Those who advocate for a vegetarian diet love to point out that vegetarians live longer and have a markedly lower risk of many common diseases, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes, than meat-eaters do.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of people (my father among them) who will tell you that living without bacon isn't really living. He's only half joking.
Fortunately, it's possible to enjoy many of the advantages of a vegetarian diet without completely swearing off meat and other animal foods.
Many of the health benefits that accrue to vegetarians (who consume eggs and dairy) and vegans (who eschew all animal products) are only indirectly related to meatless meals or the absence of meat in their diets.
Health Benefits of a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet
For instance, a study published in Nutrients reveals that vegetarians and vegans eat substantially more fiber and much less saturated fat than omnivores.
It's not hard to imagine why this is the case: when you take the steak or chicken breast off the plate, something has to take its place. And because beans and legumes are high in protein as well as fiber, they are popular meat substitutes.
For all their nutritional strengths, vegetarian and vegan diets often fall short on critical nutrients including calcium, iron and B-12.
On average, non-meat eaters also take in more fruits and vegetables than the typical meat-eater. As a result, they have higher intakes of antioxidants and other disease-fighting nutrients. And, because fruits, vegetables and legumes tend to fill you up, vegetarians and vegans usually take in fewer calories and, as a result, are less likely to be overweight.
Each of these factors is linked to reduced disease risks and, by extension, longer lives. But every single one of these good dietary habits can easily be adopted by those who also include meat in their diets. In fact, a diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes as well as small amounts of meat, fish, eggs, and/or dairy may be the healthiest regimen of all.
A Little Meat May Be Better than None
For all their nutritional strengths, vegetarian and vegan diets often fall short on critical nutrients including calcium, iron and B-12. In addition to filling in these nutrient gaps, animal-based protein also appears to play a special role in healthy aging.
A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society found that men who got at least half their protein from animal sources had significantly lower rates of cognitive and functional decline compared with those who ate a similar amount of protein but only from plant sources.
How do we square this finding with the constant drumbeat of warnings about the health risks of eating meat? It's all about finding the sweet spot between too much and too little.
Keep portion sizes of red meat, pork and poultry on the small side (no more than the size of a deck of cards) and limit your consumption of red meat and processed meats to one or two meals a week.
Then, borrow a page from the healthy vegetarian handbook and add more colorful vegetables, whole grains and legumes to your plate. For many people, it's a matter of inverting the usual proportions: learn to think of plant-based foods as the main dish, and the meat or fish as a side dish.
Although a vegetarian or vegan diet is certainly a valid option, it's certainly not the only way to increase your odds of a long and healthy life.
Monica Reinagel is a board-certified, licensed nutritionist and professionally trained chef. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, CBS News and Morning Edition, as well as leading newspapers, magazines and websites. She's the author of six books, including Nutrition Diva's Secrets for a Healthy Diet, and creator of the Nutrition Diva podcast (one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts).
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