Veg-heads: Are they on to something?

With Lent in full swing, many people have adjusted to meatless Fridays. But what if we maintained a meatless diet for longer? Is there any benefit to a vegetarian lifestyle? According to a third-party poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group, approximately six to eight million adults in the U.S. are pure vegetarians who eat no meat, fish, or poultry. Another seven million Americans have intentionally cut red meat out of their diets, but will still eat chicken or fish. Two million Americans have adopted a purely vegan diet, where they do not consume any animal-based product, including dairy, eggs, honey, gelatin, and all meats. So which lifestyle is the best?

First, let’s consider why someone would go vegetarian. There are many reasons why a person may make this choice: religious convictions, concern for the ethical treatment of animals, environmental impact, or improved health. Traditionally, research on the vegetarian diet has always pointed out the risk of nutritional deficiencies. The macronutrient that is most often compromised is protein, thanks to the lack of protein-rich meat in the vegetarian diet. Fortunately, there is an easy fix. Vegetarians need to increase their intake of plant proteins, such as quinoa, beans, legumes, soy products, and nuts. Proteins are made up of amino acids, and the human body requires ten amino acids to come directly from your diet. Some superfoods, such as quinoa, are considered a source of “complete protein” because they provide all ten of these necessary amino acids in one go. Other food combinations, such as rice and beans, complement each other well by providing all ten amino acids when they are eaten together.

According to a study done by the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), vegetarians were found to have a 19 percent lower risk for death from cardiac disease, such as heart attacks. Nuts, which are often a staple in a vegetarian diet, contain many antioxidants and fatty acids. Walnuts in particular contain a lot of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential fats that our bodies need but cannot synthesize themselves. So basically we have to get all our omega-3 fatty acids from our diets. Walnuts, flax seeds, vegetable oil, leafy vegetables, and seafood are great sources. One argument against a vegetarian diet is that fish and seafood contain more omega-3’s than any other food. This makes a case for the pesco-vegetarian diet: a diet that avoids meat but allows fish. This special form of diet is halfway between a true vegetarianism and a normal American diet.

Honestly, most of the research performed on meat-free diets has shown that vegetarianism is a wash when it comes to health. Generally speaking, vegetarians are more likely to be health-conscious in other aspects of their life other than their strict meat-free diet, such as exercising, not smoking, and getting enough sleep at night. Therefore it’s hard to pinpoint if their healthiness comes from the lack of meat in their diet, or their lifestyle in general. We don’t really know any long-term benefits or consequences of a vegetarian diet other than the preliminary research that shows vegetarians are more likely to have healthier hearts. One proposed solution that everyone agrees is probably the healthiest option is to adopt a diet that excludes red meat but allows the consumption of some meat such as seafood and poultry. At the end of the day, it’s personal preference whether you want to choose to eat meat or not because there are pros and cons either way.

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