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Biophile Magazine -- » Vegetarian Food

"This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness." Dalai Lama

Vegetarian Food

by David Dartez

FILED IN: Health and Food · Issue 14 · Vegetarianism


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A vegetarian menu is a powerful and pleasurable way to achieve good health.The vegetarian eating pattern is based on a wide variety of foods that are satisfying, delicious, and healthful. Vegetarians avoid meat, fish, and poultry.


Those who include dairy products and eggs in their diets are called lacto-ovo vegetarians. Vegans (pure vegetarians) eat no meat, fish, poultry, eggs, or dairy products. While there is a considerable advantage to a lacto-ovo vegetarian pattern, vegan diets are the healthiest of all, reducing risk of a broad range of health concerns.

Powerful Tools for Health

A vegetarian menu is a powerful and pleasurable way to achieve good health. The vegetarian eating pattern is based on a wide variety of foods that are satisfying, delicious, and healthful.

Vegetarians avoid meat, fish, and poultry. Those who include dairy products and eggs in their diets are called lacto-ovo vegetarians. Vegans (pure vegetarians) eat no meat, fish, poultry, eggs, or dairy products. While there is a considerable advantage to a lacto-ovo vegetarian pattern, vegan diets are the healthiest of all, reducing risk of a broad range of health concerns.

A healthy heart

Vegetarians have much lower cholesterol levels than meat-eaters, and heart disease is less common in vegetarians. The reasons are not hard to find. Vegetarian meals are typically low in saturated fat and usually contain little or no cholesterol. Since cholesterol is found only in animal products such as meat, dairy, and eggs, vegans consume a cholesterol- free diet.

The type of protein in a vegetarian diet may be another important advantage. Many studies show that replacing animal protein with plant protein lowers blood cholesterol levels—even if the amount and type of fat in the diet stays the same. Those studies show that a low-fat, vegetarian diet has a clear advantage over other diets.

Lower blood pressure

An impressive number of studies, dating back to the early 1920s, show that vegetarians have lower blood pressure than non-vegetarians. In fact, some studies have shown that adding meat to a vegetarian diet raises blood pressure levels rapidly and significantly. The effects of a vegetarian diet occur in addition to the benefits of reducing the sodium content of the diet. When patients with high blood pressure begin a vegetarian diet, many are able to eliminate the need for medication.

Controlling diabetes

The latest studies on diabetes show that a vegetarian diet high in complex carbohydrates and fiber (which are found only in plant foods) and low in fat is the best dietary prescription for controlling diabetes. A diet based on vegetables, legumes, fruits, and whole grains, which is also low in fat and sugar, can lower blood sugar levels and often reduce or even eliminate the need for medication. Since individuals with diabetes are at high risk for heart disease, avoiding fat and cholesterol is important, and a vegetarian diet is the best way to do that.

Cancer prevention

A vegetarian diet helps prevent cancer. Studies of vegetarians show that death rates from cancer are only about one-half to three-quarters of the general population’s death rates. Breast cancer rates are dramatically lower in countries where diets are typically plant-based. When people from those countries adopt a Western, meat-based diet, their rates of breast cancer soar. Vegetarians also have significantly lower rates of colon cancer than meat-eaters. Colon cancer is more closely associated with meat consumption than any other dietary factor.

Why do vegetarian diets help protect against cancer?

First, they are lower in fat and higher in fiber than meat-based diets. But other factors are important, too.

Plants contain other cancer-fighting substances called phytochemicals. For example, vegetarians usually consume more of the plant pigments beta-carotene and lycopene. This might help to explain why they have less lung and prostate cancer. Also, some studies have suggested that diets that avoid dairy products may reduce the risk of prostate and ovarian cancer. Some of the anti-cancer aspects of a vegetarian diet cannot yet be explained.

For example, researchers are not quite sure why vegetarians have more of certain white blood cells, called “natural killer cells,” which are able to seek out and destroy cancer cells.

The calcium connection

Vegetarians are less likely to form either kidney stones or gallstones. In addition, vegetarians may also be at lower risk for osteoporosis because they eat little or no animal protein. A high intake of animal protein encourages the loss of calcium from the bones. Replacing animal products with plant foods reduces the amount of calcium lost. This may help to explain why people who live in countries where the diet is typically plant-based have little osteoporosis, even when calcium intake is lower than that in dairy- consuming countries.

Planning Vegetarian Diets

It’s easy to plan vegetarian diets that meet all your nutrient needs. Grains, beans, and vegetables are rich in protein and iron. Green leafy vegetables, beans, lentils, tofu, corn tortillas, and nuts are excellent sources of calcium, as are enriched soy milk and fortified juices.


Vitamin D is normally made in the body when sun shines on the skin. People who are dark-skinned or live at northern latitudes have some difficulty producing vitamin D year-round. Vitamin D can easily be obtained from fortified foods. Some sources are commercial breakfast cereals, soy milk, other supplemental products, and multivitamins.

Regular intake of vitamin B12 is important

Good sources include all common multiple vitamins (including vegetarian vitamins), fortified cereals, some brands of nutritional yeast, and fortified soy milk. It is especially important for pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers to get enough vitamin B12. When reading food labels, look for the word cyanocobalamin in the ingredient list. This is the form of vitamin B12 that is best absorbed.

The Three-Step Way to Go Vegetarian . . .

If you are making the switch to a vegetarian diet for its health benefits, you’ll be pleased to find that there is a wonderful additional benefit to vegetarian eating: it’s a delicious and fun way to explore new foods. A vegetarian meal can be as familiar as spaghetti with marinara sauce, as comforting as a bowl of rich, potato soup, or as exotic as Grilled Polenta with Portabella Mushrooms.

The switch to a vegetarian diet is easier than you might think

Most people, whether vegetarians or meat-eaters, typically use a limited variety of recipes; the average family eats only eight or nine different dinners repeatedly. You can use a simple, three-step method to come up with nine vegetarian dinner menus that you enjoy and can prepare easily.

• First, think of three vegetarian meals that you already enjoy. Common ones are tofu and vegetable stir-fry, vegetable stew, or pasta primavera.

• Second, think of three recipes that you prepare regularly that can easily be adapted to a vegetarian menu. For example, a favorite chili recipe can be made with all of the same ingredients; just replace the meat with beans or texturized vegetable protein.
Enjoy bean tortillas instead of beef burritos, veggie burgers instead of hamburgers, and grilled eggplant and roasted red peppers instead of grilled chicken in sandwiches.
Many soups, stews, and casseroles also can be made into vegetarian dishes with a few simple changes.

• Third, check out some vegetarian cookbooks from the library and experiment with the recipes for a week or so until you find three new recipes that are delicious and easy to make. Just like that, with minimal changes to your menus, you will have nine vegetarian dinners.

After that, coming up with vegetarian options for breakfast and lunch is easy. Try muffins with fruit spread, cholesterol-free French toast, or cereal for breakfasts. Sandwiches, with spreads like hummus or white bean pate with lemon and garlic, or dinner leftovers all make great lunches.

The Protein Myth

In the past, some people believed one could never get too much protein. In the early 1900s, we were told to eat well over 100 grams of protein a day. And as recently as the 1950s, health-conscious people were encouraged to boost their protein intake.

Today, some diet books encourage high-protein intake for weight loss, although most of us tend to take in twice the amount of protein we need already. And while individuals following such a diet have sometimes had short-term success in losing weight, they are often unaware of the health risks associated with a high-protein diet. Excess protein has been linked with osteoporosis, kidney disease, calcium stones in the urinary tract, and some cancers.

The building blocks of life

People build muscle and other body proteins from amino acids, which come from the proteins they eat. A varied diet of beans, lentils, grains, and vegetables contains all of the essential amino acids. It was once thought that various plant foods had to be eaten together to get their full protein value, but current research suggests this is not the case.

Many nutrition authorities, including the American Dietetic Association, believe protein needs can easily be met by consuming a variety of plant protein sources over an entire day. To get the best benefit from the protein you consume, it is important to eat enough calories to meet your energy needs.

The trouble with too much protein

The average western diet contains meat and dairy products. As a result, it is often too high in protein. This can lead to a number of serious health problems:

Kidney Disease: When people eat too much protein, they take in more nitrogen than they need. This places a strain on the kidneys,
which must expel the extra nitrogen through urine. People with kidney disease are encouraged to eat low-protein diets. Such a diet reduces the excess levels of nitrogen and can also help prevent kidney disease.

Cancer: Although fat is the dietary substance most often singled out for increasing cancer risk, protein also plays a role. Populations who eat meat regularly are at increased risk for colon cancer, and researchers believe that the fat, protein, natural carcinogens, and absence of fiber in meat all play roles. The 1997 report of the World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research, Food, Nutrition, and the Prevention of Cancer, noted that meaty, high-protein diets were linked with some types of cancer.

Osteoporosis and Kidney Stones: Diets that are rich in animal protein cause people to excrete more calcium than normal through their kidneys and increase the risk of osteoporosis. Countries with lower-protein diets have lower rates of osteoporosis and hip fractures.

Increased calcium excretion increases risk for kidney stones. Researchers in England found that when people added about 5 ounces of fish (about 34 grams of protein) to a normal diet, the risk of forming urinary tract stones increased by as much as 250 percent.

Vegetarian diets are great for athletes

For a long time it was thought that athletes needed much more protein than other people. The truth is that athletes, even those who strength-train, need only slightly more protein, which is easily obtained in the larger servings athletes require for their higher caloric intake.

To consume a diet that contains enough, but not too much, protein, simply replace animal products with grains, vegetables, legumes (peas, beans, and lentils), and fruits. As long as one is eating a variety of plant foods in sufficient quantity to maintain one’s weight, the body gets plenty of protein.

Source: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

Editor’s Note: Biophile doesn’t advocate drinking soy milk or any other unfermented soy products. While fermented soy foods appear to have a positive effect on health and longevity, there is much controversy over whether other forms of soy are actually healthy. We do not believe that soy is good for you.

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