysis study of 11 randomized controlled trials found those who followed a vegetarian diet had a significant reduction in LDL and total cholesterol, which reduced their risk for heart disease by approximately 10% (4). Another study found that all plant based diets improve several heart disease risk factors like blood pressure, abdominal obesity, blood glucose and serum lipid profile (1,2,3,5). These findings are due to the fact that plant-based diets include less animal based proteins, which are higher in saturated fats, and more fruits, veggies and plant based proteins that are lower in saturated fat content and high in fiber and healthy fats (legumes, soy products, seitan, nuts and seeds). Since plant based diets can improve overall health and reduce chronic disease risk, they can also be used therapeutically for managing and eliminating cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. In terms of cancer prevention, multiple epidemiological studies have consistently shown the correlation between increasing intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes and reduction of cancer risk. A myriad of phytochemicals–lycopene, ferulic acid and curcumin to name a few–are found in fruits and vegetables and may be beneficial to protecting one’s body against cancer (6,7). Overall, current research supports the fact that many people who follow vegetarian and vegan diets are healthier and happier people. Whether you are thinking about adopting a plant-based diet or just increasing intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes into your diet is a great way to stay healthy.
Risk of Deficiencies?
Many people may hesitate in following plant-based diets due to risk of deficiency in certain vitamins and minerals, however, a well-planned vegan or vegetarian diet will meet all nutritional needs for any individual in any state of life; from infancy to older adults. The most important nutrients to monitor in a plant-based diet are: iron, omega three fatty acids, protein, Vitamin B-12, Calcium, Vitamin D, zinc and iodine (15). All of these nutrients recommended dietary intakes can be met through diet alone, however, supplementation is also an option.
Common Food Sources of Nutrients at Risk
Iron: legumes (black beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas), nuts and nut butters, seeds, whole grains (whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, oatmeal, brown rice), variety of veggies (broccoli, spinach, collard greens, sweet potatoes) and soy based alternatives (tempeh, tofu and soy-milk).
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: flaxseed, chia seeds, canola oil, walnuts, camelina seeds and hemp seeds.
Protein: legumes (beans), nuts and seeds, soy products (tempeh, tofu, soy-milk), seitan, fortified eggs, dairy products and whole grains.
Vitamin B-12: B-12 fortified foods (tofu, soy-milk, tempeh, nutritional yeast).
Calcium: kale, turnip greens, Chinese cabbage, dairy products, bok choy, soy products, fortified nut milks.
Vitamin D: sunlight, fortified dairy, soy and nut milks, fruit juices, breakfast cereals, and irradiated mushrooms.
Zinc: soy products, legumes, whole grains, cheese, nuts and seeds.
Iodine: iodized salt (sea salt and kosher salt are not included).
Saving the Environment
Plant based diets can also save the environment because they use less natural resources and produce less damage than livestock. Vegetarian and vegan diets, when compared to omnivorous diets, utilize less water and fossil fuel resources and use lower amounts of pesticides and fertilizers (11). For example, substituting 1 kg of kidney beans for beef in an individual’s diet would call for 12 times less fertilizer, 10 times less pesticide, 18 times less land, 10 times less water and 9 times less fuel than producing 1 kg of beef (12). Animal agriculture causes air pollution, land degradation, global warming, loss of biodiversity, increases anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions and increases methane and nitrous oxide production (8, 9, 10,13, 14). If Americans ate more of a plant based diet, but not necessarily going completely vegan or vegetarian, it could help save the planet.
In conclusion, there are a lot of health and environmental benefits to eating a plant based diet or even incorporating Meatless Monday’s into your normal routine. There are plenty of fun meatless recipes on Pinterest and vegan food blogs, so start cooking my friends!
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- Rizzo NS, Sabate J. Jaceldo-Siegl K, Fraser GE. Vegetarian dietary patterns are associated with a lower risk of metabolic syndrome: The Adventist Health Study 2. Diabetes Care. 2011;34(5):1225-1227. (54)
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- Wang F, Zheng J, Yang B, Jiang J, Fu Y, Li D. Effects of vegetarian diets on blood lipids: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Am Heart Assoc. 2015;4(10):e002408. (56)
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- Melina, Vesanto, Winston Craig, and Susan Levin. “Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets.”Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 116.12 (2016): 1970-980. Web. 06 Mar. 2017.