After being derided, even ridiculed for much of the 20th Century, the vegetarian diet has now been elevated to a hallowed ground. The American Heart Association has positive things to say about it.
On its website at http://www.americanheart.org the organization responds to the question, "Are vegetarian diets healthful?" The group states," Most vegetarian diets are low in animal products. They're also usually lower than nonvegetarian diets in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease (which causes heart attack), high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus, and some forms of cancer."
The AHA does caution people on a vegetarian regimen to eat "enough important nutrients" and avoid too many calories.
To vegetarians who are often challenged about not receiving enough protein or told they are denying themselves quality animal protein, the heart association supplies information to the contrary. The AHA clearly states that neither animal nor plant protein is superior to the other. "You don't need to eat foods from animals to have enough protein in your diet. Plant proteins alone can provide enough of the essential and non-essential amino acids, as long as sources of dietary protein are varied and caloric intake is high enough to meet energy needs."
Adding to the comments on protein, the organization says that soy protein has been proven equal to protein derived from animal sources and could even be the sole source of protein. The statement also points out that whole grains, legumes, vegetables, seeds, and nuts all contain essential and non-essential amino acids and need not be combined in any one meal.
Iron can be a concern in a vegetarian diet because the richest sources are in red meat, liver, and egg yolk. The group does acknowledge that these foods are also high in cholesterol. For vegetarians good plant sources of iron are dried beans, spinach, enriched products, brewer's yeast, and dried fruits.
Vitamin B12 is an important issue for vegans because it is found naturally in animal sources. Vegans can obtain this essential vitamin from fortified foods like cereals and soy beverages as well as supplements.
Vegans, constantly bombarded with the message that avoiding dairy products will lead to osteoporosis, will be heartened by the American Heart Association pronouncement on calcium. "Studies show that vegetarians absorb and retain more calcium from foods than nonvegetarians do. Vegetable greens such as spinach, kale and broccoli, and some legumes and soybean products, are good sources of calcium from plants."
Other nutrients necessary in a vegetarian diet include vitamin D and zinc. The association advises sunlight or a supplement to obtain the optimum amount of vitamin D. For zinc, needed for growth and development, it recommends plant sources like grains, nuts, and legumes. The AHA advises supplements with no more than 15 to 18 mg of zinc. A cautionary note says,"Supplements containing 50 mg or more may lower HDL ("good") cholesterol in some people."
The group's general dietary recommendations for all vegetarians, especially ovo and lacto-ovo, would be advisable even for nonvegetarians:
The one misfire on the American Heart Association Vegetarian Diets page is the description of the types of vegetarians. The group accurately characterize vegans, lactovegetarians, and lacto-ovo vegetarians, but the definition of semi-vegetarians is ludicrous. The AHA says, "Semi-vegetarians don't eat red meat but include chicken and fish with plant foods, dairy product and eggs." If semi-vegetarian is a valid category, society could also boast groups like semi-alcoholics and semi-drug users.
The American Heart Association is to be commended for its position on vegetarian diets. The AHA position is similar to that of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada who say, "Appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases."
It's about time that national organizations that have an influence on the dietary habits of Americans come to recognize the efficacy of a cholesterol-free vegetarian diet. The numerous studies detailing the health advantages of a vegetarian lifestyle have long been ignored by so many of the major players who influence what people eat. We would hope that organizations like the American Diabetes Association, the American Cancer Society, and even the United States Department of Agriculture would jump on the health bandwagon to extol the benefits of vegetarian eating.