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The Truth about Vegetarian Diets

By Charles Hopkins Published 04/21/2006 | Food & Drink
In our Western society, a common nutritional belief is that meat and animal products must be consumed in order to maintain a well-balanced, muscle-building healthy diet.

Those who turn away from this traditional way of eating and choose a vegetarian diet are often considered "granola-head hippies"...or even just plain odd.

But more and more people these days are discovering the many health benefits of a vegetarian diet. Additionally, more physicians and scientists are prescribing and endorsing plant-based meals in order to promote health, prevent and treat certain diseases, and even to reduce weight.

Although vegetarianism may seem like a modern fad, in reality, its health benefits have been known for centuries in many cultures world-wide. India and many Asian countries make up the largest percentage of the world's vegetarians, both for health and spiritual reasons. One group of people, the Hunza -- who live near the Himalayan Mountains -- have an exclusively vegetarian diet. Members of their community reportedly often live to be over 100 years old.

The American Dietetic Association states that the benefits of a vegetarian diet include: 1) lowered cholesterol; 2) lower levels of saturated fat; 3) higher levels of important minerals and antioxidant vitamins; 4) lower body fat; 5) lower rates of heart disease; 6) lower blood pressure; 7) lower rates of type-2 diabetes; and 8) lower instances of some cancers.

Obesity, one of the major health concerns in this country, can be addressed with a vegetarian diet, one that eliminates excess protein and animal fat consumption, and increases fiber in the form of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Those who consume a vegetarian diet maintain a lower body mass index (BMI), which significantly aids in the treatment and management of other chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes.

One common question asked by anyone considering a vegetarian diet is: "Will I get enough protein? That is certainly a valid concern, as protein is necessary for the building, maintenance and function of all body cells. However, according the American Dietetic Association, a varied and well-balanced vegetarian diet provides all the protein the body needs from eating such things as whole grains, beans, nuts and soy products.

In fact, meat-based diets typically provide excess protein, which may actually be harmful. A leading gerontological journal reports that too much protein can cause a person to lose about 30% of their kidney function by the time they become elderly. It can also cause systemic acidity, which the body attempts to counter by pulling calcium out of the bones. This can, unfortunately, lead to osteoporosis.

Becoming a vegetarian does not mean you are limited to eating celery sticks, apples and nuts. There are many types of vegetarians that eat meatless diets in a variety of combinations. Some of the more common types include:

Lacto vegetarians, who do not eat meat or eggs, but do eat dairy products such as milk and cheese.

Lacto-ovo vegetarians do not eat meat, but will eat dairy products and eggs.

Ovo vegetarians do not eat meat or dairy products, but will eat eggs.

Vegans do not eat meat, dairy products, eggs, or any animal products at all.

There are many medical and health organizations that promote, endorse, and support people on a path toward changing their dietary lifestyle to one that includes more plant-based foods.

Additionally, many restaurants and grocery stores provide meals and products to vegetarians, making it simpler to choose this healthy lifestyle.

Research and information exists out there on the internet, as well as through medical providers and vegetarian organizations.

The bottom line: it's OK to be vegetarian, and the benefits may very well enhance or even save your life!
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