Eating Well Without Meat
More people - kids and adults alike - are choosing to follow a meatless diet. The reasons for embracing plant-based nutrition vary, from ethical and moral commitment to personal taste. But can a diet devoid of animal protein still be healthy?
Fruits and vegetables provide a rich array of vitamins and nutrients, without the cholesterol and fat found in animal-based foods. However, whether you eat meat or not, it is important to consume moderate portions of a variety of foods, according to Julie Paul, a registered dietitian with WakeMed's Energize! program.
"Being vegetarian is a personal choice, but it's a generalization to say that removing meat from your diet is healthier," she says. "Fruits and vegetables contain a lot of chemicals and antioxidants that prevent diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. However, it's more important to eat the right amount and combination of foods and avoid less-healthy options like fried foods and junk food."
Study supports health benefits
A 20-year study known as the China-Cornell-Oxford Project supports the connection between nutrition and the development of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Conducted by the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, Cornell University and the University of Oxford, the study is the topic of a 2006 book, The China Study, by biochemist T. Colin Campbell (the study's primary researcher) and his son, Dr. Thomas M. Campbell II.
Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a registered dietitian and faculty member in the Departments of Health Policy and Management and Nutrition in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill, became acquainted with T. Colin Campbell when she was a master's student and included an analysis of The China Study data in her thesis. She acknowledges that scientific consensus supports the study's premise that a vegetarian diet has healthful advantages. Vegetarian diets don't include meat, poultry or fish.
"Although it's possible to lead a healthy life while including meat in your diet, vegetarians tend to have lower rates of chronic, degenerative disease," Hobbs says.
Meatless family makeover
Raleigh resident Terri Exel and her husband, Ramil Gruela, are real-life examples of how following a meatless diet can lower cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease.
More than 20 years ago, a college philosophy class prompted Exel to become a vegetarian. "We learned about factory farming practices that horrified me," she says. Her commitment waned several years later, though, when she gave into a chicken craving during her first pregnancy. Last year she returned to a vegetarian diet after reading The China Study and decided to "go vegan" after reviewing the film Forks over Knives, which examines the claim that most, if not all, degenerative diseases can be controlled or even reversed by rejecting animal-based and processed foods. Vegans avoid eggs and milk as well as meat, poultry and fish.
"Heart disease is prevalent on both sides of our family," Exel says. "My father-in-law had quadruple bypass surgery after a minor heart attack, and 15 years later he had a massive stroke. My paternal grandfather had a massive heart attack at age 55 which inevitably took his life a few weeks later. So I was intrigued by a diet that could help my family avoid a similar scenario."
Exel presented the vegan/vegetarian concept to her family by reading them excerpts from The China Study and Forks over Knives. Sons Cooper, 13, Chase, 11, and Carter, 7, were enthusiastic about the change. In contrast, Gruela, "the biggest meat eater on the planet" according to Exel, was hesitant.
Exel pushed the potential health benefits and challenged Gruela to lower his cholesterol by following a meatless diet. Gruela accepted and recent blood work indicates that the shift away from animal-based foods is reaping dividends for them both with reduced total cholesterol and LDL.
Currently Exel, Gruela and their son, Chase, follow a vegan diet that excludes dairy products as well as meat, while sons Cooper and Carter are vegetarian. The family takes B-12 supplements and gets vitamin D through fortified orange juice and plant-based milks as well as regular "sun time" outdoors.
The biggest impact of the meatless lifestyle has been on Exel's time. "Not many restaurants offer vegan choices, so just about everything we eat I make at home," she says. "It has required a tremendous investment in time to research meal ideas and ways to prepare food that the kids will enjoy, but I'm committed to this, so I find the time."
Talia Nappi, 15, of Durham made a "moral decision" several months ago to become a vegetarian because of her job as a day camp assistant at a local farm. "I love working with animals, but I wasn't OK eating them," she says.
Talia's mother, Lisa, a registered nurse and certified diabetic educator at DukeWell, a program that focuses on preventive health services, responded to Talia's decision with a mixture of support and concern.
"I know adult vegetarians who eat too many carbohydrates - pasta, bread and sweets - and that can lead to weight gain and diseases like diabetes," Nappi says. "Talia does a pretty good job, but it's a continuing challenge to strategize with her to ensure she's getting enough protein and other nutrients."
Nappi encourages her daughter to take a multiple vitamin, B-12 and omega-3 supplements. She also makes sure the kitchen is stocked with whey protein powder (to make shakes) and other healthful protein sources like nuts, cheese, peanut butter, eggs and beans. Although most family meals include meat, which Talia takes out, a recent family dinner featured cooked butternut squash with onions, pasta, walnuts, cheese, black beans and pinto beans.
Soy is a common substitute for meat in a vegetarian diet, but Nappi encourages her patients to proceed with caution. "Many soy products in the grocery store have been genetically modified and can contain unhealthy chemicals," she says. "There's a good body of evidence that these chemicals can disrupt a young child's hormonal balance, so I advocate for using only organic soy products."
Better availability of vegetarian foods
In recent years, the products that support a vegetarian lifestyle have become more accessible, and meatless food selections are now plentiful on most grocery store shelves, on restaurant menus and in school cafeterias. However, making the move away from meat often requires a shift in mindset.
"People focus on what they can't have and often envision an empty plate when they think about being vegetarian, and that's a hurdle to get over," Hobbs says.
If you or your child wants to adopt a vegetarian diet, Hobbs recommends that you do it gradually. First, identify foods you already eat that are vegetarian. Then look for easy substitutions that can turn a meat dish into a vegetarian dish (i.e., swapping soy for ground beef). Begin with two to three meatless meals per week and build from there.
Some of the most popular kid-friendly food is vegetarian, including pizza, peanut butter and jelly, and macaroni and cheese. Ethnic cuisine can also serve as a rich source of inspiration for meal ideas. Chinese, Middle-Eastern, Italian and Mexican food feature many vegetarian dishes, from hummus, falafels, bean nachos and bean burritos to lasagna and stir-fried rice with vegetables.
"Learn by example through your local vegetarian society and observe, firsthand, what other vegetarians eat," Hobbs says. "Before you know it, you will gain the confidence and proficiency to embrace a new, healthy lifestyle."
Maria J. Mauriello is a freelance writer, communications professional and mother of two who lives in Raleigh.
Monitor Kids' Growth
In addition to supplements, experts agree it is important to monitor a vegetarian child's growth to ensure he or she is consuming enough calories.
"Every child's caloric needs are different, based on activity level and other factors," says Julie Paul, a registered dietitian. "As long as they continue to progress on their growth chart at the pediatrician's office, they should be fine. However, if you notice weight loss or height loss, consult with your doctor or a licensed dietitian to increase calories and protein."
Vegetarian Resource Group
American Dietetic Association
The China Study
Forks Over Knives
http://allrecipes.com (search "vegetarian")
* BOOK SUGGESTIONS
Living Vegetarian for Dummies by Alexandra Jamieson
A Teen's Guide to Going Vegetarian by Judith Krizmanic
Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes by Molly Katzen
Kids Can Cook: Vegetarian Recipes Kitchen-Tested by Kids for Kids by Dorothy R. Bates
* LOCAL SUPPORT GROUP
Triangle Vegetarian Society