Lately, I’ve become curious about vegetarianism and whether we would all be better off if we eliminated animal products from our diets altogether. While I do eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, I am not a vegetarian, and although I don’t serve my family a lot of red meat, I admit I’ve gotten used to cooking easy favorites like burgers, turkey tacos, and hot dogs. I just want to do right by my family and make smart choices, so I spoke with Nina Eng, RD, chief clinical dietitian at Northwell Health Plainview Hospital. She tells me, “Vegetarianism is a personal decision and is increasing in popularity for a few different reasons: Some are cultural, some are health-related and some are for the environment, or concern for animals.”
And some converts are people like me who respect all those things, but really just want to know if vegetarianism is a healthier lifestyle. “It kind of depends on your situation,” Eng explains. “For someone who has heart disease, then maybe they should try more plant based meals. But it’s not like the vegetarian diet is the gold standard.” She adds, “The Dash and Mediterranean diets, which allow lean meat and fish, also rate highly in terms of a healthy diet to follow. It really all depends on your choices. You can be vegetarian and still eat a lot of processed foods, which obviously is not ideal.” Case in point, my husband thinks that pizza and Ben and Jerry’s is the ultimate vegetarian meal.
Of course, there are benefits to a plant-based diet. Vegetarian diets have been linked to lower levels of obesity and reduced risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and some types of cancer. “Vegetarian diets that are planned well can be healthy and nutritionally adequate,” Eng assures. But she says you need to be mindful and make sure you’re eating the right foods to satisfy all the nutrients your body needs. Vegetarians need to be extra vigilant about getting enough omega 3 (found in flaxseed, walnuts, tofu, chia seeds, hemp seeds, hummus and Brussels sprouts), B-12 (fortified in some cereals, soy milk, tofu and nutritional yeast), iron (found in spinach, Swiss chard, dried figs and rice—and note that vitamin C foods such as oranges, strawberries, peppers and spinach enhance iron absorption), zinc (found in beans, nuts, whole grains and some fortified breakfast cereals), vitamin D (egg yolks, shitake mushrooms, milk and almond milk), and of course, protein (legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains).
So, vegetarianism can be a good choice, but so can many other diets. “Strive to be healthy,” Eng says. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. What’s really important is doing what works for you and your family.” She suggests considering a more positive approach to healthy eating rather than a more restrictive one. “Aim to change something or do something rather than take away something. For example, make your portion of the meat a little bit smaller and make your portion of the veggies a bit larger.” Focus more on the good, instead of “I can’t have that, it’s bad.”