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An Appetizing Reason to Take a Flexible Stance on Vegetarianism

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By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Five Guys cheeseburger. That's about all that stands between me and a vegetarian diet.

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I could easily forgo meat -- most of the time. I rarely eat any during the day and have only small portions with dinner. I prefer vegetable-topped pizzas to meat-laden pies and have largely lost my taste for steak. Except for salmon and tuna, I could even live without fish. But the thought of never eating another perfect cheeseburger does me in every time.

My interest in vegetarianism is piqued anew, though, by the American Dietetic Association's publication this month of an updated policy statement. The ADA, whose earlier position statements had supported vegetarian diets as healthful but relegated information about some of the age groups for which they're appropriate to the fine print, now states front and center that a properly planned and balanced diet can be healthful not only for adults but also for all children, from infants to teens. So can a vegan diet, with no animal products whatsover (including eggs, cheese and yogurt, for example).

"This statement gets rid of the idea that grown-ups can be vegetarians, but maybe not kids," Ann Reed Mangel, co-author of the statement and accompanying paper, told me in an interview.

The ADA even gives the vegetarian green light to pregnant and lactating women. (You can read a summary at http://www.adajournal.org/current -- look under the heading "From the Association.")

The research paper accompanying the ADA's statement, written mostly for dietitians and health professionals, makes a good case for moving to such plant-based diets as the ovo-lacto vegetarian, incorporating eggs and dairy foods, and the pesco-vegetarian plan, which includes fish. The paper cites scientific evidence that these diets can help fight major diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and several kinds of cancer. It also provides guidance on how to orchestrate a healthful diet, focusing on key nutrients that can be hard for vegetarians to work into their meals.

Chief among those is Vitamin B12, principally found in animal proteins. Susan Levin, a registered dietitian affiliated with the pro-vegetarian Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, explains that, gross as it sounds, vegetarians used to ingest more B12 when food wasn't as well washed as it is today; the vitamin existed in some of the manure residue left on plants. In addition, there was B12 in organisms found on plants in the days before widespread pesticide use. So vegans in particular need to take a multivitamin or supplement, or seek out foods that are fortified with it, Levin says: Because a B12 deficiency can cause irreversible neurological damage and other health problems, "it's not something you want to gamble with."

Omnivores and vegetarians alike are hard-pressed to consume enough Vitamin D; Levin again suggests supplements. And while meat-eaters and ovo-lacto vegetarians get calcium from dairy products, vegans can turn to leafy greens, beans and even tofu, if it's the kind that's "set" in a calcium-based solution.

Aside from that, the ADA's advice is simple: Eat a varied diet that includes whole grains, vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds and, for non-vegans, lower-fat dairy products and eggs. Go easy on foods that are highly sweetened, high in sodium and high in fat, especially saturated fat and trans-fatty acids.

Anyone can do that. Right?

Levin thinks so. "Don't think about 'I can't be a vegetarian or vegan for my whole life,' " she suggests. "Try it wholesale for three weeks, and tell me after three weeks you don't feel and look better." By "wholesale," Levin means no cheating; she also warns against filling up on french fries and whole jars of peanut butter to get through the trial period.

A vegan for 15 years, Levin is convinced I wouldn't crave that cheeseburger so much after three meatless weeks. "When people realize how much control they really have over their lives" -- including their health, general feeling of well-being, and even the way their skin looks -- through their diets, they find vegetarianism empowering, she says.

Another option might be following the advice of Dawn Jackson Blatner, a spokeswoman for the ADA and author of "The Flexitarian Diet." She notes that meat-eaters don't have to go cold turkey: Just replacing some of the meat you currently eat with fruit, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, soy products and especially fiber can make you much healthier.

But Blatner cautions against filling the place that meat once occupied on your plate with non-nutritious fare. "I have clients who call themselves vegetarians but who are cheese-aholics, carbo-holics -- eating too much pasta, rice and bread -- or processed-food-aholics," she says. "It's easy to do this wrong. But when it's done right, it's a very powerful and magical tool against just about every chronic illness," she says.

So, under Blatner's scheme, I could still enjoy a cheeseburger now and then. And maybe, eventually, Five Guys will lose its hold over me. . . .

Check out Tuesday's Checkup blog post, featuring readers' tales of going vegetarian. Subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter by going to http://www.washingtonpost.com and searching for "newsletters." See the new fitness and nutrition site at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wellness. And e-mail your thoughts to Jennifer at checkup@ washpost.com.


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