BY Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha
When we talk about plant-based diets, we need to be aware that there are many types of food that come under this category.
The most traditional type of vegetarian diet, which is what many people in our country consume, is the lacto-ovo regimen. It excludes meat and seafood but includes eggs and dairy products. And the purest form of a vegetarian diet is the vegan one, which excludes all forms of animal products – even dried fish and umbalakada.
A flexible Mediterranean diet is essentially a fresh plant-based diet but one that includes small quantities of chicken, fish, dairy products, eggs and even a little red meat.
While some people adhere to a non-meat diet for religious reasons, there are others who do so because they’re aware of the many benefits of not eating meat.
One of the largest observational studies on the health effects of plant-based diets is the Oxford cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC-Oxford), which commenced in 1992, and involved over 65,000 men and women aged between 20 and 97.
Its main objective was to find out how diet affects the risk of cancer, as well as chronic diseases such as diabetes. These are some of the findings of the study, which were published in various medical journals.
Meat eaters had the highest mean body mass index (BMI) – in other words, they ended up being fatter than those who didn’t eat it. Fish eaters and vegetarians had lower rates of ischaemic heart disease compared to meat eaters. People consuming a low or meat free diet had a lower risk of hospitalisation or death from diabetes.
While most of our energy comes from carbohydrates, the intake of unhealthy saturated fats in non-meat eaters was about half that seen in meat eaters. The intake of fibre by non-meat eaters was about 50 percent higher.
Current evidence suggests that fibre in one’s diet enhances the presence of healthy bacteria in the intestines (one’s gut biome), as well as the production of beneficial short-chain fatty acids.
A similar study of Adventists in North America termed ‘AHS-2’ showed that the odds of developing diabetes were much less for vegetarians compared to non-vegetarians. This group of people are mostly a non-smoking populace and the majority don’t consume alcohol. The few who do consume alcohol do so rarely.
Of course, you have to be sensible in your choice of plant-based foods. If the non-meat diet you consume is made up of refined grains, saturated fats and added sugars (such as white bread, jam, plantain fritters and treacle every day), this defeats the purpose of eschewing meats, and is more likely to bring on diabetes!
Furthermore, an unbalanced vegetarian diet can lead to lowered levels of protein, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron and zinc.
It is important to select plant-based foods that are high iniron (dark-green leaves), calcium (chickpeas, soybeans and broccoli) and proteins (legumes such as beans and lentils); and also, supplement a vegan diet with vitamin B2 (found solely in animal foods) and vitamin D.
Therefore, consuming plant-based foods – whether it is a strict vegan regimen or the more flexible Mediterranean diet – can control weight gain, as well as reduce your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.