While plant-based diets have been a mainstay for humans since they first walked the earth, the Meatless Mondays campaign started in earnest just a decade ago. Since then, evidence is mounting that eating vegetarian has benefits that go far beyond just better health. There is evidence that even cutting out one day of meat a week can make a huge difference in the health of your planet, your body, and your wallet. Here are the top five reasons to eat vegetarian.

1. You protect the planet

With population growth accelerating and climate change becoming an ever-present influence on weather around the globe, protecting the planet’s resources has become crucial. A study out of Aalto University has found that eating less meat conserves water, especially in drought-stricken areas. Animal husbandry utilizes an incredible amount of water, more than cultivating plant-based food. Researchers project a world population of nine billion by 2050, and gradually reducing the amount of meat consumed while still maintaining proper dietary standards for fats and proteins reduced consumption of potable water by 21%. Water for irrigation (for food crops grown strictly for animals) was reduced by 14%.

In addition to reducing water consumption, vegetarian diets reduce the production of greenhouse gases. Researchers at Loma Linda University School of Public Health found that areas with higher percentages of plant-based eaters produced smaller amounts of greenhouse gases. The study followed more than 96,000 people across the United States and Canada and saw that even small changes made a big difference. Sam Soret, Ph.D., MPH, associate dean at Loma Linda University School of Public Health and co-author of the study had this to say about the findings:

“The takeaway message is that relatively small reductions in the consumption of animal products result in non-trivial environmental benefits and health benefits.”

Making a small change like skipping meat on Mondays can actually help save the planet.

2. Improve health

Replacing one serving of meat with just one serving of chickpeas, peas, beans, or lentils daily can lower bad cholesterol by as much as 5%. This translates into a 6% drop in the risk of cardiovascular disease. Although one serving is a mere ¾ of a cup, people living in North America barely eat half a serving a day on average.

These legumes break down slowly in the body and are considered “pulses” that can improve health. Dr. John Sievenpiper of St Michael’s Hospital’s Clinical Nutrition and Risk Factor Modification Centre connected not only the health benefits of these pulses but combined them with the planetary benefit of eating locally:

“We have a lot of room in our diets for increasing our pulse intake to derive the cardiovascular benefits… As an added bonus, they’re inexpensive. Since many pulses are grown in North America, it’s also an opportunity to buy and eat locally and support our farmers.”

In addition to lowering cholesterol by reducing meat consumption, eating vegetarian reduces the risk of breast cancer and decreases the overall risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. If you can claim these added health benefits by eating vegetarian for at least one meal a day or one day a week, it’s worth it!

3. Improve pain symptoms

There is some evidence that a plant-based diet may go a long way towards easing chronic pain, especially pain due to inflammation. Most studies of animal protein’s effects on the body have focused on other health benefits, so the best way to really determine if eating vegetarian helps with chronic pain is to check with your doctor to see if it’s okay and then experiment by removing meat a little at a time. It helps to keep a food diary to monitor everything you have eaten and to track your body’s response. Keep in mind that you may have to supplement your diet with vitamin B12 as well as omega-3s.

A potassium deficiency can also cause pain, especially in the legs. Increasing your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables and adding legumes and nuts like almonds may also help with chronic pain. A food diary is a great way to track both additions and subtractions to your diet as well as any reactions, good and bad, your body has.

4. Live longer

Across the board, the research agrees: vegetarians live longer.

A recent study from Loma Linda University followed over 73,000 Seventh-Day Adventists and found that because of their strict diets, the vegetarians among the group were 12% less likely to die during the course of the study. They were also 19% less likely to die of heart disease. Calories consumed didn’t matter, but men seemed to have more benefit than women in this large-scale study.

Vegetarians also benefit from more of a good thing. If you can somehow manage to have seven servings of fruit and vegetables daily, then you decrease your risk of early mortality by 42%. Dr Oyinlola Oyebode of UCLA’s Department of Epidemiology & Public Health, lead author, had this take-away from the large-scale, long-term study:

“The clear message here is that the more fruit and vegetables you eat, the less likely you are to die at any age. Vegetables have a larger effect than fruit, but fruit still makes a real difference. If you’re happy to snack on carrots or other vegetables, then that is a great choice but if you fancy something sweeter, a banana or any fruit will also do you good.”

So stock up on fruits and vegetables, or maybe plant a garden. Eating vegetarian means you’re in it for the long haul.

5. Save money

Face it: meat costs more, especially if you are buying the type of meat you should eat (grass-fed, free-range, and organic). Cutting out meat for one meal a week or more can significantly reduce your grocery bill, especially if you are feeding a hungry family. Even eating all organic fruits and veggies (or following the dirty dozen/clean 15 guidelines) costs significantly less than a quality cut of beef. Supplementing your new meat-free diet with legumes and nuts bought in bulk can also cut costs at the grocery store, even if you are still buying organic milk, cheese, and eggs.

Go one better and support your local economy by shopping at the local farmer’s market or joining a CSA for fresh, seasonal produce. In this way you are adding jobs and supporting small farmers who live and shop in your community, keeping your local economy healthy and minimizing transport costs and associated pollution. This ties back into the first reason for becoming a vegetarian (saving the planet), while maintaining a healthy wallet at the same time.

Which one of these reasons would convince to eat vegetarian?

Image by Martin Fisch via Flickr

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