It wasn't so long ago that to be vegetarian was to be lampooned or even despised, associated with pale, zealous health nuts. These days, it seems more and more people recognise the benefits of reducing meat consumption—benefits to the health of not only your body but also the environment and your wallet! what is a “vegetarian”?
Put simply, a vegetarian diet is one that excludes all flesh food products (meat, chicken, fish) and is predominantly based on plant foods, including fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes and lentils, breads and cereals.
The diet may or may not include dairy products (milk, cheese, yoghurt) and eggs.
A more stringent version of the diet is the vegan diet. This diet includes only plant-based foods and excludes all animal products (meat, chicken, fish, dairy, eggs and even honey).
Another variation that's come about of late and is perhaps a little easier to adjust to is the semi-vegetarian diet (flexitarian). This is largely plant-based but may include some fish, chicken and even red meat occasionally.
A friend recently became a vegetarian and she is already reaping its benefits.
She's achieved a consistent weight and says she feels generally healthier! It's well known that eating a low-fat, high-fibre diet (especially low in saturated fat) is beneficial for a healthy lifestyle.
There is a growing body of evidence that says eating a predominantly plant-based diet is the way to go! The studies reveal people who eat a healthy vegetarian diet are less likely to be overweight and are less likely to develop lifestyle diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer.
Furthermore, recent studies1 have shown a positive correlation between red meat intake (especially processed meat) and saturated fat intake, and the incidence of diabetes. Reducing your meat consumption and eating a vegetarian-type diet is clearly beneficial to your long-term health. This is because a vegetarian diet is lower in fat, particularly saturated fats, lower in cholesterol, and higher in fibre and antioxidants.
But can a vegetarian diet meet all nutritional needs?
Adopting a healthy vegetarian diet doesn't simply mean banning meat from your plate and eating only veggies! Such a diet is boring and unsustainable, and can lead to health problems.
Rather, a healthy vegetarian diet needs to be balanced and well planned, and must include a variety of foods from across all food groups, ensuring you are meeting your nutrient requirements.
Animal products do contain important nutrients for our health, including iron, zinc, protein, B-vitamins (notably B12), calcium and vitamin D. These nutrients are important for our health and must be replaced in a vegetarian diet.
The problem is that as animal foods are often high in saturated fats and salt (processed meats) and other nasties, it makes sense to get your nutrient requirements from vegetable food sources, which have none of these negatives and which do you no harm.
The wider the variety of foods you eat daily, the easier it is to meet the requirements of all the essential nutrients.
The key to eating healthfully as a vegetarian is to ensure variety.
Eating healthfully doesn't mean eating “rabbit food.” By including a wide range of plant-based foods you'll not only reap the benefits of all the essential vitamins and nutrients but you'll explore new flavours and textures and foods that you would have otherwise overlooked in a meat-based diet.
It is becoming clearer that the environment is facing some serious challenges, from the melting of polar ice caps, freak weather conditions and the submerging of the Maldives, to firestorms and drought. Global warming, fuelled by increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is blamed for this. We're told to turn off our lights and drive electric cars in order to reduce our carbon “footprint” and to cut water usage. But one simple way to do this is to reduce our meat consumption.
A number of studies show the impact of meat production on the environment. One study reports that the production of “a kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving for three hours while leaving all the lights on at home.”2 The gas is produced as methane from the digestive systems of the animals.
Meat production also uses significant amounts of water, often in drier areas where it is in short supply. Several studies have shown that to produce a kilogram of beef takes thousands of litres of water, far in excess of that to grow the same quantity of vegetables or grains.3
Currently we are in the midst of a financial crisis, with people losing their jobs and many trying to reduce their costs of day-to-day living. We're bombarded with advice from financial experts, all to save a few cents on our shopping trolley purchases here and there. But if you really want to save dollars, a simple way is to switch to a vegetarian bias in your daily diet.
Sanitarium, the major breakfast cereal and health foods manufacturer (and contributor to Food Matters pages), last year ran a cost comparison of three meal plans— traditional meat diet, low-meat diet and vegetarian diet.
They found that one week's worth of food for four people on a meat diet was $A508; for a low-meat diet, $A418, and a vegetarian diet, $394.4 That's an immediate reduction of 20 per cent and about $A5000 annually!
the bottom line
No matter how you calculate it— health, environmental or economic— the benefits of reducing your meat consumption are worth it. Consider making a switch and experience all these benefits for yourself.
1. R Van Dam et al, “Dietary fat and meat intake in relation to risk of type 2 diabetes in men,” Diabetes Care 25:417-424, 2002; Y Song et al, “A Prospective Study of Red Meat consumption and Type 2 Diabetes in Middle- Aged and Elderly Women,” Diabetes Care 27:2108-2115, 2004.
2. Daniele Fanelli, “Meat is murder on the environment,”
3. A Hoekstra, A Chapagain, “Water footprints of nations: Water use by people as a function of their consumption,” Water Resource Manager 21:35-48, 2007.
4. National Vegetarian Week—cost benefits, <http:// vegetarianweek.com/BenefitsofaVegetarianDiet/Cost- Benefits.aspx> (accessed April 2, 2009).