World health leaders tout merits of vegetarian diet

At vegetarian congress researchers link plant-based diet, environmental conservation

A plant-based diet may be the best way to protect health and the environment, researchers said last week at a conference on vegetarian nutrition hosted by Loma Linda University. [photo: iStockphoto]

A vegetarian diet not only protects personal health, but may also help conserve the environment, world health leaders concluded at a conference on vegetarianism hosted by Seventh-day Adventist-owned Loma Linda University in California.

Organized 25 years ago by a group of largely Adventist health professionals, the International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition drew more than 700 attendees this year. Adventists helped establish the benefits of a vegetarian diet, which prior to 1950 was viewed with “great skepticism.” They continue to pioneer research in the area of healthy living, said Dr. Allan Handysides, director of the church’s department of Health Ministries.

Handysides, who also presented at the Adventist Nutrition Conference held in conjunction with the March 4 to 6 Fifth International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition, said while health traditionally prompts most Adventist vegetarians, other factors — among them climate change and animal rights — are now leading consumers to eschew meat.

“These aren’t bad reasons, but those who become vegetarians for a cause are often not as generally health-conscious,” Handysides said, explaining that Adventist vegetarians are likely to also regularly exercise, shun controlled substances and drink plenty of water, giving them a health edge.

Regardless of the reason, evidence does suggest downing spinach, soybeans and other plant-based foods may be the best way to “go green.” Presenters said meat-based diets are likely not sustainable because they pollute the environment and deplete natural resources.

“Food stores have already diminished to all-time lows,” Handysides said, “Feeding the world’s burgeoning population is becoming a big problem.” To grow one pound of vegetable protein, it takes one tenth of the water and energy required to raise an equal amount of animal protein, he explained.

“We’d be mad to expect the entire world’s population to suddenly embrace a vegetarian diet, but if we can convince most to switch to a vegetarian diet twice a week, we could make a sizeable impact,” Handysides said. “And it’s an achievable goal.”

Presenters also debated the merits of a vegan diet. Vegans — vegetarians who also ditch eggs, milk, cheese and often animal byproducts such as gelatin and honey — are typically thinner and have lower cholesterol than vegetarians, presenters said. However, preliminary studies indicate overall mortality rates for vegans may be slightly higher. Handysides suspects some vegans may not fortify their diets to ensure an adequate intake of vitamin B-12 and calcium.

“You can’t just say, ‘A vegan diet is superior to all other categories.’ What you can say, however, is that a vegetarian diet is superior to a diet of flesh-consuming,” he said.

Handysides, sharing his findings on the benefits of chocolate, said one ounce of dark chocolate — that with a pure cocoa content of 75 percent or higher — promotes better blood flow to the heart and brain in the elderly. The “very protective” antioxidants in chocolate are, however, masked in milk chocolate and other diluted forms of cocoa, he said.

Berries and nuts got resounding endorsements from presenters, who reported that blueberries, raspberries and other colorful berries bolster the difficult-to-raise HDL, or “good” cholesterol levels.

Congress chair and LLU research physician Dr. Joan Sabaté, who first discovered nuts decrease heart attack risk more than a decade ago, offered new specifics on the topic. He said adding a quarter of a cup of nuts to the diet four times a week can cut heart attack risk by 30 to 40 percent. Sabaté’s presentation also indicated that the brown papery coating found on nuts such as peanuts and almonds is the most nutritious part.

Dr. Peter Landless, an associate Health Ministries director for the Adventist Church, presented on alcohol abstinence, another hallmark of the Adventist lifestyle. He said despite evidence that limited alcohol reduces the risk of heart attack in the elderly, the alleged benefit does not offset the substance’s myriad negative effects. So much as bringing alcohol into the home can drastically increase a child’s likelihood of becoming an alcoholic, he said. In fact, the risk of addiction increases 40 percent if the child is introduced to alcohol before age 14.

Next year, Adventist health experts will meet in Geneva, Switzerland with representatives of the World Health Organization for the first International Lifestyle Conference.

Posted in Articles on Diet.