The Nation's Health + vegetables

Ten Reasons To Eat More Like A Vegetarian - Part I

Evidence is mounting that the healthiest diets are loaded with plant foods (vegetables, fruits and beans) and short on animal foods (meat, fish, poultry and dairy products), especially those with a high fat content.

"A diet rich in fruits and vegetables plays a role in reducing the risk of all the major causes of illness and death," says Walter Willet, Head of the Nutrition Department at the Harvard School of Public Health.

To many people, vegetarian is a loaded word. It typically refers to people who never eat meat, fish or poultry for ethical, religious or health reasons. Vegans also avoid all dairy products and eggs. But scientists are more interested in how often - not whether - people eat animal foods. And much of their research points to the same conclusion: people should eat fewer animal foods and more plant foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Why? Here are 10 reasons - some related to health, some not.

1. Cancer

"The scientific base is very strong suggesting that fruits and vegetables are protective elements for all gastrointestinal cancers and all smoking-related cancers," says Tim Byers, professor of Preventive Medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. That includes cancers of the lung, colon, stomach, mouth, larynx, esophagus and bladder. And a recent study found that lycopene - a carotenoid in tomatoes and tomato sauce - may protect against prostate cancer.

It's not clear how fruits and vegetables may reduce cancer risk. It could be their phytochemicals - things like carotenoids, vitamins C and E, selenium, indoles, flavonoids, phenols and limonene.

There is also evidence that high-fibre grains like wheat bran can reduce cancer risk. "Fibre has a beneficial effect in preventing colon cancer," says David Jenkins, a fibre expert at the University of Toronto. And pasta, rice and other grains can replace the animal foods - red meat, in particular - that may increase the risks of some cancers.

"Men who eat red meat as a main dish five or more times a week have four times the risk of colon cancer of men who eat red meats less than once a month," says Edward Giovannucci of Harvard Medical School. Heavy red-meat eaters were also twice as likely to get prostate cancer in his study of 50,000 male health professionals.

That's just one study. Looking at others, says Lawrence Kushi of the University of Minnesota, "the evidence is quite consistent that red meat is associated with a higher risk of colon - possibly prostate - cancer".

But even lean red meat seems to increase the risk of colon cancer. "It could be the carcinogens created when meat is cooked or meat's highly available iron, or something else in meat," speculates Willett.

2.Heart disease

A plant-based diet with lots of fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of heart disease. For the last 20 years, heart experts have emphasised cutting saturated fat and cholesterol intake, but plants may protect the heart in other ways. Among them:

* Soluble Fibre: "To reduce your risk of heart disease, you may want to eat more beans, peas, oats, and barley," says Jenkins, because their "sticky" soluble fibre seems to help lower blood cholesterol.

* Folic Acid: "The evidence that folic acid reduces the risk of heart disease is pretty strong," says Willet. Folic acid, a B-vitamin, lowers blood levels of a harmful amino acid called homocysteine. "And fruits and vegetables are a major source of folic acid," he adds.

* Antioxidants: a growing body of evidence suggests that LDL ("bad") cholesterol damages arteries only when it has been oxidised (combined with oxygen). That's why researchers believe that antioxidants like vitamin E may protect the heart.. And many of the phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables are antioxidants.

* Squeezing Out Saturates: if you eat lots of plant foods, there's simply less room for the saturated animal fats that clog arteries.

healthy food3. Stroke

There's a lot of evidence showing that fruits and vegetables are beneficial for reducing the risk of stroke," says Willet. For example, in a 20-year study of 832 middle-aged men, the risk of stroke was 22 per cent lower for every three servings of fruits and vegetables the men ate each day. Again, no one's sure if it's the potassium, magnesium, fibre or other components of fruits and vegetables that prevent arteries from clogging in the brain.

4. Diverticulosis & Constipation

High-fibre grains - especially wheat bran - can help prevent constipation. That's not trivial in a country like the US that spends millions a year on laxatives.

Diverticulosis is also common. About 30 to 40 per cent of people over 50 have it, though most have no symptoms. Others experience bleeding, constipation, diarrhea, flatulence, pain, or diverticulitis (that's when the pouches - or diverticula - that form in the walls of the colon get inflamed).

"In our studies, it's clear that fibre both from bran and from fruits and vegetables is protective," says Willet. Men who ate the least fibre (13 grams or less a day) were almost twice as likely to get diverticulosis as men who ate the most fibre (at least 32 grams of fibre a day).

5. Other diseases

Plant-rich diets may prevent other illnesses:

* Macular Degeneration: a carotenoid called lutein - which is found mostly in leafy greens - may help prevent the deterioration of the retina that causes blindness in older people. "In our study, people who ate spinach or collard greens two to four times a week had half the estimated risk of macular degeneration compared with those who ate them less than once a month," says Johanna Seddon of Harvard Medical School.

* Neural Tube Defects: folic acid supplements can reduce the risk of spina bifida and other neural tube birth defects. Folic acid from foods (mostly fruits and vegetables) may also cut the risk.

* Diabetes: "We found a lower risk of adult-onset diabetes in people who ate more whole grains," says Willet.

To be continue tomorrow...

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