Truth be told, I’ve never been able to keep up with my vegetarian vow beyond a couple of hours. A look at those juicy sliders or that golden steak is all it takes for my taste buds to betray me. Health experts and nutritionists agree, if you’re eating meat in moderation there’s nothing wrong. But it's not all rosy. There’s been a lot of talk about antibiotic-fed chicken, contaminated fish and red meat being linked to cholesterol and even cancer. And that’s where I see my loyalty dwindling, albeit gradually.If this new research is anything to go by, a diet which is 70% vegetarian can reduce the risk of dying from heart disease by almost a fifth. Scientists from London's Imperial College followed nearly half a million people from 10 countries for about 12 years. The participants, aged 35 to 70, were asked to submit information about their food consumption, lifestyle and physical activity.Each person was given scores based on the types of food they ate. Points were added for eating foods from these seven food groups - vegetables, fruit, cereals, potatoes, nuts, and olive oil. While points were deducted for consuming animal food groups - meats, animal fats, eggs, fish, and other seafood or dairy products. They also took into consideration other influencing factors including age, gender, daily calorie intake, body mass index (BMI) and smoking status. Based on their scores, participants were placed in different categories, ranging from the least to the most pro-vegetarian.Finally, death rates from heart disease were compared. Their findings conclude that ‘pro-vegetarians’ who obtained almost 70% of their food from plant-based sources had a 20% less risk of dying from heart disease than those who followed a diet where only 45% comprised of plant products.“Meats contain dietary cholesterol and saturated fats which are directly linked to the risk of heart disease. Being a vegetarian, you are curtailing cholesterol right at the source. A vegetarian diet is free from both these markers and is therefore a better choice for those who are susceptible to develop heart disease,” explains Dr. Shalini Singhal.
(Too Much Meat May Raise Diabetes Risk)A lot of research published in the Journal Heart has shown that Asian Indian families may have genetic predisposition to coronary artery disease. The Illinois-based CADI (Coronary Artery Disease among Asian Indians) found that during the past 30 years, the average age of first heart attacks has decreased by 10 years in India.“Meats contain no fibre which is a protective factor in heart disease. Lack of fibre can also cause constipation and even lead to colon cancer,” adds Dr. Ritika Samaddar from Max Healthcare Saket in New Delhi.
Scientists from University of Cambridge cast a doubt over the iron content in red meat. According to them, heme-iron (that is obtained from iron products) is absorbed at a much greater rate in comparison to plant-based iron (37 percent versus five percent). Once absorbed, it may contribute as a catalyst in the oxidation of LDLs (Low-density lipoprotein or bad cholesterol) and cause tissue inflammation which is a risk factor for coronary heart disease.
With none of the saturated fat and cholesterol that clogs arteries, some of the previous studies also indicate that vegetarian diets could be used to lower blood pressure. “Meats are loaded with proteins, iron and vitamin B12, but these can be derived from a vegetarian diet too. A good combination of soybeans, cereals, pulses and green leafy vegetables can help you balance your diet. The plus point is that they hydrate your body and also provide the fill of fibre required. Similarly Vitamin B12 can be derived from milk and milk products.” suggests Dr. Shalini.Ease your crease lines, the good news is that you don’t really need to walk away from that ham sandwich. The study suggests adding more greens to your palate while limiting the red stuff and not giving up on it. According to Lead researcher Dr. Camille Lassale, “Our study focuses on increasing the proportion of plant based foods relative to animal-based foods, which results in an improved nutritionally balance diet. Instead of drastic avoidance of animal-based foods, substituting some of the meat in your diet with plant-based sources may be a very simple, useful way to lower cardiovascular mortality.”How much is too much?According to Dr. Ritika Samaddar, “Meats are good sources of protein and iron, but too much of anything is always harmful. Too much protein is known to load the kidneys whose function is to synthesize and excrete the toxins. This could lead to kidney disorders. For children - 1 gram per kilogram of ideal body weight and for adults – 0.8 gram per kilogram of ideal body weight is recommended. The type of non-vegetarian ingredient, quality and quantity – all are important. You should stay away from extreme diets like the Atkins diet (which focuses on meat) or say even a vegan diet (no meat and dairy products). These tend to cause deficiencies unless they are well supplemented.”
(All About The Flexitarian Diet)Dr. Shalini Singhal agrees, “People with chronic diseases like obesity, hypertension and diabetes should limit meat consumption to 2-3 times a week. They should opt for lean protein and also choose a healthy cut. For instance, organ meat contains maximum fat and should be avoided.”
“The key is to eat in moderation. As indicated in the study, ideally our diet should consist of 70% to 80% of fruits and vegetables and the rest should be divided between meats and dairy products,” both conclude.