1. Do you recommend a vegetarian or a vegan diet?
Vegetarian diets, which contain no meat (beef, pork, poultry, or fish and shellfish), are naturally low in saturated fat, high in fiber, and full of vitamins, minerals, and cancer-fighting compounds. A multitude of scientific studies have shown that vegetarian diets have remarkable health benefits and can help prevent certain diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. We encourage vegetarian diets as a way of improving general health and preventing diet-related illnesses.
Vegan diets, which contain no animal products (meat, dairy, eggs, or other animal products), are even healthier than vegetarian diets. Vegan diets contain no cholesterol and even less fat, saturated fat, and calories than vegetarian diets because they exclude dairy and eggs. Scientific research shows that health benefits increase as the amount of food from animal sources in the diet decreases, making vegan diets the healthiest overall.
Learn more about the benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets.
People often get hung up on what they can’t have on a plant-based diet, instead of what they can. But a great meal does not have to center on meat. Veggie-packed meals are a winning choice all-around: veggies are full of vitamins (like A and K) and minerals (like potassium), they keep your calories in check and, because they are high in fiber, they can help you feel more satisfied.
To make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need on a vegan diet, it’s important to eat balanced meals that include a variety of healthy foods. For example, you’ll get protein and fiber from beans; leafy greens are great sources of vitamins A, C and K. Choose produce from all colors of the rainbow to get all the benefits. Red tomatoes have heart-healthy lycopene, blue blueberries have brain-boosting anthocyanins and orange sweet potatoes have lots of vitamin A to help keep eyes healthy. Looking for meal ideas? Try a simple well-balanced grain bowl: top brown rice, or quinoa, with beans and a mix of sautéed or roasted veggies.
Swapping out refined grains, such as white pasta and white bread, for whole grains, such as brown rice and quinoa, adds iron and B vitamins to a vegan diet (nutrients that are stripped out when the grains are refined). And, the extra fiber from whole grains will help keep you full, and may even help you lose weight.
Vegan cookies aren’t necessarily any better for your waistline than regular cookies. And garlic bread made with vegan margarine isn’t necessarily any healthier for your heart than one made with butter. Processed vegan foods often contain saturated-fat-laden palm oil and coconut oil. Stick to whole, nutritious foods that just happen to be vegan, such as carrots and hummus, nuts and dried fruit, whole-grain tortilla chips with guacamole. Indulging in vegan treats every so often is fine, but don’t justify them as “healthy” simply because they’re vegan.
A well-balanced vegan diet is safe and healthy for any stage of life, including infancy, childhood, adolescence, and during pregnancy. Plant-based diets can easily provide all essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that growing children and mothers-to-be need. Simply have a variety of whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits, and be sure to include a daily source of vitamin B12, such as any common multiple vitamin. Plant-based diets have many important health advantages: Vegans enjoy a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer. Since eating habits are established in early childhood, choosing a vegan diet can give your child the opportunity to enjoy a variety of nutritious foods—and to carry those healthy eating habits into adulthood. Learn more about vegan nutrition for children. Learn more about building strong bones in children. Read more about our book Healthy Eating for Life for Children.
Protein is an important nutrient required for the building, maintenance, and repair of tissues in the body. It was once thought that various plant foods had to be eaten together to get their full protein value; this practice was known as “protein combining” or “protein complementing.” We now know that intentional combining is not necessary. As long as the diet contains a variety of grains, legumes, and vegetables, protein needs are easily met. Especially protein-rich vegan foods include soy-based products like tofu, tempeh (a fermented soybean product), seitan (a meat substitute made from a wheat protein called gluten), black beans, lentils, chickpeas, grains such as quinoa and bulgur, and whole-wheat bread. Learn more about getting protein on a vegan diet.
By eating calcium-rich vegan foods, including leafy green vegetables such as broccoli and kale, white beans, fortified soymilks and juices, and a variety of fruits and vegetables, you can obtain all the calcium your body needs. But keeping your bones strong and avoiding osteoporosis depends on more than calcium intake—you also need to keep calcium in your bones. Exercise and vitamin D help keep the calcium in your bones, while animal protein, excess salt and caffeine, and tobacco can cause calcium loss. Learn how to prevent and reverse osteoporosis. Learn more about getting calcium on a vegan diet.
6. What’s wrong with drinking milk? Is organic milk better? Is soymilk a safer alternative? What about other dairy products?
Milk contains animal fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, and diets high in these substances increase the risk of several chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease. Other dairy products, such as cheese, yogurt, butter, and ice cream, also contribute significant amounts of cholesterol and fat to the diet. Even low-fat and fat-free milk and dairy products carry health risks because of cholesterol. In addition, natural and artificial hormones are present in all types of milk and dairy products, regardless of fat. Organic milk may not contain the pesticides and antibiotics that nonorganic milk contains, but it is still high in fat and cholesterol. Organic cow’s milk, which does not contain artificial hormones, does contain naturally occurring hormones. The combination of nutrients found in both organic and nonorganic cow’s milk increases our own production of some types of hormones. These hormones have been shown to increase the risk of some forms of cancer. Here are eight great health reasons to eliminate milk, cheese, and other dairy products from your diet. Soymilk and other nondairy beverages, such as rice and nut milks, are healthy alternatives to cow’s milk. These beverages come in different flavors, and many of them are fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
Recently, questions have been raised about the possible health risks of soy consumption, but the overwhelming majority of studies on soy have shown positive health effects with no adverse effects. Eating soy in moderation is appropriate for a healthy diet. There have been concerns about processed soy products, such as “mock meats,” but moderate intakes of these foods are not known to cause health problems. Some soy products are high in sodium and contain a higher-than-healthy level of fat, so be sure to check the labels and choose the healthier versions. Nonetheless, these foods are much healthier than the animal-derived foods they are intended to replace. If you do choose to avoid soy, you will find it can be easily replaced with other foods. Lentils, beans, and other legumes are a hearty and delicious source of plant-based protein and other nutrients. They are also the richest source of dietary fiber. Learn more about soy.
the Physicians Committee does not recommend eating any fish or shellfish because they can contain unsafe levels of contaminants and are often high in mercury and other environmental toxins that have no place in a healthy diet. Fish also contain no fiber and are high in animal protein, and often, in saturated fat and cholesterol.
Read our report on fish and shellfish safety.
The most nutritious sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are plant-based foods, including green leafy vegetables, legumes, wheat germ, soybeans, and ground flaxseeds. We do not recommend fish or fish oil as a healthy source of essential fatty acids. By getting omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and protein from plant-based foods, you can avoid the health risks associated with fish consumption.
Learn more about essential fatty acids.
Individuals following a vegan diet can readily meet their vitamin B12 with a common daily multiple vitamin or fortified foods, such as vitamin B12-fortified breakfast cereals, soymilk, meat analogues, and nutritional yeast.
Learn more about vitamin B12.
Both short-term and long-term, the most effective weight loss comes from avoiding animal products and keeping fats, vegetable oils, and highly processed foods to a minimum. In addition, it helps to keep the natural fiber in the foods you eat. This means eating whole-grain breads instead of white bread, brown rice instead of white rice, and plenty of fruits, vegetables, and legumes (beans, peas, and lentils). And don’t forget the importance of physical activity for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.
Learn more about healthy weight loss.
Learn more about healthy weight management.
Carbohydrate-rich foods help with permanent weight control because they contain less than half the calories of fat, which means that replacing fatty foods with complex carbohydrates automatically cuts calories.
It’s important to remember to eat healthful carbohydrates, such as whole grains, pasta, brown rice, and sweet potatoes. Processed carbohydrates, such as white bread and white rice, are not as healthful because they have lost much of their fiber and other nutrients. Read our report about health risks associated with high-fat, high-protein, carbohydrate-restricted diets.
For most Americans gluten is not an issue, but it can be a serious problem for the 1 percent of the population with celiac disease (gluten intolerance). Sometimes individuals may not have celiac disease but can have a sensitivity to gluten. Gluten sensitivities affect roughly 6 percent of Americans and can be managed by a gluten-free diet. However, if you suspect you are sensitive to gluten, see your doctor before going on a gluten-free diet. Varying the grains in your diet—not relying on just gluten-containing grains like wheat, barley, and rye—is a viable solution.
The most important action is to get a proper diagnosis from your doctor. Some of the most common symptoms are not exclusive to celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Here are a few examples of symptoms to keep in mind: diarrhea, unexpected weight loss, vomiting, anemia, abdominal pain and distention, fatigue, joint pain, foggy mind, and tingling of the extremities. If any of these symptoms persist, it’s best to seek medical attention.
The Atkins diet and other low-carb fad diets, which are high in fat and protein and severely restrict carbohydrates, are not healthy approaches to losing weight. High-fat, high-protein diets are associated with many health risks, ranging from mild (constipation, headache, and bad breath) to significant (impaired kidney function, osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer).
The American Heart Association, the American Dietetic Association, and the American Kidney Fund have all published statements warning about the various dangers associated with low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets.
Learn more about the Atkins Diet.
Read our report about health risks associated with high-fat, high-protein, carbohydrate-restricted diets.
Studies suggest that cheese, chocolate, sugar, and meat all spark the release of opiate-like substances that trigger the brain’s pleasure center and seduce us into eating them again and again. These foods stimulate the same opiate receptors in your brain as heroin or morphine, but to a much lesser degree. In research studies, drugs used to block the effects of heroin and morphine can also reduce or end the appeal of these four foods. Luckily, there are many healthy dietary and lifestyle changes you can make to break food addictions.
Read more about Dr. Neal Barnard’s book Breaking the Food Seduction.
15. Someone in my family was diagnosed with cancer: What dietary recommendations would you offer him or her?
First of all, be sure to get appropriate medical care and to use a healthy diet in addition to, not instead of, medical care. That said, scientific studies have shown that a low-fat, vegetarian or vegan diet can help in cancer prevention and survival. The Physicians Committee recommends replacing meat, dairy products, and other animal products with healthful, low-fat meals rich in whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. These foods are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and cancer-fighting compounds. And they do not contain the high amounts of fat and cholesterol found in meat and other animal products. During medical treatment for cancer, your family member should consult his or her medical care team for any specific dietary recommendations related to the type of cancer or treatment.
Learn more about foods for cancer prevention.
Read our Cancer Survivor’s Guide, a useful guide to eating right for cancer prevention and survival.
Changing the way you eat can often lower your blood pressure and reduce or eliminate the need for medication. You can also lower your blood pressure by losing weight, limiting alcohol, avoiding tobacco, and becoming physically active. People who follow vegetarian and vegan diets typically have lower blood pressure.