Vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian? What’s the best diet?

Sep 28, 2017 | 29 comments

Sunday October 1 2017 is World Vegetarian Day!

Founded in 1977 by the North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS) and endorsed by the International Vegetarian Union in 1978, October 1 is the kick-off of Vegetarian Awareness Month.

How can you eat more healthfully? In a Nutritional Update for Physicians on plant-based diet, the authors conclude that, “… the major benefits for patients who decide to start a plant-based diet are the possibility of reducing the number of medications they take to treat a variety of chronic conditions, lower weight, decreased risk of cancer, and a reduction in their risk from ischemic heart disease.”

Worried about not getting enough protein or energy from avoiding animal products? Many world-class athletes are vegans, including Carl Lewis and Martina Navratilova. John Lewis, athlete and vegan personal trainer, is also known as the “Badass Vegan.”

Going vegan isn’t for wimps.

Bill Clinton revealed his dietary change to a vegan diet in 2010.  He told CNN he made the decision to jump off the meat wagon after getting an ultimatum from his doctor — his blocked arteries needed treatment, Now!  He changed his diet and the resulting 30-pound-plus weight loss remains clearly visible today. He says he has a new lease on life, adding, I have so much more energy now! I feel great.

Clinton said that he knew he’d played “Russian roulette” with his life, tried to “diet” by cutting calories and dietary cholesterol, but the improvement wasn’t enough. So, he said, That’s when I made a decision to really change.

Clinton’s plant-based regimen (Dr. Dean Ornish’s diet) was extremely low in all types of fat, providing less than 10% of his total calories each day. It’s a diet that, in clinical trials, has been shown to significantly lower blood cholesterol, and reverse atherosclerosis. And it worked for him.  Click here for more information.

However, All fats are NOT created equal

But only 10% of calories from fat? That’s awfully low.

Very low fat gets high ratings for heart disease and stroke, but very low rating for “easy to follow” and “long-term weight loss” (click here for the U.S. News 2017 Best Diets report). And studies link the no-fat craze to the explosion of obesity in the ‘80s. As Dr. Walter Willett, Harvard University nutrition professor and researcher said, “One of the most unfortunate unintended consequences of the fat-free crusade was the idea that if it wasn’t fat, it wouldn’t make you fat.” Read more here.

Extremely low fat excludes most naturally occurring “healthy” fats from plants and fish — from salmon, trout, and sardines (sources of healthy omega-3 fatty acids).  You miss out on the healthful nutrients from other nuts, seeds, grains, avocado, and legumes.

And boring!  A very low-fat diet can make for a pretty unappetizing diet and may cause you to eat more of other (unhealthful) foods to create a little excitement.

Clinton has changed his eating habits lately to include some fish and poultry too and he continues to maintain his weight loss and heart health.

Take some advice from food and opinion writer Mark Bittman, who suggests a lifestyle modification, not a complete change. He generally eats only plant foods during the day and says that being a part-time vegan gets you a better diet without feeling that you can’t eat anything but plant foods.

Bittman says, What seems to happen to people (who change their diets) is that they are more conscious about the choices they make, as they feel better about eating more plants and less of other stuff, their dinners become more moderate, too.

The reports just eating less meat has a protective effect and report on a National Cancer Institute study of 500,000 people found that those who ate the most red meat daily were 30 percent more likely to die of any cause during a 10-year period than were those who ate the least amount of red meat. Processed meats correlate most strongly with heart disease: sausage, luncheon meats and other processed meats are most risky.

A Healthier Environment

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) reports, “Raising animals for food requires massive amounts of land, food, energy, and water. The byproducts of animal agriculture pollute our air and waterways. By shunning animal products, vegetarians are de facto environmentalists.”

Just because it’s made from a plant doesn’t automatically make it healthy. If it’s made from white flour and sugar, processed with artificial flavors and preservatives, stripped of its original nutrition and labeled “fortified” that means that there’s something lost in the transformation from plant to packaged.

Calories still count. You can be a vegetarian, even a vegan, and be overweight and undernourished.

Definition of “diet”

The kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats

Considering vegan? Or vegetarian? Strict vegans avoid even honey from bees, which is probably too extreme for most people. Don’t think you can give up meat or live the strict vegan lifestyle? You don’t have to go all the way to benefit from a healthier diet.

Just shifting to a plant-based diet offers many health benefits, for you and for the planet.  Consider becoming a flexible vegetarian, or a “flexitarian!” Focus on plant foods, and on occasion, you might eat animal-sourced foods, such as wild-caught salmon, organically raised chicken and eggs, or dairy. writes, “It’s never too early or late to embrace a healthier lifestyle… the benefits come quickly and continue to accrue with time.”  They cite a study that showed that women in their 50s who ate a mostly plant diet were 34% more likely to be free of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease 15 years later than women whose diets included more meat.  Read more here.

If you’re curious about being a vegan, check out the Vegan Society. Choose carefully to get enough vitamins and minerals that are more easily found in animal products, including vitamin B12 and calcium, iodine and zinc.

Health experts suggest a multi-vitamin with 100% of the RDI for major vitamins and minerals. also has a comprehensive, professionally edited website to help you plan a complete vegan diet.

Ideas For Change

  • Eliminate processed meats to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. The term “processed meats” differs in definition, but generally, we’re talking “meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or addition of chemical preservatives.” Read more here.
  • Reduce the risk of major killers such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer: not by replacing meat with refined carbohydrate foods, but with healthy protein-rich non-meat options including whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
  • Boycott factory farmed meat (also known as “intensive farmed” meat) both for your health and for animal welfare. The system is inefficient and harms the environment, and the conditions for animals is barbaric. Some reports show that factory farming of animals is dramatically impacting our planet, destroying rainforests and other wildlife habitats, increasing greenhouse gases and accelerating global warming. Factory farms are notorious for polluting water and the air. Read more here.
  • Although there are tradeoffs to eating more plant foods — (are we harming the environment by importing grapes from Chile and exporting to China?) buying from sustainable farmers and buying locally grown (not shipped from tens of thousands of miles away) is a great strategy to reduce our carbon footprint.
  • And think about waste. At least 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted yearly, and if wasted food were a country, it would be the third largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world, after the U.S. and China. Read more here.
  • Freezing food doesn’t negatively impact its nutritional value; so for the planet’s sake, and for your health, take a look at this brief article for some great ideas about beefing up your produce intake, and some practical ideas to reduce food waste.

Sources The Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet. 29 Smart and Easy Tips to Reduce Food Waste. Thirteen vegan athletes who set World Records or became World Champions. Mark Bittman says you can be a part-time vegan. Frontline. Did the Low-Fat Era Make Us Fat? In The Belly Of The Beast. Vegetarianism and the Environment. The Triple Whopper Environmental Impact of Global Meat Production.

Scientific American. Public Health. What’s the Definition of Processed Meat?

The Permanente Journal. Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. How to go vegan.

U.S. News Wellness. Best Diets.Ornish Diet. Former President Bill Clinton is Vegan, a CNN Interview with Dr. Esselstyn.

Susan Burke March

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