You Don't Eat Meat?

I've been asked that question almost as many times as I've eaten broccoli. But here are some reasons you too might want to be a vegetarian.

During lunch break one day I joined a dozen coworkers in the company boardroom for our first-ever "healthy potluck." Fat-free pineapple cake, mandarin orange and red onion salad, and other nutritious delicacies adorned the side counter.

Toward the back of the room sat a pot of meatballs drenched in red sauce. I secretly hoped that no one would realize I had brought them. Most people in my office knew that I'm a vegetarian, and if they made the connection, they might be afraid to try whatever weird concoction I was passing off as meatballs.

Halfway through the meal John spoke up. He was the only male daring enough to join the healthy potluck: the rest of the guys, presumably, were off beating their chests over Big Macs and fries. "Who brought the meatballs?" he asked.

"I did," I said.

"They're good," he replied, then paused. "Wait, does that mean: "

"Yeah, they're fake," I finished for him. "They're mostly tofu, nuts, bread crumbs, and some spices." (See recipe on the next page.)

"'That makes sense now!" John exclaimed. "I was trying to figure out how meatballs fit with a healthy potluck."

As a lifelong vegetarian I enjoy nothing more than watching die-hard meat lovers munch on a soy meat imitation and think it's the real thing. But there are many good reasons for being a vegetarian besides sly satisfaction. Here are some key positive outcomes that motivate my continuing choice to omit meat and most other animal products from my diet.

1) A vegetarian diet promotes healthier, longer life.
Medical studies demonstrating the health advantages of a meatless diet are numerous and convincing. People who eat mostly plant-based foods cut their risk for just about every disease imaginable, from cancer to constipation.

Vegetarians are half as likely as meat eaters to die of heart disease: America's biggest killer. And especially noteworthy for women: risks for breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and osteoporosis drop significantly for vegetarians.

Even asthma, allergies, and arthritis can be affected. When people with asthma adopted a diet free from meat and dairy products, more than 90 percent of them were able to reduce or discontinue their medications.

It should be no surprise, then, that vegetarians live at least six years longer than meat eaters on average and tend to enjoy better health into their later years.

2) Going animal-free helps maintain a healthy weight.
At my first checkup with my new family doctor, I mentioned that I am a vegetarian. "No wonder you're so skinny," she responded. "I've never seen a fat vegetarian."

Dr. Mondejar obviously hadn't met some of the vegetarians I know. But the fact remains: vegetarians on the whole are thinner than those around them. In fact, vegans (who eat no animal products) are an average of 20 pounds lighter than meat eaters who consume the same number of calories! That's because vegan diets are generally low in fat and high in fiber.

It's easy to see how this works if you look at the nutrition information on a bag of vegetables or fruit. One serving of broccoli, for instance, has 25 calories. If you decided to eat nothing but broccoli (which I don't recommend), you'd need 16 pounds of it per day to equal a typical 2,000-calorie diet.

In other words, it's pretty difficult to get fat eating low-calorie-density natural plant foods: even if you eat as much as you want.

3) Vegetarianism is good for the environment.
For anyone concerned about disappearing rain forests, dwindling fossil fuels, or vanishing wildlife species, vegetarianism is a logical choice. Producing plant foods strains the earth's resources far less than producing animal products.

An acre of prime farmland can raise 50,000 pounds of tomatoes but only 250 pounds of beef. More than half of all water used in the United States goes into livestock production. Meanwhile, livestock production is a major source of water pollution.

4) A vegetarian lifestyle is more humane.
More than 4 billion farm animals are slaughtered for food every year in the United States. That's a lot of needless killing. And without going into gory details, it's fair to say that the lives and deaths of most animals raised for meat, milk, and egg production are anything but pleasant.

Fred Rogers, the gentle "neighbor" of children's television, expressed my sentiments exactly: "I just don't eat anything that has a mother."

5) Vegetarianism fits with Christian ethical principles.
For me the most important reason for a vegetarian diet is my Christian faith. Good health is a reward in itself, but the Bible's description of my body as the temple of God gives me extra incentive to keep myself in good shape (see 1 Corinthians 3:16, 17). Avoiding animal cruelty is admirable, but knowing that God has given humans the responsibility to care for the world He created gives me all the more reason to treat His creatures with kindness (see Genesis 1:26-28).

In the beginning God gave humans a plant-based diet (Genesis 1:29). I choose it today because I believe He knows what will best enable me to live the satisfying, service-filled life He desires for me.

Is there a down side?
By now you may be wondering, "Does vegetarianism have any drawbacks?" After several decades on a meatless diet, playwright George Bernard Shaw claimed (tongue in cheek) to have found one. "I am on the verge of 85 and still work as hard as ever. I have lived quite long enough, and I am trying to die; but I simply cannot do it. A single beefsteak would finish me, but I cannot bring myself to swallow it. I am oppressed with a dread of living forever. This is the only disadvantage to vegetarianism."

Unlike Shaw, I don't dread living forever. I'm looking forward to it! And according to Isaiah 11:6-9, in God's perfect new world free from death and suffering, even the animals will eat a meatless diet.

As far as I know, there will be no soy burgers in heaven. But I expect that the fruit from the tree of life will be anything but bland.

Rachel Whitaker lives in Hagerstown, Maryland, where she can frequently be found in the produce section of Wal-Mart.

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