Can less meat equal better health?
By: Carol Enright
Sometimes, when I tell people my 16-year-old daughter, Audrey, is a vegan, they react as if I had said she’s an alien.
Vegans eat no animal-related products – that includes meat, fish, dairy and eggs.
Next, people inevitably ask, “Where does she get her protein? Surprisingly, getting enough protein has turned out to be easier than I anticipated.
The other question people ask is, “Why is she vegan?”
The short answer is: she loves animals. The long answer is she saw a presentation on factory farming in her seventh grade English class and that was the day she told me she could never eat meat again. After several months of tweaking my old carnivorous recipes, I finally hit my vegetarian stride. Then, she dropped the bomb: “Mom, what would you think about me going vegan?”
Although the prospect of making nutritionally balanced and tasty meals without eggs, milk and cheese was daunting, I discovered that vegan can be not only a very healthy but also a delicious way to eat.
Nineteen months and counting since she went vegan – and more than three years since she became vegetarian – my daughter remains committed to an animal-free diet.
“The best part is because I know that I’m not hurting any single living creature,” she says.
Why try vegan?
These reasons for choosing a more plant-based diet vary from person to person.
Anita Raffaelli, of Chesterfield, said she went vegan five years ago “to make a nice, healthy change in my life.”
The mother of four said that she had been vegetarian years ago and “remembered feeling really good about it.” So she decided to give vegan a try.
“The change in my physical and mental health has been amazing,” Raffaelli said.
Bonnie Lapin, of Town & Country, said her transition to a plant-based diet began with “my own journey to try and digest food better.”
Lapin has eliminated almost all grains, dairy and meats from her diet. Today, she eats “tons of kale, tons of red cabbage,” seeds, nuts, salads made of parsley and cilantro, spinach and lots of avocados. She is passionate about buying organic produce and avoiding processed foods.
“If it has a food label on it, I don’t eat it. If it has ingredients I can’t pronounce, I don’t eat it,” Lapin said, adding that she has never felt better. “I love the energy that I have. I love the way I feel.”
If vegans and vegetarians say they feel healthier, science confirms it.
Beth McChesney, a registered and licensed dietician with Mercy Hospital, said a plant-based diet is lower in calories, fat, sugar and sodium – and is less processed. However, McChesney said she is a flexitarian, meaning she eats a lot of plants and meatless meals. But she said she could never give up an occasional good burger and that she loves fish.
For people who want to eat healthier but not go vegetarian, McChesney suggests they try the Mediterranean diet, which is heavy on healthy oils such as olive oil and canola oil, light on meat (no more than twice per week), and heavy on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts. Eating fish at least twice a week is encouraged.
According to the Mayo Clinic, research has shown that the traditional Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease and cardiovascular mortality and is associated with a reduced incidence of cancer and cancer mortality as well as a reduced incidence of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
Like the Mediterranean diet, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), suggests that a plant-based diet can lower blood cholesterol levels, the risk of heart disease, blood pressure levels and the risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Eating a vegetarian/vegan diet is also associated with a lower risk of cancer.
In a 2009 analysis published in the American Journal of Cardiology, researchers reviewed 27 studies on the heart benefits of four different types of plant-based diets: vegan, lacto-ovo-vegetarian (dairy and eggs, but no meat), primary plant-based (allows small amounts of lean meat) and a combination diet that combines traditional vegetarian or vegan diet with nuts, soy, and/or fiber. The researchers found that people who ate the combination diet decreased their total cholesterol and LDL “bad” cholesterol by 20 to 35 percent. Those who ate the vegan diet had LDL decreases of 15 to 25 percent. And people who ate the lacto-ovo-vegetarian and primary plant-based diets had significantly smaller decreases of 10 to 15 percent.
Of course, it seems that everywhere you look another study is popping up – most are pro-plants, but health care professionals caution that the verdict is still out and more research needs to be done.
“It’s exciting to see all the studies coming out that they’re doing with cancer and plant-based diets,” McChesney said.
She cautioned that despite the overall praise for less meat and more veggies, a vegan diet is “way too restrictive” children.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that children ages 1-3 consume 13 grams of protein per day, children ages 4-8 19 grams, and children ages 9-13 34 grams. The dietary suggests vary for girls and boys after age 13 with girls needing 46 grams and boys needing 52 up to age 18.
Kids being kids, they are more likely to be picky eaters, and some of the most kid-friendly sources of protein – milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs – are off-limits to vegans. For the record, an eight-ounce glass of milk has about eight grams of protein, one cup of dry beans about 16 grams and a three-ounce piece of lean meat about 21.
The key to good nutrition at any age is moderation and knowledge.
For people over age 18, who “do the homework and really do a vegan diet, I think it’s very healthy,” McChesney said.
If feeling healthier is the best part about eating a plant-based diet, vegetarians almost unanimously say that eating out is the worst.
One place where every vegan or vegetarian can enjoy a meal is Vega Deli in Chesterfield. The 100-percent vegan restaurant features everything from vegan wraps, salads and burgers to smoothies and bakery goods; however, Gina Gerber, who took over as owner of the deli in May 2011, said “very few vegans come in.”
“Most people are vegetarian or they just want to eat healthier,” said Gerber.
She believes the biggest misconception about vegan food is that “it tastes bad and it’s hard to eat that way.”
“But it’s not,” said Gerber. “There are so many cookbooks and courses out there. Yeah, it’s hard to get started in the beginning – but once you do, you can get really creative.”
Cheese and vegetable pizzas have long been a dining out staple for vegetarians. But Pi Pizzeria – which has restaurants throughout St. Louis, including a carryout-only location in Chesterfield – also offers vegan-friendly pizzas topped with a soy-based meat substitute and vegan (non-dairy) cheese. Pi’s thin crust is already vegan, but the restaurant goes out of its way to accommodate vegan customers who crave its famous deep-dish pie.
“All of our deep-dish pans get brushed with butter before we proof the dough in them and cook them in those pans,” said Pi corporate chef, Steven Caravelli.
Butter is not vegan. But customers can request a vegan pie by calling the restaurant four to six hours ahead of their visit, so that the chef can clean out the pan and brush it with oil instead of butter.
“We try to provide hospitality for all of our guests – no matter how you eat or what your dietary needs are,” said Caravelli.
About six months ago, Pi joined the national “Meatless Monday” movement that encourages people to go meatless one day a week. Each month, Caravelli creates a meatless meal that is offered at all Pi locations every Monday of that month.
Caravelli said he sees Meatless Monday as “just taking one day off of our meat eating and eating something that’s a little more earth friendly.”