Tiago Villanueva: Are vegetarian diets better for health?

Tiago_VillanuevaOne might think that vegetarian diets are better for one’s health, but that is not necessarily the case, as it is possible to be vegetarian and consume predominantly “empty calories” like French fries or biscuits. But balanced and appropriately planned vegetarian diets could make a considerable difference to one’s health, according to Annemarie Ijkema, a project manager for the Thursday Veggie day campaign, set up by the Belgium based non-profit organization Ethical Vegetarian Alternative (EVA), which has been launched in several cities in Belgium. She was recently in London for a breakfast seminar at the King’s Fund organized by C3 Collaborating for Health. In general, she said, these diets have fewer saturated fatty acids and less cholesterol, and greater amounts of fibre, folate, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and carotenoids. They also lead to a decrease in the incidence of obesity, heart disease, hypertension, and type II diabetes.

EVA is based in Ghent, Flanders, which became the world’s first “veggie city” in 2009. That means it ensures its inhabitants access to good vegetarian food one day a week, namely Thursday. For example, public schools serve vegetarian meals on Thursdays, with only 5% of parents (who choose their children’s meals in advance) opting to choose the non-vegetarian alternative. In the meantime, six other cities in Belgium joined the campaign, including Brussels in 2011. Annemarie acknowledged that Brussels is a more challenging terrain because it is a bilingual city. Other cities worldwide have also developed similar campaigns, with Sao Paulo in Brazil, and Capetown in South Africa also joining in with Veggie Thursdays, and New York City has a “Meatless Monday.”

Thanks to a team of volunteers, EVA also gives away lists of local restaurants that serve vegetarian meals, which Annemarie says can actually be difficult to find, even in a major city like Brussels. The movement has also published a cook book in Dutch, French, and German which has 52 vegetarian recipes that are meant to cover all of the Thursdays of the year. They have also developed a guide to help chefs working in restaurants cook appealing vegetarian meals, as Annemarie mentioned that vegetarian cooking is often overlooked during the chefs’ training.

There has been some assessment of the impact of the campaign, with 30% of Flemish people, and 70% of Ghent residents being aware of the campaign.

There’s a long way to go to generate significant change, and there are many powerful lobbies and interests in the way. For example, Annemarie said many hospitals serve suboptimal food to patients as the main criteria for purchasing food from catering companies is often cost. She acknowledged that the Veggie Thursday campaign is just the beginning, but in the meantime I’ll be thinking twice about eating meat at least one day a week.

Tiago Villanueva is the BMJ editorial registrar.

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