Could A Vegetarian Diet Be the Best Thing for You?
If you have a strong family history of cancer or heart disease, have high cholesterol that is difficult to manage, have elevated blood pressure, bone loss, or suffer from menstrual issues, a vegetarian diet could be of significant benefit to your health.
Vegetarians have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and triglycerides, and a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer. The highest rates of breast cancer are found in countries that consume the most animal fats: the US, Great Britain, Canada, and Australia. Studies show that vegetarian females eliminate two to three times more estrogen as meat eaters, causing a lower estrogen level, and a reduced risk of breast and uterine cancer, endometriosis, fibroids, PMS, and heavy menstrual cycles. Osteoporosis is another concern that results from a high protein diet. Too much protein is acidic and lowers the blood pH. The body quickly pulls calcium out of the bones to restore an alkaline environment. Over time, enough calcium is lost, and brittle bones can begin to develop. A vegetarian diet, which is significantly lower in protein than a meat-based diet, can be an important factor of osteoporosis prevention.
A tremendous amount of evidence shows that deviating from our ancestors predominantly plant-based diet to a domesticated animal-based diet is a major factor in the development of heart disease, cancer, strokes, arthritis, and many other chronic degenerative diseases. Many medical organizations recommend that we should focus primarily on plant-based foods: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, peas, legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy in moderation. Such a diet is thought to offer protection against the development of chronic disease.
One of the key aspects of a plant-based diet is its high fiber content. This is preventative against diverticulosis, appendicitis, and colon cancer. Low fiber diets may allow toxins to stay in contact with the intestinal lining longer, causing increased risk of these diseases. In addition, a healthy plant-based diet is low in saturated fat, high in essential fatty acids, and high in antioxidants.
Many medical experts recommend that Americans eat 2-3 servings of fruit and 3-5 servings of vegetables daily to reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases. Unfortunately, less than 10% of us are meeting even the lowest recommendations. Studies show that a high intake of carotene and flavonoid-rich foods reduces the risk of cancer, heart disease and strokes. These compounds are powerful antioxidants and protect us from free radical damage caused by pollution, smoking, alcohol, and poor diet. They are found in our bright red, yellow, orange, and purple foods. The best sources of carotenes are green leafy vegetables, and yellow-orange foods like carrots, apricots, mangos, yams, and squash. Legumes, grains, and seeds are also great sources. The best sources of flavonoids are citrus fruits, berries, onions, parsley, legumes, green tea, and red wine.
We are designed to eat around 1.5% of our diet as animal foods. Yet most Americans currently eat well over 50% of their calories from animal foods. The quality of the meat our ancestors ate was much different than modern meat. Domesticated animals have higher fat levels than their wild counterpart. But the desire for tender meat has led to breeding cattle with a fat content of 25 30% or higher, compared with a fat content of less than 4% for wild game! In addition, the type of fat is considerably different. Domestic beef contains primarily saturated fat and virtually no omega-3 fatty acids. In contrast, the fat of wild animals contains over five times more polyunsaturated fat per gram and has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
Much research links a diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol to cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Less than 1/3 of our calories should come from fat. The easiest way to achieve this goal is to eat less or no animal products and more plant foods. Essential fatty acids found in plant foods function as components of nerves, cell membranes, and decrease inflammation. Many are shown to protect against cancer, atherosclerosis, RA, MS, psoriasis, eczema, menstrual cramps, and other inflammatory conditions.
A common problem I see is that many vegetarians become carb-etarians or soy-etarians. Simple carbs from too many grains, rice, breads, pastas, and cereals increase blood sugar and diabetes risk, cause weight gain, increase cancer risk, and can aggravate mood, PMS, and any pre-existing conditions. More than half of the carbs Americans eat are in the form of sweetening agents. Additionally, soy found in vegetarian foods is often genetically modified, or only a part of the plant (soy protein isolate) is used; what is eaten is not what is found in nature. Eating soy three or more days per week puts you at risk of developing not only a food sensitivity, but also reduced thyroid function.
Food additives like preservatives, artificial colors, flavorings, and acidifiers are found in processed foods. Many additives have been linked to depression, cancer, asthma, allergies, ADHD, learning disabilities, and migraines. By eating closely to the Earth, (meaning fresh produce), you eliminate the risk these harmful, unnecessary additives create.
Pesticides and waxes are a concern as one moves toward eating more fruits and veggies. The major risks of long-term exposure to pesticides are cancer, birth defects, and many chronic diseases. Most waxes, which are used to prevent spoiling, have pesticides or fungicides added to them. Since the wax cannot be washed off with water, the toxin is literally cemented to the produce. Animal fat, meat, eggs, cheese and milk concentrate pesticides, yet another benefit of a vegetarian diet!
A healthy vegetarian diet is one that is high in plant-based protein and fiber, low in trans fats, full of healthy vegetables and fruits, lower in grains, pastas, breads, rice and cereals, devoid of refined white flour and sugar, low in pesticides and herbicides, and low in food additives and preservatives. If you are at risk for heart disease, cancer, stroke, or osteoporosis, I strongly urge you to consider a vegetarian diet as an important step on your path to wellness. For more information on how a vegetarian diet would fit into your lifestyle, call our office to schedule an appointment with your naturopathic doctor.
Article contributed by Dr. Michelle Retz