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If I am Mostly Eating Plant Foods, do I Still Need to be Concerned About Food Quality?

The very short answer to this question is a resounding "yes!" In fact, if we were somehow forced to choose between a very low quality vegetarian diet and a very high quality non-vegetarian diet, we would pick the high quality non-vegetarian diet every time. Food quality is high up on our list of eating essentials at WHFoods, and our reasons why are described below:

  • Overprocessing, overcooking, and improper/prolonged storage can rob plant foods of their nutrient richness. For example, in studies on vegetable cooking, we have seen a surprisingly large loss of certain nutrients with less than five minutes of additional cooking. Similarly, we have seen studies on commercially processed foods showing dramatic nutrient loss due to prolonged high-temperature exposure and other factors. Brightly colored plant foods are often more susceptible to nutrient loss from overprocessing and overcooking since some of their key nutrients are more concentrated in their outermost portions.
  • Simple kitchen methods can greatly lower the nutrient richness of plant foods. A great example here is the skinning of fruits (like apples or pears) or vegetables (like cucumbers or potatoes). One of the reasons we recommend certified organic foods is the much lower concentration of unwanted contaminants in the skins of organic fruits and vegetables, allowing you to enjoy the nutrient richness of the skins without being exposed to the same level of potential contaminants that might be present in non-organic versions of the same foods.
  • Plant foods (and animal foods as well) can vary widely in their nutrient content. When foods are grown in a non-hospitable location, or out-of-season, these circumstances can lessen their nutrient content. Ill-timed harvest of foods can also lower their nutrient value. We love the taste of foods in season! But we also value their nutrient richness of foods that have been grown and harvested under optimal conditions.

Each of our 100 food profiles contains a section on How to Select and Store as well as Tips for Preparing and Cooking. Each of these sections provides you with detailed, food-specific information that will allow you to maximize the nutrient richness of each food. When we assembled the information in these food profile sections, we were of course thinking about ease of preparation and deliciousness of texture and taste. But we also analyzed many research studies to determine which kitchen methods would be most likely to preserve quality, and along with high quality, the greatest potential health benefits.

This question is really two questions combined into one. Let's address the simplest and least important of these two questions first: Would you be classified as a vegetarian in a research study if you enjoyed meat and poultry on occasion? No, you would not. You would be classified as "semi-vegetarian."

But much more importantly, what about the health consequences of enjoying meat and poultry on occasion? Would you still get the same health benefits as a vegetarian? What the research shows in this regard is similar health benefits for semi-vegetarians as compared with lacto-ovo vegetarians (consuming dairy, eggs, and plant foods) and pesco-vegetarians (consuming seafood and plant foods). In comparison to non-vegetarians, these groups have been shown to receive health benefits from their eating approach.

As a general rule, the way you eat every now and then is unlikely to "make or break" your overall health. What will make or break your overall health is the meal plan that you follow routinely—the way you eat most of the time. We've seen studies on the Mediterranean Diet, for example, that show the greatest health benefits when this approach to eating is followed most consistently. Researchers have created scales for measuring consistency (usually referred to as adherence or compliance scales) and these scales involve questions like, "How many days a week do you consume three or more vegetables?" or "Do you use olive oil as your main culinary fat, and if so, do you average at least two tablespoons per day?" The individuals who answer "yes" to all of these questions are the ones who receive the greatest health benefits. At WHFoods, one of the primary goals that we set for ourselves is the ability to offer you a meal plan that is sufficiently easy, convenient, and delicious for you to make it your regular way of eating.

When taking certain occasions to enjoy meat and poultry, it is also important to remember that you can find high-quality meat and poultry in many supermarkets and from local farm vendors. At WHFoods, we think about organic, grass-fed beef and organic, pasture-raised chicken as good food choices for persons who enjoy these foods. We include them as two of our WHFoods for this reason! While occasional meat and poultry will shift you over from the category of "vegetarian" to "semi-vegetarian" in a research study, it will not automatically lower the quality of your diet if you choose the healthier versions of these foods described above. In fact, depending on your overall dietary selections, occasional meat and poultry might add some nutrients to your meal plan that aren't otherwise plentiful. Lamb and beef, for example, are two of our Top 10 WHFoods for vitamin B12, and crimini mushrooms are our only ranked non-animal source of this nutrient.

Regardless of your overall meal plan and the particular category into which it might fit (non-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, etc.), we encourage you to choose the highest quality foods available. You can find details and practical tips about food quality in each of our 100 food profiles.

More Information on Vegetarian Diets

For more information on the subject of vegetarian diets, please see our overview article "A Practical Look at Vegetarian Diets" as well as the following Q+As.

References

To see the research articles we reviewed in the writing of these articles, see here.

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