A Healthy Diet Doesn't Have To Be Drastic! Why It Pays To Be Semi-Vegetarian

Cassie Shortsleeve

A new study shows it pays to eat a more-vegetable-than-meat diet. But what if you’re not a fan of the green stuff? Here are some “gateway veggies” to consider. (Photo: Getty Images)

Can’t cut meat completely? You don’t have to. People who follow a “pro”-vegetarian diet — which involves eating more plant-based foods than animal products — have a lower risk of dying from heart disease and stroke, says new research from the American Heart Association EPI/Lifestyle meeting.

In fact, people in the study who ate the most pro-vegetarian(so that 70 percent of their food came from plant sources) had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from these causes, compared with those who ate the least plant-based foods (where 20 percent of food came from plant sources).

“More and more people are leaning toward a plant-based diet these days, or cutting out animal protein a couple of days per week, like with Meatless Mondays,” Ilyse Schapiro, a New York-based registered dietician, tells Yahoo Health. And for good reason — vegetables are low in calories and filling — that means you can eat a lot of them, but you’ll also prevent over-eating, she says.

Related: 10 Ways To Get Protein Without Eating Meat

Plus, more research points to the idea that even a partial commitment can have real effects: A study last year found that vegetarians, including semi-vegetarians, had a 12 percent lower risk of dying from all causes than non-vegetarians. Another study found that the five-a-day rule may not cut it, suggesting seven fruits and vegetables a day cut mortality risk by the most: 42 percent.

So it’s time to up your intake (while having the best of both worlds if you want to keep meat around). But what if you’re not a huge vegetable-lover? We asked nutrition experts for six picks that are especially easy to add into your diet (consider them your “gateway produce”). We promise they’re not intimidating — and you’ll be one step closer to healthy.

(Photo: Flickr/ccharmon)

The vegetable: Carrots

Why they’re so easy to add into your diet: You can still enjoy your favorite dips like hummus or guac — but instead of reaching for chips, opt for carrots instead, suggests Schapiro.

The health perk: Rich in antioxidants such as beta-carotene, carrots play a significant role in decreasing risk for cardiovascular disease, says Schapiro. “Carrots are also great for your vision and possibly cancer prevention.”


(Photo: Flickr/David Lenker)

The vegetable: Peppers

Why they’re so easy to add into your diet:  “Chop them up and add to a salad, or mix into a brown rice or quinoa or pasta dish. I love slicing them and pairing with a hummus or bean dip,” says Keri Glassman, RD, founder of Nutritious Life and The Nutrition School. 

The health perk: These tasty veggies are rich in vitamin C and can decrease inflammation. “Peppers also contain carotenoids which can be preventative for certain cancers,” Glassman tells Yahoo Health. “They are rich in B vitamins — which play a role in preventing stroke and keeping your heart healthy — and fiber, which is great for digestion and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels.” 

(Photo: Flickr/Kate Ter Haar)

The vegetable: Spinach

Why it’s so easy to add into your diet: Because you can eat it so many ways! “Eat it raw, and add baby spinach leaves to perk up your salad, sauté it with garlic and olive oil for a healthy side dish, or add to a soup or smoothie,” says Schapiro.

The health perk: Rich in antioxidants and flavonoids — which are known to decrease inflammation in the body — spinach can also help prevent arthritis, osteoporosis, migraine headaches, heart disease, and cancer, says Schapiro. “It’s also rich in iron, preventing anemia — which is especially important for those who have cut out meat.” Another perk: The green stuff is packed with lutein, great for protecting your eyes.

Related: 10 Superfoods Healthier Than Kale

(Photo: Flickr/Janice Cullivan)

The vegetable: Sweet potatoes

Why they’re so easy to add into your diet: You probably already like the No. 1 favorite veggie, the potato, right? “Upgrade to the sweet is easy — and you don’t need to be a chef!” says Glassman. “Microwave a sweet potato and you have a side dish, the base of a dish, or healthy snack. Top with cinnamon for an even ‘sweeter’ kick!”

The health perk: It’s loaded with vitamins A, C, fiber, and potassium. “[Vitamins] A and C are important antioxidants, which a play a role in skin health, preventing cancer, and heart disease,” says Glassman. “Fiber helps maintain a healthy body weight and aids in naturally cleansing the body. Potassium gets props for helping reduce blood pressure.” In fact, the daily recommendation for potassium is 4,700 milligrams. One sweet potato has about 540 milligrams!

(Photo: Flickr/Stacy Spensley)

The vegetable: Cucumbers

Why they’re so easy to add into your diet:  “Slice em. You don’t even need to dice em!” Glassman says. And keep the skin on — it’s where many of the nutrients are found, she adds. The mild taste appeals to even the most squeamish veggie eaters. 

The health perk: “People often think of this typical salad-topper as a nutrient-less veggie. Not true!” says Glassman. “Crunchy cukes are packed with silica — a mineral which plays an important role in maintaining joint health and healthy hair.” They also provide a nice dose of vitamin C, which is good for boosting your immune system. Even more: All that water volume helps you stay full and may aid in weight loss, says Glassman. 

(Photo: Flickr/liz west)

The vegetable: Onions

Why they’re so easy to add into your diet:  “Even if you are not loading up your plate with green veggies (and packing the plate with pasta or rice), you can add onions to the mix,” Schapiro says. “Sautee them and add to anything from rice, pasta, steak, or a fish dish!”

The health perk: Loaded with flavonoids and sulfur-containing nutrients, onions are part of the same family as garlic — and are known to help reduce inflammation and protect against heart disease and cancer, says Schapiro. “They are also super tasty and can make any meal more satisfying!” 

Up Next: 7 Ways You’re Making Your Veggies Less Healthy