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Is Going Vegetarian the Healthiest Way to Eat?

An expert offers insight.

A teen boy with long black hair and a cap stands in a kitchen giving a thumbs down with one hand and an image of a hot dog on the other.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Alisa Schindler
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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Vegetarianism 101 - Vegetarianism is on the rise, accounting for an estimated 3.3 percent of the population. The main types are lacto/ovo vegetarianism (a diet of fruits, veggies, dairy, eggs, nuts, beans, etc… just no animal meat) and lacto vegetarianism, which is the same but excludes eggs. Vegan, the most restrictive form, excludes eggs, dairy, and any animal meat.

It’s dinner time and my husband swoops down on his bowl of pasta and chicken swimming in red sauce. His meal is over before my fork even touches my roasted spaghetti squash, sautéed spinach, and toasted chickpeas. We’ve been together for more than 25 years, and although we are in sync in many ways, eating has never been one of them—we are a true case of opposites attract.

When we go out for meals, we almost never share. And I can guarantee that what I order will be of as little interest to him as his meal is to me. Occasionally my “Steamed, no butter. Sauce on the side. Can you sub out potatoes and double the spinach?” garners me a solid eye roll. But I give it right back, cringing at some of his favorite choices—steak burritos, chicken parmesan, cheeseburger and fries. My plates dance with brightness while his drown in reds and browns.     

As we’ve aged, our eating differences have become a minor source of tension. While he may make fun of my healthy (and yes, somewhat anal) eating habits, he can’t knock their benefits. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about his choices. His tendencies toward carb and fat heavy foods just don’t seem healthy, especially for someone in middle age. I worry about him. We are at the age when things happen. Unfortunate things. We have three kids, a beautiful life (puh puh puh*), and I want him in it.

A man and woman smiles for the camera as they sit at a dining table with bowls of pasta and seafood in front of them.
Before the “veggievention” Photo credit: Courtesy of Alisa Schindler

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.”

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all (vegetarianism). What’s really important is doing what works for you.”
Nina Eng, RD, chief clinical dietitian

I, personally, am what Eng calls a “flexitarian”—someone whose diet is heavily plant-based, but can be flexible with fish, chicken or meat. In other words, nothing is off limits. Exactly how I like it.

I do, however, plan to “beef” up on the fruits and veggies and use less meat overall. In fact, I have already started to covertly move my family in that direction. Last night I swapped out the usual spaghetti and meatballs for high fiber pasta and veggie soy balls, and there wasn’t one complaint or even a raised brow. “Dinner was good,” my husband replied when I asked (the empty bowl before him was a sure sign). The veggie dogs I tried on my kids the other day, however, didn’t fare as well. “Something is wrong with these,” my son said immediately, his face twisted in a sour grimace. I’m not deterred. Tonight, I’m working on a chicken, pepper and broccoli stir fry with quinoa that I have high hopes for.

Eng has helped me look at the big picture. Any diet can be a healthy diet if you make good choices. Now I’m working on getting my husband to see that as well—hopefully without him even realizing it.

*Puh puh puh—A Jewish superstition whereby you spit (or pretend to spit) three times in reaction to something especially good to prevent the evil eye from coming down and spoiling it.

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Published December 24th, 2018
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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