(This story is being republished to mark World Food Day, which is observed every year on October 16. This year, the theme is Health Diets for a Zero Hunger World. In line with that theme, we too are talking healthy diets)
Vegetarians typically avoid meat, eggs, fish and chicken or flesh from any animal. They however do take milk and products made from them. With this definition, let’s see how healthy their eating patterns really are.
What is Healthy Food?
“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that all foods can fit into a healthful eating style. The ADA strives to communicate healthful eating messages to the public that emphasize the total diet, or overall pattern of food eaten, rather than any one food or meal. If consumed in moderation with appropriate portion size and combined with regular physical activity, all foods can fit into a healthful diet.”
Going by this comprehensive explanation it is obvious that there is no food choice that doesn’t provide health provided it is consumed in the quantities required by our body as a part of an overall healthy life style.
Research has however pointed to a number of health benefits from foods of vegetarian sources. When we read about any fruit, vegetable, legumes, whole grains we find that they are linked to reducing the risk of a number of health concerns we face today.
Here are some health packs.
Whole grains provide a complete health package.
They are a source of fibre which is linked to maintaining steady sugar levels in the blood and not causing spikes, fibre is also associated with lowering cholesterol, keep the bowel healthy and may also prevent clotting of blood.
In addition, whole grains are an excellent source of phytochemicals and essential minerals like magnesium, selenium and copper found to be protective against cancers. Whole grains also provide the potent antioxidant Vitamin E. A meta-analysis combining results from studies conducted in the US, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavian countries (which included health information from over 786,000 individuals), found that people who ate 70 grams/day of whole grains - compared with those who ate little or no whole grains - had a 22% lower risk of total mortality, a 23% lower risk of cardiovascular disease mortality, and a 20% lower risk of cancer mortality.
Legumes and Pulses
These form the protein sources for vegetarian diets. In addition they are packed with fibre, and are good sources of Iron, Zinc, copper, Phosphorus, Magnesium vitamins and Folate while being free of unhealthy saturated fats and cholesterol. Most are have a low glycaemic index and hence do not cause a rapid rise in blood sugar.
Research has found that consuming 2 portions of legumes a day resulted in lowering of both glycaemic load and lipid profiles.
Being rich in potassium, magnesium and fibre legumes have a positive effect on lowering of blood pressure. The fibre and protein of pulses is also associated with early satiety and is helpful in maintaining or losing weight. The typical Indian diet which is predominantly vegetarian also lacks in adequate consumption of pulses and legumes.
People who eat lots of veggies as a part of healthy life styles are likely to be more protected against the risks of chronic diseases. Most of the veggies are low in calories and fat and are naturally cholesterol free.
Vegetables add important nutrients to our daily food like fibre- both soluble and insoluble, which aid in controlling blood sugars and lowering lipids while aiding in digestion and gut health.
Vegetables are also rich sources of vitamins like A- which keeps our skin and eyes healthy and boosts immunity, Vitamin C – helps in healing, keeps our gums healthy, helps in iron absorption and protects our body against free radicals and Folates which are critical for prevention of neural tube defects, spina bifida and anencephaly during foetal development and is essential for the formation of red blood cells. The antioxidant phytonutrients and polyphenols present in certain vegetables are found to be protective against cancers according to research.
Eating fruits has been associated with a healthy diet in innumerable studies across the world. Fruit consumption recommended for the health promoting properties of their nutrients, like vitamins C and A; minerals, and electrolytes; and more recently phytochemicals, especially antioxidants and fibre.
In addition the different colours of fruits provide our body with powerful antioxidants the boost our immune system and protect our body.
I read somewhere that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in terms of health would mean eat the rainbow colours for finding your health which is more important than all the gold.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds provide healthy mono unsaturated fats and poly unsaturated fats along with moderate amounts of protein. In addition they are good sources of dietary fibre and provide a wide range of essential nutrients, including several B group vitamins (including folate), vitamin E, minerals such as calcium, iron, zinc, potassium and magnesium, antioxidant minerals (selenium, manganese and copper), plus other phytochemicals such as antioxidant compounds (flavonoids and resveratrol) and plant sterols. Phew! Need you need any more reasons for going nutty? But keep to about 30 gms/day.
Research data has linked consumption of nuts with reducing the risk of developing heart disease by 30-50% and decreasing the risk of death from heart disease by around 20%.
A study published by "British Medical Journal" in 1998 found that individuals who consumed nuts five times a week had a 35% reduction in heart disease risk. Nuts help diabetics as they reduce the overall glycaemic effect of the diet. Eating nuts also helps with controlling appetite when you want to lose weight. In addition the minerals present in nuts and seeds- magnesium, zinc, calcium and phosphorus- are necessary for bone development, immunity and energy production.
So should we all go vegetarian? All the “Heathy diets” recommended by clinicians including Mediterranean diet and DASH diet are not vegetarian but have a large component of vegetarian choices and are not limited to only meat and fat and potatoes.
So don’t turn vegetarian just fill up half your plate with vegetable and fruits. Choose whole grains, eat pulses and legumes at least once a day and replace one to two servings of high fat meat with nuts and seeds twice a week and we are good to go.
(Rupali Datta is a clinical nutritionist who has led teams in corporate hospitals. She has an in-depth knowledge of health care, food and nutrition – both in wellness and diseases.)
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