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The Pros and Cons of Plant-Based Diets

"A vegetarian diet is not as difficult to implement as you would think."

There are plenty of people who, for a variety of reasons, want to avoid eating meat. In today’s post with Dr. Keller Wortham, MD, he’s talking about plant-based diets.We’ll take a look at the health aspects of this kind of diet, some potential issues associated with it, as well as some of the other things you might want to look out for when considering this type of diet. 

Video Highlights

  • 01:00: What is a Vegetarian Diet?
  • 02:15: Most Important Aspects of Vegetarian Diets
  • 03:03: Advantages of a Vegetarian Diet
  • 03:40: What makes a Vegetarian Diet so healthy?
  • 03:53: Fiber
  • 04:40: Vitamins
  • 05:58: Minerals
  • 06:45: Phytonutrients
  • 07:40: What is an Antioxidant?
  • 09:52: Omega-3
  • 11:35: Surprising Health Risks of a Vegetarian Diet
  • 14:31: The Cancer Risk Reduction
  • 15:33: Wrap Up

What is a Plant-Based Diet?

A plant-based diet, as the name implies, is a diet that is based on plant-based products as opposed to animal products. There are, of course, variations of plant-based, or vegetarian, diets, some of which include products derived from animals, such as eggs, dairy, or honey, but no meat. Thevegan diet, on the other hand, does not include any animal-based products at all; so no eggs, no honey, no dairy. 

Various people adopt many combinations of these particular diets. There are people who refer to themselves aspescetarian, meaning that they will eat fish and other seafood, but no land-based meats. There are people who consider themselveslacto-vegetarians, meaning that they won’t eat any fish and/or eggs, but they will eat other dairy products. Then there are those that consider themselveslacto-ovo vegetarians who will eat dairy and will eat eggs but eschew all meat products — so there are plenty of combinations and options out there.

Most Important Aspects of Vegetarian Diets

A lot of people hear about these diets and they think they must be really restrictive. In the American culture, a lot of our meals revolve around meat. We’ve gotbarbecues and burgers and hot dogs, so for some people, a vegetarian diet may seem too difficult, or not worth the trouble. But it is actually very possible and for many people, totally worth the sacrifice of meat products. Let’s look at some of the advantages of removing meat from your diet.

Advantages of a Vegetarian Diet

A vegetarian diet can come with a host of benefits, including:

Considering that in the US, heart disease is among the top killers and a lot of people are suffering fromhigh cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity anddiabetes, adopting a vegetarian diet can be really a good idea.

What makes a Vegetarian Diet so healthy?

Fiber

Fiber is a molecule that exists primarily in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It’s the molecule that makes food chewy, and helps keep us regular. Fiber has some other great properties like helping toreduce cholesterol, help lower blood pressure and it can help improvegut health. A lot of people take fiber to maintainregular bowel movements but it also can reduce inflammation within the gut. Fiber is a great nutrient that’s naturally inherent in a lot of fruits, vegetables, and grains that make up a vegetarian diet.

Vitamins

Avitamin is basically a very important molecule for our metabolism that we don’t make in our bodies, and must therefore get from food. Literally, we would die without these. Examples of some popular vitamins include:

  • Vitamin C — This is very prolific in things like oranges and other citrus fruits.
  • Niacin — This is vitamin B3 specifically. It is very prevalent in things like mangoes and lentils.
  • Vitamin A — This important vitamin can be found in spinach and other dark, leafy greens. 

These vitamins help keep our bodies moving and help keep our metabolism going.

Minerals

These are inorganic compounds present in the soil. Some common minerals include iron, magnesium, and calcium. A lot of these are also present in the foods that we eat. For example, there is a lot of iron in spinach, and dairy products contain calcium. 

Phytonutrients

These are usually found in really colorful food; so the bright reds, yellows, and oranges. Foods like bell peppers and carrots contain phytonutrient, as do sweet potatoes, and mangoes, which are also rich in vitamin A. Phytonutrients are different from vitamins. They are plant-based compounds, and while they are not essential like vitamins are to our metabolism, they have been shown to be powerful Antioxidants. 

What is an Antioxidant?

An Antioxidant is something that helps fight oxidation — a natural process that happens in our metabolism where oxygen, which is essential to survival, starts to break down and cause some issues. Examples of oxidation in nature include the rusting of a pipe, or an apple or avocado turning brown after you cut into it. For an example of how antioxidants work, try taking a lemon, which is a powerful antioxidant, and squeezing it onto an apple or avocado after cutting it open. The antioxidant will prevent or delay the oxidation that causes that brown color. 

Why does this happen? Well, as the oxygen that we need to survive, goes through the metabolic process, it creates things calledfree radicals which are little cells that attack all different parts of our body. Antioxidants combat those free radicals and neutralize them. Therefore, antioxidants reduce the inflammation that’s caused just by the metabolic process. And we know that inflammation over time can cause the hardening of arteries, the build-up of cholesterol in the arteries, and other issues.

Blueberries are another example of antioxidants. They are powerhouses of anti-oxidation, and help protect the cardiovascular system. So if you have a diet that is rich in antioxidant foods, then you’re going to be in good shape. 

Omega-3

Omega-3s are definitely present in seafood, so if you are a pescaterian you’re getting a lot from salmon and other fish products. If you’re not, there are plenty of omega-3s in things like chia seeds, nuts like almonds, healthy oils like olive oil or avocado oil, and these can help reduce the inflammation in your body and help protect your cardiovascular system. 

All these things put together — fiber, phytonutrients, healthy oils, and vitamins — are so good at protecting our cardiovascular system, that people who eat a vegetarian diet can see up to a 40% risk reduction for strokes, and are up to 75% less likely to develop high blood pressure. These things work really well and that is probably why people who implement a vegetarian diet are often much better off from a cardiovascular standpoint. 

Surprising Health Risks of a Vegetarian Diet 

Protein

When you’re not eating a lot of animal products, you might have a harder timegetting enough protein, since meat products are very rich in protein. You may have to work a little harder, but it’s still possible. If you’re a pescatarian, of course there are tons of proteins in fish. If you’re a lacto-ovo vegetarian, you certainly can get protein from eggs and cheese. If you’re a strict vegetarian or a vegan, then basically you need to consume a higher quantity of nuts, chia seeds, black beans, lentils, and tofu products, just to name a few. But youcan get enough protein in your diet as a vegetarian. In general, the U.S. population actually eats a lot more animal protein than is needed.

Iron

People on a vegetarian diet might have a concern about whether or not they’re getting enough iron. Iron is definitely an important molecule. It’s the primary component in our red blood cells, so when we don’t get enough iron we can become anemic. You certainly can get iron in red meat but if you’re not eating red meat you can get a lot of iron in things like spinach and other green leafy vegetables. Iron incidentally, also loves vitamin C to help absorb it, so if you’re eating a bunch of citrus you can help get that iron into your body a lot more effectively.

Vitamin B12 

Another thing that people who are adopting a vegetarian diet might be afraid of getting too little of is vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is a very important vitamin for our metabolism. We tend to store it quite well, which is good, so we can store it for long periods of time, but it is primarily present in meats and dairy products. If you’re eating eggs and cheese, you’re going to get enough vitamin B12. However, if you’re a strict vegan you might need to look for foods that have been fortified with vitamin B12. Cereals, for example and certain other grains have been fortified with vitamin B12. Look for such grains, or take B12 as a supplement. If you do take a B12 supplement, it’s best to look for one that is derived from food.

The Cancer Risk Reduction

Vegetarian diets are also not only great for what they add to your body but also for what they take away. Primarily, if you’re eating a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, they’re taking away animal products, and we know that red meat is really inflammatory and it can increase the risk of certain cancers, such as cancers of the colon

There are also hormones that are used in non-organic meats and dairy products, and hormones can stimulate cancer growth in certain areas like the breast and the prostate. People who eat vegetarian diets can see up to a 40% reduction in some cancer risks. Part of that is taking out the meats and dairy products, and the other part is just increasing all those very rich quantities of vitamins, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and all the other things that keep us going.

Wrap-Up

A vegetarian diet is not as difficult to implement as you would think. If you eat right, you’re going to get a lot of the valuable nutrients that we need — a lot of the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. If you opt to get your healthy fats from things like avocados and olive oil, you’re going to help reduce cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart disease, and you’ll reduce the risk of certain cancers, so vegetarian or primarily plant-based diets can be a great thing. 

If you do it safely, you’re going to get plenty of protein, plenty of vitamin B12, and plenty of iron as well. If you’re not ready to take the full plunge and become a full-on card-carrying vegetarian, you can become what a lot of people are callingflexitarian. This means you just become more conscious of the amount of animal product that you eat. You don’t necessarily eliminate meat entirely, and you’re not really rigid about it, but you’re making an effort to implement more plants and more plant-based products into your diet. 

If you do that and just start to shift your diet away from a red meat or processed meat-based diet, you’re going to start to feel some of those benefits that we talked about. If you can’t be a vegetarian be a flexitarian, don't worry: stay tuned for more important discussions on different diet techniques.

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