With each passing year, more people around the world suffer from obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke and high blood pressure. Choosing vegetarian options over meat, eggs and dairy products not only helps animals and the environment—it helps our health, too. Many of the chronic diseases plaguing the world can be prevented, treated and, in some cases, even reversed with a plant-based diet.
Rising rates of obesity occur even in developing nations where under-nutrition is also a concern. Globally, there are now more overweight people than malnourished people.
To confront this growing problem, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that people eat more fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains, as well as transitioning away from saturated animal fats to unsaturated vegetable oil fats.
WHO is not alone. Leading nutrition authorities and experts from countries across the globe have similar dietary recommendations, including China, India, the European Union, the United States, Brazil, Mexico, and Taiwan.
Tips for a complete diet
While studies have shown the many health benefits of vegetarian eating, merely removing animal products from your diet doesn’t automatically ensure good health.
As with any eating plan, it’s important to know some basic nutrition information.
Eating vegetarian makes it easier to avoid foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol, and ensure lots of fruits and vegetables. However, there are some key nutrients to look out for:
Vitamin B12: Those consuming animal products ingest this vitamin that is made by bacteria within animals’ bodies. Those eating plant-based diets should take a B12 supplement, or enjoy B12-fortified foods such as breakfast cereals or soy milk to get a regular, reliable source of B12.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: These essential fats are important for a variety of reasons—including optimizing cardiovascular health—and are found in walnuts, ground flax seeds, flax oil, hempseed oil, canola oil, and algae-derived supplements.
Vitamin D: This vitamin is important for good bone health. Our bodies make vitamin D when we’re exposed to sunlight. Spending some time outdoors every day without sunscreen and, during the winter months, eating vitamin D-fortified foods or taking a supplement is a good idea for everyone.
Protein: A common misperception about vegetarian diets is that they can’t provide enough protein. This myth has been dispelled by the world’s nutrition authorities. Eating an adequate number of calories derived from any normal variety of plant foods generally gives us all the protein our bodies need. Almonds, black beans, brown rice, cashews, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, peanut butter, pinto beans, quinoa, seitan (a wheat-based mock meat), soybeans, soy milk, sunflower seeds, textured vegetable protein (TVP), and tofu are all protein-rich plant foods.
Iron: Our bodies need iron to keep oxygen circulating throughout the bloodstream. In extreme cases, an iron deficiency can lead to fatigue and other disorders. Fortunately, iron is plentiful in animal-free sources. Black beans, bran flakes, cashews, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), kidney beans, lentils, navy beans, oatmeal, pumpkin seeds, raisins, soybeans, soy milk, spinach, sunflower seeds, tofu, tomato juice, whole wheat bread are good sources of iron.
Calcium: Everyone knows we need calcium for strong bones, but what most people don’t know is that our risk of osteoporosis can be lowered by reducing sodium intake, eating more fruits and vegetables, exercising, and getting enough vitamin D from sunlight or fortified food sources. Almonds, black beans, broccoli, calcium-fortified orange juice, collard greens, great northern beans, kale, kidney beans, mustard greens, navy beans, pinto beans, sesame seeds, soybeans, soy milk, textured vegetable protein (TVP), and tofu are all excellent cholesterol-free calcium sources.
World Health Organization. Obesity and Overweight. http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/publications/facts/obesity/en/. Accessed June 20, 2008.
Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T, Castel V, Rosales M, and De Haan C. 2006. Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, p.10). http://milk.procon.org/sourcefiles/LivestocksLongShadow.pdf. Accessed June 20, 2008.
American Dietetic Association. 2009. Appropriate Planned Vegetarian Diets Are Healthful, May Help in Disease Prevention and Treatment, Says American Dietetic Association. Press Release published on July 1, 2009. Available at: http://www.eatright.org/Media/content.aspx?id=1233. Accessed on August 6, 2010.