October 1st is World Vegetarian Day and the kick-off of Vegetarian Awareness Month. When I became a vegetarian nearly 2 decades ago the decision to do so was considered somewhat radical for that time, but what did I care at 14? In fact the shock that I induced was probably part of the appeal for me at that age. A young animal rights advocate, I didn’t realize the impact that my decision would have on my health and the environment.
Vegetarianism, to many, still sounds intimidating, and more recently we refer to this personal preference as a plant-based diet versus meat-based diet. Eliminating meat doesn’t automatically make your diet healthier. It’s still important to eat the right balance of healthy foods and to limit your intake of unhealthy foods. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing when it comes to making a decision. There are many benefits to replacing just one meat-based meal per week with a plant-based meal.
Meatless Monday is a non-profit initiative associated with the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose goal is to reduce meat consumption by 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet, by encouraging people to go meatless one day per week.
Reduce your risk for heart disease. Beans, peas, lentils, nuts and seeds are staples for a meatless meal. They are low in saturated fat (the bad fat) and provide a good source of protein and fiber. When combined with a serving of whole-grains, such as brown rice or whole wheat bread, they provide a complete protein and inexpensive substitution for meat. The soluble fiber helps lower levels of LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) in the blood, thus lowering the risk of heart disease.
Maintain Healthy Body Weight.
A plant-based diet is a great source of insoluble fiber, which is absent in animal products. Foods rich in fiber make you feel full with fewer calories, resulting in lower calorie intake and less overeating. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), on average, Americans get less than half the recommended daily amount of fiber.
Improve overall quality of your diet.
According to the Journal of the American Dietetics Association, consuming dry beans or peas results in higher intakes of fiber, protein, folic acid, zinc, iron and magnesium with lower intakes of saturated fat and total fat. At about $.10 per serving for cooked dried beans, it is an economical health-benefit to increase consumption. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a weekly consumption of 3 cups of beans or legumes.
Reduce your carbon footprint. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the livestock industry generates nearly 20 percent of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating climate change worldwide, far more than transportation.
Help reduce dependency on fossil fuel. On average, says the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it takes 40 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce a single calorie of beef in the U.S., compared to 2.2 calories of fossil fuel energy needed to produce one calorie of plant-based protein.