When most people think of a vegetarian, the first thing that comes to mind is a meatless, bland or boring lifestyle. Wrong. Doctors will tell you that vegetarianism comes with many health benefits, including healthier skin, increased energy and a longer life span.
Broadly speaking vegetarians do not eat meat. They instead opt for a diet of grains, pulses, nuts and seeds, vegetables, and fruits.
Dietitian Esther Selman says being a vegetarian is much more than that as she pointed out the different types.
“Let’s start with vegan. A vegan is one who does not consume any animal products whatsoever. That means they are not going to consume any fish, they are not going to consume any meat, no chicken, no turkey, no eggs and no dairy milk. Then you have a lacto-ovo vegetarian, meaning that they would use eggs and milk but they will not consume any meat or fish or poultry,” Selman says.
Additionally, you have the lacto vegetarian, obviously lacto meaning that they would consume dairy but they still would not use the meats.”
There’s also the ovo vegetarian who adds eggs to his plant-based diet and the semi vegetarian, a person who uses fish and maybe chicken once a week.
Selman, tells Health Today with more and more people opting for a vegetarian lifestyle to improve their well-being, research shows a rise in the number of persons removing or lessening meat in their diets.
“Research shows that ten years ago about ten per cent of persons followed a vegetarian diet but now 47 per cent are following a vegetarian diet.”
Studies are confirming the health benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle. Nowadays, plant-based eating is recognized as not only nutritionally sufficient but also as a way to reduce the risk for many chronic illnesses: diabetes, cancer, heart disease, strokes.
Selman contends it’s simply an investment in better health.
“Research shows that a person who follows a vegetarian diet lives ten years longer than their counterparts, and counterparts meaning persons who would be following a meat-based diet or an omnivore diet. Also there is the decreased risk of cancer and the decreased risk of chronic lifestyle diseases. When you look at obesity, you look at diabetes, you look at heart disease, you look at hyperlipidemia or hypercholesterolemia, they are all diet related conditions. That means if they are diet related they could be controlled by diet.”
But the dietician quickly points out that if you decide to become a vegetarian, you should first see your medical doctor, a dietician, or nutritionist.
She adds that it’s not an overnight move but one that must be planned, because unless you follow recommended guidelines on nutrition, fat consumption, and weight control, you’ll simply become an unhealthy vegetarian.
“You can become deficient because you are not getting the nutrients that you need for growth. Protein is necessary for growth. You need to get calcium for strong bones and teeth. Now do you only get calcium from dairy? No, you can get calcium from other foods. You can get calcium from your dark green leafy vegetables but you still have to make sure that when you are planning the meals, and I can’t stress it enough, that you must sit with the dietitian or nutritionist to help you plan your meals because the dietitian and nutritionist know how to help you to incorporate those foods in your diet.”
For optimal health the dietitian recommends eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It’s also vital to replace saturated and trans fats with good fats, such as those found in nuts. And always keep in mind that if you eat too many calories, even from nutritious, low-fat, plant-based foods, you’ll gain weight. So it’s also important to practice portion control, read food labels, and engage in regular physical activity.
Selman dismisses the idea that vegetarian meals are boring. She insists with some creativity, they can be colourful, tasty and nutritious.
“I always say we were born with taste buds. God gave us taste buds so we have to use them, so we are not going to have bland foods and that’s why I love to do the cooking classes because when I am done you can take a poll. Ask my clients, they were like: wow this tastes so good, we didn’t know that it would taste that way.”
And for those who think it’s more expensive to be a vegetarian, she has this simple message.
“Is it more expensive to have more doctor bills? It’s what is important to you.”
But Selman stresses that ultimately only you can decide whether a vegetarian diet is right for you.
“Look at it like body, mind, [and] spirit. So that physically you are taking care of the physical body and then you are taking care of your mind because you are fueling your brains with the right types of foods that is going to help you release all the dopamine and you feel happy, and then also when you think about the spiritual aspect too, it’s God’s designed way to eat healthy.”