Today, many people are transitioning to eating less meat and more plant-based diets. These diets have become more popular for numerous reasons such as health concerns, and environmental and ethical issues regarding meat production. A well-balanced vegetarian or Mediterranean diet has been proven to lower risk of heart disease and increase life expectancy by at least six years (Blue Zones, 2011). Vegetarian diets generally exclude meat and fish, although consumption of dairy products is common. In Mediterranean diets, vegetables are the main focus in meals. The diet also consists of nuts, fish, olive oil, eating red meat occasionally, and moderate amounts of cheese and wine (Godman, 2013).
Why Are People Changing Their Eating Habits?
Many people change their diets for health and lifestyle reasons. “Consumption of increasing amounts of red meat and particularly of processed meat is associated with an increased risk of total mortality, cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes, in both men and women” (Battaglia et al, 2015). The most common red meats are beef, veal, pork, and lamb. Processed meats include sausage, bacon, hot dogs, deli (ham, turkey, salami, and roast beef), and canned meats. Meat is also more likely than plants to have more chemicals, hormones, or unnatural additives; pesticides and herbicides in plants are also found in animals that eat those same plants (Health Guide Info, 2009). Both vegetarian and Mediterranean diets are equally heart-healthy and are better alternatives to a diet heavy in red and processed meat.
Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet
A vegetarian diet helps protect against several costly chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and obesity. Fruits and vegetables provide important vitamins and minerals that helps sustain your body and fight off illness and disease (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). Vegetarians have a relatively lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease or from certain types of cancers compared to those who eat meat (Battaglia et al, 2015). “They have lower intakes of cholesterol, saturated fat, and total fat and higher intake of fruits and vegetables and fiber compared to nonvegetarians” (Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2009). Vegetarians also tend to live a health-conscious lifestyle that leads to better health including smoking less, drinking less alcohol, and having a lower likelihood of being overweight (Battaglia et al, 2015). “Nonvegetarians are 74% more likely to develop diabetes over a 17-year period compared to vegetarians and are also associated with lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure” (Tuso, 2013).
Benefits of Mediterranean Diet
A Mediterranean diet can help manage your weight, benefit your brain, improve your heart health, and help you live longer. “This diet is low in saturated fats and animal proteins, rich in antioxidants, fiber, and monounsaturated fats, and an adequate balance of omega-6/omega-3 fatty acids” (Ventriglio et al, 2020). The healthy fats found in fish, olive oil, avocados, and nuts and seeds also help preserve memory, prevent cognitive decline, and strengthen skin elasticity (University Health News, 2021). “Extra virgin olive oil has polyphenols that is an antioxidant that is associated with lower risk of heart disease and cancer” (Blue Zones, 2011). Usually drizzled over food after cooking, the olive oil avoids exposing foods to high heat which can cause the extra virgin olive oil to become saturated fat. Mediterranean diets have also been shown to improve depressive symptoms and mental health in a study after three- and six-month periods (Ventriglio et al, 2020). In older adults, this diet has also reduced triglycerides (the most common fat in the body) after three months and six months (Ventriglio et al, 2020). According to the American Heart Association (2020), the Mediterranean diet boosts brain and heart health; eaters at age 50 had a 90% lower risk for dementia compared to those with least healthy diets.
Vegetarian Diet Concerns
When considering a vegetarian diet, there are several things to be aware of. Those who become vegetarian must make sure they are still getting complete nutrients, including those found in meat. These can include iodine, calcium, vitamin B12, and zinc. Luckily, solutions are available, but you will have to be more conscious about adding them into your meals. “For example, consume iodized table salt daily, since just a 1/4 tsp. contains 95 mcg of iodine, and adults over the age of 14 need 150 mcg of this mineral per day. Both vitamin B12 and zinc can be found in items like fortified breakfast cereals and milk products” (Sheldon, n.d.). If you are unable to add these in your diets, consult with your doctor on options to make sure you are still getting these key nutrients.
Carbohydrate consumption should also be monitored. Carbohydrates, also known as carbs, are classified as whole (simple) or refined (processed). Whole carbs are foods such as brown rice, beans, quinoa, legumes, whole grains, and oats; refined carbs are foods such as white rice, noodles, bread, potatoes, and pastries made with white flour. Those who are considering this diet should be aware that a higher intake of refined carbs is linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes.
It is also important to watch sodium intake. Higher sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries, which increases risk of strokes and heart attacks. Many recipes may use chicken or fish stock, so be aware of where meat or fish products may be included.
Examples of Vegetarian & Mediterranean-style Japanese/Japanese American Food
Even if you do not wish to completely cut out meat, reducing the amount you consume can still make a difference. You can also replace red meat dishes with fish, tofu, or plant-based meat alternatives (such as Beyond Meat or Impossible Meat) for a healthier option. Here are some ideas you can implement into your meals:
- Seafood and vegetable sushi and onigri with brown rice
- Dumplings (gyoza) with vegetables and tofu
- Stir fry vegetables
- Japanese stews (oden, nimono, or sukiyaki) with fish or vegetable stock
- Japanese soups with vegetable-based broth (ramen, udon, or miso)
- Low sodium soy sauce and other Japanese cooking products
- Sushi bake (broiled sushi) with brown rice
Talk to Your Doctor
Overall, there are many health benefits to eating a vegetarian or Mediterranean diet. Regardless of your diet choice, minimize your intake of foods with high sugar, sodium, saturated fat, and processed foods. It is always best to consult with your doctor about choosing a well-planned, balanced diet that works for you, to ensure that it meets your needs and considers any dietary limitations you may have. Making an informed decision with your provider team ensures that you will be receiving all the nutrients your body needs to live a healthier, longer life.
Below are some additional sources to learn more about dietary guidelines and recommendations:
USDA’s 10 Things You Need to Know about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans
USDA’s FAQs on Dietary Guidelines for Americans
The Benefits of Eating Less Meat
WHO Q&A Cancer: Carcinogenicity of the Consumption of Red Meat and Processed Meat
Health Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet
Harvard School of Public Health’s Review of the Mediterranean Diet
“6 Major Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet.” Nutrition , University Health News, 19 Jan. 2021, universityhealthnews.com/daily/nutrition/6-major-benefits-of-the-mediterranean-diet/.
Battaglia Richi, Evelyne, et al. “Health Risks Associated with Meat Consumption: A Review of Epidemiological Studies.” International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, vol. 85, no. 1-2, 2015, pp. 70–78., doi:10.1024/0300-9831/a000224.
Godman, Heidi. “Move over Mediterranean-a Vegetarian Diet Is Equally Good for Health.” Harvard Health, The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 5 June 2013, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/move-over-mediterranean-a-vegetarian-diet-is-equally-good-for-health-201306056352.
“Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, vol. 109, no. 7, 2009, pp. 1266–1282., doi:10.1016/j.jada.2009.05.027.
“Secrets of the Mediterranean Diet.” Blue Zones, Blue Zones, Sept. 2011, www.bluezones.com/2011/09/secrets-of-the-mediterranean-diet/.
Sheldon, Lynne. “The Negative Effects of Vegetarianism.” LIVESTRONG.COM, Leaf Group, www.livestrong.com/article/441302-the-negative-effects-of-vegetarianism/.
“State Indicator Report on Fruits and Vegetables, 2018.” Nutrition , Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 5 Oct. 2018, www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-statistics/2018-state-indicator-report-fruits-vegetables.html.
“Top 5 Reasons People Become Vegetarians.” Health Guide Info, Bright Hub PM, 22 May 2009, www.healthguideinfo.com/vegetarian-diet/p36251/.
Tuso, Phillip. “Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets.” The Permanente Journal, vol. 17, no. 2, 2013, doi:10.7812/tpp/12-085.
Ventriglio, Antonio, et al. “Mediterranean Diet and Its Benefits on Health and Mental Health: A Literature Review.” Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health, vol. 16, no. 1, 2020, pp. 156–164., doi:10.2174/1745017902016010156.
“What Is the Mediterranean Diet?” Www.heart.org, American Heart Association, 9 Jan. 2020, www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/mediterranean-diet.