When you consider Bill Clinton’s svelte physique after heart surgery and Paul McCartney’s onstage energy, it may seem that vegetarianism is a fountain of youth. And a strong body of research supports the idea that a plantcentric diet can boost your health, decreasing the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, and helping you stay at a healthful weight. It can even lengthen your life, according to a recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine that tracked more than 70,000 people.
But for many, life without steak, barbecued chicken or pork tacos doesn’t sound so appealing. Fortunately, you don’t have to make an either/or choice.
“Just making a shift to a more plant-based diet can offer significant health benefits,” says Reed Mangels, an adjunct associate professor of nutrition at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Research shows that flexitarians — those who make plant foods the star of their diet, with meat, fish, dairy and eggs playing a supporting role — are healthier than frequent meat eaters in categories such as colon cancer and heart-disease risk and overall mortality.
The main advantages of a vegetarian-leaning diet seem to be more related to the foods you’re eating lots of (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts) rather than those you’re eating less of (meat).
“When you base your meals on plant foods, you’re packing your diet with the fiber, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats that most Americans don’t get enough of,” says Sharon Palmer, editor of Environmental Nutrition. Plant-based diets are also full of phytochemicals, compounds that help keep many of your body’s systems running smoothly. For instance, the anthocyanins in berries help protect vision; carotenoids in carrots and cantaloupe, and the isothiocyanates in Brussels sprouts neutralize the free radicals that cause cell damage; and flavonoids in apples help control inflammation.
How much meat can you eat and still get the benefits of a veggie diet? There’s not enough research to give a precise amount. “Diet is a continuum,” says Robert Ostfeld, director of preventive cardiology and founder and director of the Cardiac Wellness Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. “But patients who more fully embrace a whole-foods, plant-based diet have the best outcomes.”
Still, research shows that eschewing meat all of the time isn’t necessary. In one recent preliminary study of more than 450,000 adults, those who followed a diet that was 70 percent plants had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease or stroke than those whose diets centered on meat and dairy. A Harvard study that tracked more than 120,000 people for 30 years found that those who ate the most red meat tended to die younger during the study period but that swapping just one daily serving of beef for nuts might cut the risk of dying early by as much as 19 percent.
But can changing your diet after age 50 make a difference? Absolutely, according to experts. “It’s never too early or too late to embrace a healthier lifestyle,” Ostfeld says. “The benefits come quickly and continue to accrue with time.” In one study, women in that age group who ate a mostly plant diet were 34 percent more likely to be free of chronic diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, 15 years later than women whose diets included more meat.
Any step you take will help, but the more plant foods and the fewer animal foods you eat, the better. Try these easy tips:
● Up your vegetable and fruit intake. Even if you don’t actively cut back on meat at first, adding more produce will help you develop a taste for plant foods and transition to a higher-fiber diet. “I recommend including vegetables at just about every meal and snack, even breakfast,” Palmer says.
● Redesign your plate. Fill at least half of your plate with produce, grains or beans, and downsize your meat serving. Think of a stir-fry heavy on the veggies and grains with thinly sliced strips of beef rather than a big steak with a spear of broccoli.
● Pick the most-healthful meats. You might want to focus first on decreasing the amount of processed meat you eat — bacon, deli meats, hot dogs and sausage. A Harvard study linked a daily serving equal to one hot dog or two slices of bacon to an increased risk of early death from heart disease and cancer.
Red meat also has been associated with heart disease and cancer risk, but the evidence is less clear. When you do eat red meat, it’s best to stick to small amounts and choose lean cuts, such as pork tenderloin and top sirloin steak. And try to eat fatty fish such as salmon, which is high in inflammation-busting omega-3 fatty acids.
● Find your semi-veg style. Plant-based meals once every seven days in the style of Meatless Monday — a campaign that encourages people to start each week with a day of vegetarian eating — are a great way to begin. You can try replacing your meat ounce-for-ounce with a faux meat such as tempeh or tofu, Palmer says. More restrictive but also forgiving is the VB6 approach, where you eat vegan — no meat, fish, dairy or eggs — before 6 p.m. You’re free to have meat, fish, eggs or dairy at dinner.
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.