Whether it is a choice dictated by ethical or health reasons, becoming a vegetarian has positive repercussions on the body, confirmed by a growing number of robust evidence, starting from the first large ten-year prospective cohort studies on the link between nutrition and health up to the clinical studies of dietary intervention on individual nutrients. A vegetarian diet protects you from metabolic diseases and diabetes, from hypertension, but also from cardiovascular, neurodegenerative and oncological diseases. All rather remarkable results that well compensate for the effort of establishing a new eating habit. We talk about it on the occasion of meat-free day, “Meat Out Day”, which is celebrated today.

The main division, but there are subgroups, is between vegetarians, who exclude meat and fish from their diet, and vegans, who also do not consume dairy products. Not to love the highly connoted categories of veganism and vegetarianism very much Pier Luigi Rossi, medical specialist in food sciences and professor at the Universities of Bologna and Siena, very committed to communicating to the general public. «These are commercial terms, I would rather talk about plant-based nutrition» he explains to us. «Each of us is free to choose whether to opt for foods of plant origin or animal origin. However, he must know the effects on the organism.” The fundamental concept for the specialist is that «we must be aware of our choices. We are not a boiler, we need to shift the focus from food to the bodyit is useless to think in terms of calories and types of diets, let’s not limit ourselves to this diet gossip. We need to know our organism.” A call to everyone’s responsibility to inform themselves and know the results of the research before deciding what to put on their plate.

Pier Luigi Rossi – photo taken from the site http://www.pierluigirossi.it/

Healthy fiber for the intestinal microbiota

Among the crucial aspects of plant-based diets is the intake of fibre, which is increasingly scarce on the tables of the Western world. «If I had to say what the main cause of malnutrition in modern societies is, it is the lack of fiber, which damages the microbiota and its vital functions for us» says Rossi. “We should take 30 grams a day.” Today, it is believed that some of the powerful health effects of a plant-based diet are mediated by the microbiota whose role, not only in the prevention but also in the pathogenesis and treatment of many diseases, is at the center of numerous research. It is nourished by the fiber contained in plant-based foods: «Fibre not only increases the volume of the contents of the intestine, promoting the passage of waste, the speed of transit and intestinal regularity. The fiber carries molecules called polyphenols useful for the activity of bacteria and mucus cells, producers of that layer of protective intestinal mucus that lies between the intestinal barrier and the microbiota” explains Rossi. «Fiber deficiency and imbalance in the bacterial flora can cause dysfunctions of the epithelial barrier» such as an alteration of intestinal permeability with the passage of toxins, antigens and bacteria.

Greater defenses against infections

The effects of a vegetarian diet extend to the immune system. A recent study appeared on BMJ Nutrition Prevention and Health suggests that the body of vegetarians and vegans has a greater ability than a person to ward off Covid-19. Researchers monitored more than 700 adult volunteers between March and July 2022, concluding that a plant-based diet is associated with a 39% lower chance of contracting the infection than others. According to the researchers, this may be due to the strengthening the immune systemthanks to the compounds consumed by vegetarians and vegans such as phytosterols and polyphenols, powerful antioxidants.

Promoted by diabetologists

The vegetarian diet has been promoted for years by SID diabetologists, in relation to its effectiveness in reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, its effects on glycemic control and cardiovascular complications of diabetes, the possibility of reducing the of antidiabetic drugs.

The brain thanks you

A plant-based diet has a protective effect against cognitive decline and neurodegeneration, although at the moment it is still complicated to identify the exact percentage of risk attributable to diet in the development of Alzheimer’s as has instead been done for other modifiable risk factors identified. According to a work published on Neurology, following a predominantly vegetarian diet, giving ample space to whole grains and legumes, can reduce the risk of suffering a stroke by up to ten percent, the main risk factors of which are high blood pressure, hypercholesterolemia and diabetes. Vegetarian diets are associated with decreased levels of inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein, reduce oxidative stress and protect against the formation of atherosclerotic plaques. But similar studies are now found in every sector of medicine.

Protection against tumors

Epic data, acronym for European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutritionthe large European prospective study born in 1990 at the National Institute of Int Tumors in Milan to understand the link between nutrition and cancer, show that those who follow a vegetarian diet have a 12% lower risk of getting all cancers, a 32% lower risk of ischemic heart disease, and a 45% lower risk in the case of leukemia, stomach and bladder cancer. Consuming red meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer. These are only observed associations, but from which it emerges that those who have made the vegetarian choice have on average a healthier lifestyle or are in any case more aware.

Good for everyone

The position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the Academy of Nutrition and Dieteticsis that properly planned vegetarian and vegan diets are healthy, nutritionally complete and can provide health benefits in terms of prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, breastfeeding, infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and for athletes.

A little more attention

According to experts, the The risk that neo-vegetarians can run is adopting an unbalanced diet, relying too much on dairy products or with those “plant-based” products such as hamburgers or cold cuts, which are increasingly widespread on the shelves, without reading the labels carefully. To ensure an adequate supply of nutrients, use traditional combinations of pasta and beans, or “a dish of lentils and quinoa or, in any case, a combination of legumes and carbohydrates, which provide our body with the amino acids it needs” reassures Pier Luigi Rossi. These vegetarian associations manage to complete the amino acid profile of the food. A plate of 80g of rice and 110g of lentils provides fat (15%), carbohydrates (67%), fiber (3%) and protein (15%). «Any deficiencies must be verified on a case-by-case basis» explains Rossi, as for anyone, regardless of the regime chosen. Once the due familiarity with these concepts has been developed, as the ISS claims, «the vegetarian diet, if it is prepared by appropriately choosing foods and taking into account the guidelines and indications of the doctor or nutritionist, is capable of providing the body with the nutrients it needs and to ensure the maintenance of a good state of health.”

So, having established once and for all the non-necessity of foods of animal origin for a complete and healthy diet, all that remains is to ask ourselves whether the enjoyment that a steak provides is worth the life of other living beings and the health of the planet.

Photo by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash