Vegetarianism and its Impact on Health

VegVegetarianism is the practice of avoiding the consumption of meat, poultry, seafood and the flesh of any other animal and includes avoidance from by-products of animal slaughter. It is vastly becoming a popular way of life. More and more people are turning towards vegetarian diets as a way of life.

Some people choose a vegetarian diet as a way to eat healthy and achieve their health goals. For others the choice to become a vegetarian is a selective choice to avoid consuming food and food products from animal origin. People become vegetarians for many reasons, including health, religious convictions and concerns about animal welfare or a desire to eat in a way that avoids excessive use of environmental resources. Some people follow a largely vegetarian diet because they can’t afford non-vegan diet. Vegetarianism has become more appealing and accessible, thanks to the year-round availability of fresh plant based diets.

Traditionally, research into vegetarianism focused mainly on potential nutritional deficiencies, but in recent years, the pendulum has swung the other way, and studies are confirming the health benefits of meat-free eating. Nowadays, plant-based eating is recognized as not only nutritionally sufficient but also as a way to reduce the risk for many chronic illnesses. In July 2009, the American Dietetic Association weighed in with a position paper, concluding that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases”

There are several types of practices such as ovo-vegetarian -diet includes eggs but not dairy products, lacto-vegetarian -diet includes dairy products but not eggs, ovo-lacto vegetarian- diet includes both eggs and dairy products. Vegan or strict vegetarian- diet excludes all animal products, including eggs, dairy, beeswax and honey. Some vegans also avoid animal products such as leather for clothing. Pesco-vegetarian is a vegetarian who also consumes fish and seafood. This is a type of semi-vegetarian diet. Semi vegetarian – is plant-based with the occasional inclusion of meat products.

Our Gastrointestinal system is designed in such away to process natural foods effectively. The food processing has advanced so much that it has become harmful to the gastrointestinal tract. Modern men in rich societies have been described as being “fat, toothless and constipated”. The mouth is equipped with Saliva, tongue and teeth for mastication. Most of the foods we eat today are highly processed food low in fibre that, we only have, to swallow. Like all tissues of the body, teeth remain harder and healthier only if used regularly. Otherwise it weakens. The stomach is designed to accept large amounts of foods in a short time and release slowly. The capacity of the stomach is suited for naturally occurring food items. When highly refined, energy rich substances are eaten total energy intake could be much more than the need. The small intestine is adapted to digest and absorb nutrients. The mechanisms are very efficient. When we eat highly refined and easily digestible or even digested food the efficiency is lost. This is too much for the system certainly to the pancreas. It will exhaust it leading to Diabetes Mellitus. The large intestine is designed to excrete unabsorbed material. It stores these products until certain volume builds up and then to excrete it. Microorganisms have colonized and they are there whether we like it or not. The important thing is that regular emptying of large intestine is necessary to keep the bacteria under control.

CaptureBeing a vegetarian has its own advantages as they may reduce risk for stroke, cancer, heart diseases and type-2 diabetes. Some of the drawbacks are low protein quality, low energy and lack of some vitamins such as B12, riboflavin, vitamin D. Vegetarian diets offer lower levels of cholesterol and protein, and higher levels of carbohydrates, fibre, magnesium, potassium, folate, antioxidants and Phytochemicals which protect us against disease in a myriad of ways, but they are most valuable for their antioxidant, detoxifying, anti-inflammatory, and immune boosting powers. If we combine different plant proteins we can get good quality protein. Most Important of such combination is the rice and pulses. Rice has about 6 -10% protein and its biological value is low because of deficiency of one, amino acid (lysine). This amino acid is found in excess amounts in pulses and therefore, pulses supplement rice protein. If we eat large amount of rice with small amount of pulses daily, which are not very expensive, we can get good quality protein. This beneficial effect probably has been observed by our ancestors who have devised several foods, all combinations of rice and pulses. Some examples are rice and dahl, ‘thosai, idly, mothakam’ and several flour preparations. Kurakkan contains about 10- 11% good quality protein. Vitamins are plenty in plant foods.are good sources of vitamin A. Yellow colored vegetable such as carrot, pumkin and sweet potato also provide carrotene. Several fruits such as mango, pappaw and palmyrah also are good sources of carrotene. Vitamin B complex are found in the outer layers of rice. When the parboiled rice is polished the bran goes away but the vitamins remain. The parboiled rice keeps considerable amount even after washing. But while cooking we remove the supernatant water “kanji” which is a mixture of vitamin B and starch. The kanji is also discarded. As a result we eat poor quality rice. The kanji can be converted into a delicious drink by adding salt, coconut milk, curd or mour. Cereals provide large amounts of carbohydrates as starch and small amounts of protein.

In natural food, there is a lot of unabsorbable fibre which cause the digestion and absorption to proceed at a moderate pace and it will be easy for the tissues to handle the nutrients, which comes in. Further, the slow process will supply till the next meal and reduce the work of storage systems. They have properties that attract toxins like a magnet and remove them along with other waste products of our body. That is why most people who eat lots of vegetables have healthier skin than those who don’t.

A modified diet with high potassium : sodium ratio of the diets of human ancestors is a critical strategy for the primary prevention and treatment of hypertension. Weight loss with diets rich in fruits and vegetables has been attributed both to the low caloric density and to the high potassium content of these diets, which tend to increase the metabolic rate.

As compared with diets based on natural foods, diets based on processed foods are high in sodium and low in potassium.

When it comes to a healthy diet, balance is the key to getting it right. This means eating a wide variety of foods in the right proportions, and consuming the right amount of food and drink to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. For healthy eating every contents should be in appropriate amount.

Health care providers should be aware of the types of vegetarian diets and their risks and benefits in order to guide patients’ dietary habits with the ultimate goal of promoting their health.

Doctors tend to look at food as medicine to be consumed at measured doses but patients find it very difficult to follow the instructions because they could not overcome the basic sensation of hunger and urge to eat as others in the family.

Change in the pattern and the type of food eaten cannot be brought about by one prescription. Further, food should be stress free, affordable, palatable and pleasurable habit.

When advising about vegetarian diet for health it’s important to make sure that you eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. You should eat a healthy balanced diet to ensure you get all the nutrients your body needs.

Base your meals on starchy foods Starchy foods should make up around one third of the foods you eat. Starchy foods include potatoes, cereals, pasta, rice and bread. Choose whole grain varieties when you can: they contain more fiber, and can make you feel full for longer.

We all need some fat in our diet. But it’s important to pay attention to the amount and type of fat we’re eating. It’s also vital to replace saturated and Trans-fats with good fats, such as those found in nuts, olive oil and canola oil.

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. Adults and children over 11 should eat no more than 6g of salt a day.

Compared with non-vegetarians, most vegetarians have a lower mean BMI (by about 1 kg/m2 ), a lower mean plasma total cholesterol concentration (by about 0.5 mmol/l), and a lower mortality from  IHD (by about 25%).They may also have a lower risk for some other diseases such as constipation, diverticular disease, gallstones and appendicitis. Phosphate bioavailability from plant proteins is low. It could lead to some benefits for chronic kidney disease (CKD) patients.

There is growing evidence that consumption of a vegetarian diet as well as specific components of a vegetarian diet lower the incidence of cardiovascular disease and death. Vegetarian diets lower the probability of developing cardiovascular disease they are effective in altering serum lipids, are beneficial in reducing blood pressure, improve glycemic control and insulin sensitivity and reduce weight and lower mortality. Vegetarianism may be effective in preventing both colorectal adenoma and advanced adenoma in Asians. Vegan diet seems to confer lower risk for overall and female-specific cancer than other dietary patterns. The lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets seem to confer protection from cancers of the gastrointestinal tract. The consumption of animal products can cause transmission of a number of diseases from animals to humans while plant diets not so.

The best thing with vegetables is that you can grow them in your own backyard. You can plant them in a small amount of space and can get the contentment of eating your own fresh vegetables. Eating vegetarian diet gives the mind a satisfaction of being with the nature, cultural values and caring for other animal beings. Additional benefit is we can improve our physical activity by growing vegetables. Anyhow it is necessary to evaluate a patient’s patho-physiological characteristics in order to determine the diet that will achieve metabolic improvement in each individual. A predominantly non vegetarian diet poses many health risks so we all should consider the beneficial effects as a whole and making good modifications in our daily diet will change our plates colourful and our life free of diseases. The variety is the key of fulfillment of nutrient needs as well as the pleasure and satisfaction of good food.


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2nd Newsletter

This article by S.Sivajini (34th batch) appeared in the Second MSU Newsletter published in March 2014.

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Editor of MSU

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