You’d be hard-pressed nowadays not to have been confronted with the facts: a balanced meat-free diet is better for you and better for the planet. Now, the last thing I want is to sound preachy. We’re each on our own path, and I’m certainly not about to brand anyone a bad person if they consume meat – the fact remains, however, that science has gone a long way to prove that going vegetarian has a profound impact on the environment and can be incredibly healthy for your body, too! Recent research from the Harvard Medical School suggests that one-third of premature deaths in the USA could be prevented by widespread adoption of a meatless diet (that’s an estimated 200,000 lives per year saved). Whilst this is very much a ballpark figure, it carries a powerful message – especially coming from such an esteemed source. Vegetarianism is, whichever way you look at it, better for you.
For today’s piece, I’m going to be focusing on the topics of vegetarianism and cholesterol with help from the expertise of one of MAG’s resident nutritionists, Eslem. Having achieved a degree in Nutrition and Dietetics (with a specialty in the physiological and cognitive effects of beetroot juice – perhaps something for another article) and boasting experience working in eight different hospitals and King’s College London’s Nutritional Division Department, Eslem is perfectly positioned to help you regulate and stick to a diet that will meet all of your body’s personal needs. Offering both one-on-one and group work for people and businesses, alongside helping clients tackle their nutrition and diet Eslem also works closely with them on other aspects of their lifestyle, helping strengthen their motivation to pursue growth in all avenues of their life. Whether you simply want to kickstart healthy eating habits and are looking to learn how to do so, or you have specialised needs that need meeting due to medical conditions and the like, Eslem offers an expert, attentive and personal service.
She also has some informative things to say on the subject of vegetarianism; due to a balanced vegetarian diet being much more densely-packed with things like fibre, phytonutrients, antioxidants, flavonoids, and carotenoids, it has the capability of lowering blood cholesterol levels (as we’ll discuss later), blood pressure levels and risk of heart disease, hypertension and Type 2 Diabetes. That’s a myriad of benefits – one which reportedly leaves the mortality rate amongst vegetarians 16-17% lower than non-vegetarians! What’s more, if its potentially life-saving effects don’t quite hook you, because of the higher fibre content of the average vegetarian diet people tend to feel fuller after eating less food – so if you’ve ever found yourself prone to overeating and want to shed some pounds, eliminating meat may be the way to go.
Now I’d like to delve a little deeper into one specific food that you may have heard of; one that’s been proven to profoundly impact human health if consumed regularly. It’s a favourite of Eslem’s, and she’s kindly provided us with a brilliant little breakfast recipe that utilises it; one that’ll offer both a powerful morning kickstart and numerous health benefits - including helping tackle bad cholesterol, as we’ll come onto soon. The ingredient in question is spirulina (try saying that ten times fast) – a species of algae with a blue-green hue that became widely-known after it was successfully used as a dietary supplement on NASA space missions. It can come in various forms, though in Western society it’s usually found powdered or in tablets. The word ‘superfood’ is thrown around a lot in modern health culture, but in this case it’s more than applicable. Due to the wide-variety of nutrients that spirulina absorbs from the warm seawater in which it grows, it’s packed with a multitude of health benefits such as heightening immune system efficiency, heart health, and potentially even helping to fight cancer! The iron, amino acids, protein and antioxidants that make spirulina such an enriching food are all incredibly important for maintaining a healthy body and mind - and many users claim that it boosts their energy levels too, which certainly makes for a much healthier alternative to coffee or energy drinks.
Even better, spirulina can be consumed in a wide variety of ways – despite having a rich and sea-salty flavour that naturally lends itself to more savoury dishes, the algae can easily be incorporated into sweeter foods or drinks too (smoothies are a popular choice). You can even mix a spoonful into a glass of water and drink it; though be aware that the heavy pigmentation levels may leave your teeth stained blue-green. As mentioned, I’d now like to share Eslem’s spirulina-incorporating recipe: her breakfast smoothie bowl. At only 200 calories this is a light, energising and simple option for anyone looking for a healthy start to their day. Simply throw the ingredients below into a blender and enjoy!
- 1/2 Banana
- 12 raspberries
- 15 blueberries
- 200g fat free yoghurt
- 1 teaspoon of green spirulina powder
Sure, it may not win your kitchen a Michelin Star, but it’ll certainly set you up for the day ahead. Alongside the other detailed health benefits that accompany spirulina, the big one I’m yet to mention is its impact upon cholesterol levels. As National Cholesterol Month is the secondary focus of this article, I’ll now delve into a bit more detail on the issue. For those who don’t know, cholesterol is a type of fat found in the blood. Contrary to somewhat popular belief, cholesterol isn’t inherently bad – our bodies need it to function, actually. Where it becomes problematic for our health is when we have too much of what is known as low-density cholesterol in the bloodstream. Cholesterol attaches to molecules known as lipoproteins, which come in high-density (HDL) or low-density (LDL) forms. LDL-cholesterol – in high amounts – can cause blockages in the bloodstream that may lead to serious health issues such as clots, angina, strokes and even heart attacks. Risk factors for such ailments include eating too much saturated fat, a lack of exercise, high levels of alcohol consumption and smoking. Certain people are also genetically-predisposed towards cholesterol-related problems.
Fortunately, you can do a lot to combat it! For a particularly relevant example, spirulina – the wondrous little superfood we’ve just discussed – has been known since 1988 to significantly decrease LDL-cholesterol levels when regularly-consumed. Certain test subjects reported as much as a 10% decrease in their total cholesterol; which is a huge amount considering they’d be taking no more than 10g of the supplement daily. So in case you needed more reason to incorporate spirulina into your diet, it’s also a very effective weapon against cardiovascular problems.
In order to link things back to World Vegetarian Day, I’d also like to look at the ways that a balanced meat-free diet can be very effective at battling bad cholesterol. I previously-noted that one of the prominent risk factors for high cholesterol is the consumption of saturated fats. Eslem notes that the recommended daily consumption of saturated fat should reach no more than 30g for men and 20g for women, but that people in the UK regularly exceed these numbers by around 20%. Vegetarian diets, however, generally contain lower levels of such fats than carnivorous ones. It does, of course, greatly depend on what you eat; an entire tube of Pringles for dinner, whilst meatless, won’t do you any favours. However, animal products are one of the most prominent sources of unhealthy fats out there, so cutting them from your diet is already a step in the right direction.
What follows is a little advice for ensuring that – if you make or have made the choice to eliminate meat from your diet – you can maximise the healthy, cholesterol-busting impact of balanced vegetarianism. Much of it comes down to the types of fat you consume. Despite many people assuming that all fat is bad for you (probably down to the word frequently being used to describe the overweight), it’s actually a vital part of maintaining a healthy body. However, as we’ve seen, certain types of fat do more to hinder your wellbeing than help it. These include the aforementioned saturated fats, but also substances known as trans-fats. A huge number of hydrogenated vegetable oils contain them, so to ensure you avoid consuming too many it’s always good to check the labels of cooking oils or butter substitutes. Many oils are regarded as ‘heart-healthy’, however; olive, canola, corn, safflower, and peanut all fit into such a bracket. That’s not to say that you can douse everything you eat in Filippo Berio with no cause for concern; they’re still high-calorie and extremely fatty, so too much of them can still lead to health problems. For heart-health, however, they’re a far better option than other alternatives.
If you want to be even more mindful of your cardiovascular health, you can even try eliminating oils, butter or butter substitutes wherever possible. Many dishes can be sautéed with nothing but water, and it’s not difficult to choose alternative cooking methods for certain ingredients: steaming or boiling instead of frying, for example. It’s unwise to eliminate all substantial sources of fat from your diet, but drastically cutting back can still have some notable benefits.
Alongside what you don’t eat, what you do eat is just as important. Regularly consuming plenty of fruit and vegetables is vital, and foods like oats, beans and pulses are known to reduce cholesterol levels to a notable degree. Furthermore, try and increase your intake of soluble fibre – which reduces cholesterol absorption in the blood – and whey protein: a supplement found in dairy products that verifiably lowers LDL-cholesterol levels. Of course, if you really want to get to grips with exactly what you should or shouldn’t be eating (and why), there are far worse ways to do so than seeking out the services of a nutritionist like Eslem.
Remember the statistic I mentioned earlier about the mortality rate amongst vegetarians being 16-17% lower than meat-eaters? That wasn’t actually the entire truth. The same statistics apply even to those who follow a semi-vegetarian diet. If you don’t want to completely drop meat from your diet, why not simply try relegating its consumption to, say, three days a week? Your body will thank you for it, the planet will thank you for it, and it’s also a widely-held psychological principle that practicing moderation with things you enjoy leads to enjoying them more. If you’ve read this far then I’ll assume you have at least some interest in leading a healthier life. Hopefully this article has offered some (plant-based) food for thought that may encourage you to make the positive changes you keep on envisioning.