A delightful part of my job as coach for the AARP Fat 2 Fit Community Weight-Loss Challenge is interviewing experts who share their insight on issues involving fitness. One such expert is Ellen Kanner, the author of Edgy Veggie: Better Eating, Blissful Living and the Broccoli State of Being (See her full biography below.)
I asked Ellen questions about vegetarianism so I could decide (and help others decide) whether to become a vegetarian. My questions and her answers follow:
Q. We consumers are bombarded (and in some cases overwhelmed) daily by the promotion of the latest and greatest diet. We are also confused by conflicting reports that state a particular food is bad for us (eggs, for example) and then state the following week that it is good for us. Is vegetarianism just another fad diet? Does it demonize meat, for example?
A. Vegetarianism has been around since Pythagoras, so it’s hardly the latest fad. There are meat-demonizing militant vegans, just as there are veggie-vilifying angry carnivores, but these lifestyles are choices of the individual. At its core, vegetarianism is about compassion, so I hope my veggie peers will keep that principle in mind.
Q. What are the benefits of a vegetarian diet? Are the benefits supported by research?
A. Compared to our meat-eating comrades, vegetarians experience a 50 percent lower rate of heart disease, a 40 percent lower cancer rate and a lifespan of 6-10 years longer, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Maybe vegetarians enjoy health benefits because we are health conscious in general. We exercise, and we smoke and drink less than other groups. We’re leaner, too, and we experience fewer obesity problems because we follow a diet starring vitamin-rich produce, fiber-mad legumes and whole grains—food from the earth rather than food that is overly processed. Eating these foods results in lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood lipids—health factors that can mean a healthier and longer life.
Eating a plant-based diet has proven to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity—America’s biggest killers. A July study by the American Dietetic Association concludes 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.” The study also states that “the results of an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than nonvegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates.”
Q. Does vegetarianism carry implications for the environment?
A. Huge ones. Einstein found that a plant-based diet feeds more people because it requires fewer resources to produce than a meat-based one. And this theory has since been proven by others. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists reported in the United Nations Chronicle (Vol. 42, March-May 2005), an acre of land can yield 165 pounds of beef or 2,000 pounds of potatoes.
Sustaining cows takes a lot of land and results in deforestation, particularly in Latin American countries. In the United States, significant evidence suggests that we’re not raising animals in ways that are healthy for them or the environment. Some of these farming techniques have been associated with E. coli outbreaks.
In addition, cows are big methane producers—the 2006 United Nations report called the meat industry “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale, from local to global.” Nobel economist Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, who chairs the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says to slow the effects of global warming, go meatless one day a week.
Q. Do vegetarians walk around hungry all the time? Can energy be sustained on a vegetarian diet?
A. If vegetarians went hungry, there would be no vegetarians. Complex carbs, like whole grains and legumes (lentils, chickpeas, black beans), are wonderfully filling. (Animal protein contains no fiber.) Heart-healthy fats in nuts provide satiety (a feeling of fullness), and most fresh produce is full of flavor and low in calories, so you can eat as much as you want with no guilt and no hunger. These foods also have a low glycemic index, so your body burns them slowly and efficiently to give provide you with good energy throughout the day.
Q. Is there one standard vegetarian diet? Or are there significant variations? If so, what are they?
A. Vegetarians come in many flavors:
- Vegans consume plant-based foods only and abstain from all animal products.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products.
- Pescavegetarians, or what I call a fishaterians, abstain from all animals except fish.
- Flexitarians normally maintain a vegetarian diet but occasionally eat meat.
Any change you make that deviates from the Standard American Diet (also called SAD or, as I call it, the Silly American Diet) is good for you and good for the planet.
Q. In the past, being a vegetarian was seen as being part of an extreme fringe group. Is that the perception today?
A. I’d like to think the tree-hugger image vegetarians endured half a century ago has been put to rest. Celebrities of all ages live a vegetarian lifestyle, from Anne Hathaway and Jessica Biel to Paul McCartney and Dustin Hoffman.
Q. How is a vegetarian diet useful in preventing or helping individuals with cardiovascular problems? Is a vegetarian diet useful in addressing specific medical conditions?
A. If you give up meat, you’re giving up a very big source of cholesterol. In addition, produce, whole grains like oatmeal and certain nuts like almonds have been proven to reduce cholesterol. As a result, according to the American Dietetic Association, “a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than nonvegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates.”
Q. Can you be a vegetarian and be overweight?
A. Studies, including a recent one by the American Diatetic Association, show most vegetarians tend to be lean. That said, your weight depends on what you eat (and how much). Chocolate is vegetarian, and french fries are vegetarian. A steady diet of this kind of food won’t help you lose weight and classifies you as a junk-food vegetarian.
Q. Must I take an all-or-nothing approach? That is, must I choose between a 100 percent vegetarian diet and a carnivorous diet? And if I were to adopt a vegetarian diet, would I start tomorrow? Or would I take a gradual step-by-step approach?
A. While some people prefer to give up meat cold tofu, so to speak, going flexitarian is the easiest, and I think the most sensible, way to start. Take the change one meal at a time. It is easier to change your life partner than to change the way you eat, so gentle starts are the best. One way that’s attracting interest is Meatless Monday. This program starts you out thinking right for the week and helps you contribute to the good of the planet, lighten your carbon load and take positive steps for your own health.
Personally, I love being vegan because it supports all the issues I care about—going meatless is multitasking at its very best. Vegetarianism connects me to the environment in a compassionate way. It is kind to animals, inexpensive (especially welcome these days), madly healthful and fabulous.
I’ve been posting Meatless Monday recipes each week to encourage members to experiment with vegetarianism one day a week. Having adopted this approach, I have found that meatless meals are wonderfully satisfying and less expensive, and they leave me feeling as if I’ve done something positive for my health and the environment. Are you ready to experiment?
About Ellen Kanner
Ellen Kanner is the syndicated columnist the Edgy Veggie. She also blogs at www.edgyveggie1.blogspot.com, writes the Huffington Post’s Meatless Monday blog and contributes to Tasting Table, Relish, EatingWell, Vegetarian Times, More and regional magazines, including Pebble Beach and Palm Beach Illustrated. A fourth-generation Floridian, Ellen lives la vida vegan in Miami.