Vegetarian diets best for health and the environment

New position paper from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics highlights the health benefits of vegetarian diets, claiming they can reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer, compared with non-vegetarian diets.

Updating their 2009 position on plant-based diets, the Academy say an "appropriately planned" vegetarian or vegan diet is suitable for "all stages of the life cycle," and adopting such diets in childhood can reduce the risk of chronic disease later in life.

"Vegetarian diets leave a lighter carbon footprint," said Susan Levin, one of the report authors and director of nutrition education at the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C.

The AND's expertise is nutrition, but it chose to include the environmental aspect in the report because of growing evidence that vegetarian diets do less harm to the planet, according to Levin.

The paper notes that a plant-based diet in childhood and adolescence may have significant benefits for current and later-life health.

The authors point to studies that have shown children and adolescents with a vegetarian diet are less likely to be overweight or obese than their meat-eating counterparts.

"Children and adolescents with BMI values in the normal range are more likely to also be within the normal range as adults, resulting in significant disease risk reduction," they add.

"The evidence has become really hard to ignore," she said. The academy also noted that vegetarian and vegan diets can be safe during pregnancy and lactation. These diets can also be fine for athletes and the elderly, the report said.

A registered dietitian who reviewed the report agreed that plant-based diets can be nutritionally sound. And they've moved into the mainstream.

But, the report noted, it's important to make wise food choices: Calcium from vegetables like kale, turnip greens and bok choy is much better absorbed than calcium from high-oxalate vegetables such as spinach and Swiss chard, for example.

According to Diekman, people who want to go vegetarian can get help from a registered dietitian in crafting a new way of eating.

And for those unwilling to give up meat, she said, simply getting more plant-based foods onto their plates is a healthy step.

Also, only 3.3 percent of Americans are vegetarian, and of those, 46 percent are vegan. If more people chose not to eat animal products, it could potentially help decrease environmental damage, according to the paper. Essentially, vegetarian diets require less natural resources to be sustained than omnivorous ones. As an example, the researchers cite a study that concluded that "substituting beans for beef in the diet would significantly reduce the environmental footprint worldwide.

To produce 1kg protein from kidney beans requires 18 times less land, 10 times less water, 9 times less fuel, 12 times less fertilizer, and 10 times less pesticide in comparison to producing 1kg protein from beef." That's pretty convincing stuff. Plus, animal farms account for over 70 percent of water pollution in lakes and rivers in the U.S., so reducing the need for them could make our water cleaner.

So think about it: meat production also makes a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, which could be lowered if the demand for meat decreased.

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