Studies say eat "veg" for real lifetime health benefits

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Chari Jelsma

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Do you want to be healthy all through life? Do you want to help the environment on a daily basis? Becoming a vegetarian is a delicious and satisfying way to accomplish this and so much more.

A balanced vegetarian diet is not only healthy, but eating a vegetarian diet has real health benefits. Scientific studies show that diets high in animal foods may contribute to the early development of disease.

This includes obesity, coronary artery disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. But it also can include a few lesser known problems like colon, stomach, esophageal, breast and prostate cancer. Doctors have started urging Americans to reduce the intake of animal fats, such as those found in meat and dairy products, to try to prevent these diseases.

Cutting meat and other animal products doesn't just mean cutting cholesterol from your diet; it also means not consuming all of the pesticides and antibiotics in meat. That's right, animals raised for slaughter can be given numerous amounts of antibiotics to keep them healthy, but when you eat animal products, you're being given those antibiotics too. Overusing antibiotics can eventually lead to antibiotic resistance.

Becoming a vegetarian doesn't mean never eating the things you love to eat again. Not all vegetarians avoid all animal foods. Contrary to popular belief, there isn't only one kind of vegetarian. There are several different kinds of vegetarians. Semi-vegetarians avoid red meat but eat poultry and other animal foods. Lacto-vegetarians avoid all meat but eat dairy products, and lacto-ovo-vegetarians avoid all meat but eat dairy and egg products.

Veganism is the most extreme vegetarian diet; this includes not eating any animal foods, and avoiding wearing animal products, such as wool and leather. Vegans are also more likely not to drink alcohol, or eat processed foods and foods grown with chemical fertilizers or pesticides. This can be the healthiest of all vegetarian diets, but not many vegetarians go this extreme.

Although people often choose vegetarianism for health reasons, most vegans choose to abstain from eating animal foods because they oppose the suffering and killing of animals. Many animal rights advocates strongly oppose intensive farming, due in part to the restricted space that such farm animals are forced to occupy before they are slaughtered.

So why become a vegetarian? A vegetarian diet has the advantage of being low in saturated fat, cholesterol and salt, which dramatically lessens the risk of heart disease. In a country filled with cattle ranches and slaughterhouses, it's no surprise that nearly half of all Americans develop heart disease.

Vegetarianism isn't perfect either; it can lack some important things. Vegetarians need to plan their diets in order to obtain the essential nutrients received from diets that include meat.

No one said to become a total vegetarian overnight. You can start by cutting red meat, and continue to eat fish, milk and eggs, which in itself dramatically reduces cholesterol intake and the chance of heart disease.

Contrary to popular belief, vegetarian diets are easy to maintain. Vegetarian foods, such as tofu and soymilk, are available in most grocery stores, but you don't have to eat tofu to be a vegetarian. Vegetables and grains like bread, potatoes and rice are easy to find and enjoyable to eat. There are also hundreds of vegetarian cookbooks where you can find many delicious meals you can prepare easily.

By adapting the food guide pyramid, vegetarians can get the food they need most. Fortified grains and cereals provide necessary nutrients like iron, zinc, vitamin D and some B vitamins. Vegetarians who avoid milk products must find alternatives that are high in calcium and vitamin D, such as soymilk, which is a delicious alternative to real milk. Soymilk is sweet and if used on cereal, doesn't need to be sweetened.

With carefully planned diets and a wide variety of foods, it is possible for some vegetarians to get all essential nutrients without supplement, but the food pyramid is more difficult to adapt for those on a vegan diet. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) recommends that vegans and any children on a vegetarian diet consider vitamin and mineral supplements. In particular, vitamin B12, since animal products are the only food sources of this vitamin.

So ask yourself, do you want to be healthy and in good shape for the rest of your life? You don't have to go vegetarian, but American's desperately need to cut down their intake of animal products immediately, or risk the chance of developing heart disease or other fatal ailment. It's never too late to cut animal products and help your health.

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