Vegetarian diets come in a few different flavors, but none of them include meat, poultry, or fish.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarians, usually referred to as simply “vegetarians,” use dairy products and eggs. Vegans don’t eat anything with animal origins.
Some vegetarians make the choice primarily for health reasons, preferring to spare their bodies the challenge of digesting flesh food. Others may be motivated by moral and spiritual considerations, holding the belief that it’s wrong to kill and eat animals. Ecological and sustainability concerns can also be part of the equation for those who choose a vegetarian diet.
The National Institutes of Health reports that a study conducted at Loma Linda University tracked more than 70,000 people over the age of 25 for six years. Almost half the participants in the study were non-vegetarians. These subjects lived similar lifestyles in other aspects; for example, many of them abstained from drinking alcohol or coffee and didn’t smoke cigarettes.
Data collected included mortality rates for various types of vegetarians, as well as for those who included meat in their diets. More than 2500 deaths occurred during the trial; the vegetarians were 12% less likely to die of any cause than those who ate meat. (3)
Other studies have concluded that the rates vegetarians die from heart disease run about 20% lower than meat eaters; for those who include fish but not meat, the rate of heart disease deaths dropped by another 14%, settling at 34%. (4)
Vegetarians tend to have lower cholesterol readings and lower body mass index (BMI) levels. (5) The risk of developing coronary heart disease drops when these measurements are lower.
Other health risks vegetarians reduce by forgoing flesh foods include hypertension (high blood pressure), cancer, dementia, renal (kidney) disease, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis and heart disease. (6)
Most people who adopt a vegetarian diet eat eggs and dairy, which solves the issue of getting enough vitamin B-12. Since this essential vitamin is only present in animal foods, true vegans need a supplement to fulfill the body’s need for B-12.
When the body lacks vitamin B-12, red blood cells can become enlarged and malfunction; other problems arising from this shortage include muscle weakness, dementia and incontinence. (7)
Taking an informed approach to meal planning can address most concerns about including the variety of nutrients important for vital health. An update published by the National Institutes for Health encourages physicians to consider plant-based diets as a strategy to reduce the incidence of chronic disease in their patients; authors note that vegetarians who choose whole foods rather than processed foods are likely to experience positive long-term health outcomes. (8)
Meat-eaters usually wonder how vegetarians get enough protein, but Harvard Health Publication refers to research showing Western vegetarians acquire adequate protein through consumption of foods like nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains. Lacto-ovo vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy products easily meet recommended protein requirements by including these foods. (9)
Vegetarians in Western countries tend to get about the same amount of iron as meat eaters, although the length of time a person has followed a vegetarian diet can have some effect on measurements. (10) While both zinc and iron deficiencies have been noted in vegetarians living in impoverished countries (11), Americans adopting a vegetarian lifestyle aren’t likely to have issue with fulfilling these requirements.
The Low-Carb Question
With all the recent attention on low carbohydrate diets, anyone considering the vegetarian lifestyle will want to consider this aspect of food choices.
Many vegetables are low-carb options, including tomatoes, members of the cruciferous group (like broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, etc.), onions, bell peppers, green beans and cauliflower. All leafy greens are low in carbs, and most varieties of squash are also acceptable on a low-carb diet; winter squash are the exception. Hubbard and acorn are examples of starchy varieties of squash.
Fruits can be a little trickier, since higher sugar content rules out certain choices. Compare carbohydrate levels against your personal preferences; choose from fruits like strawberries, blueberries, and grapefruit. Other fruits with less than 15 grams of carbohydrate per serving are peaches, blackberries, cantaloupe and watermelon. (12)
Nuts and seeds are great choices that are low in carbohydrate and high in protein and fat. It’s best to eat a wide variety of foods from this category, and if some of these are unfamiliar to you, get adventurous and find out what you like: pumpkin seeds, walnuts, chia seeds, macadamia nuts, almonds, and hazelnuts will all provide dense, high-quality nutrition.
Some people do well with soy products and can include soy milk, tofu, tempeh and other foods made from soybeans in their diets. Adding edamame (the seed of the soybean plant) as a snack, or pouring soy milk over cold cereal could even help drop cholesterol levels. (13)
Chick peas, also known as garbanzo beans, are a low-carb legume. Choose healthy fats like coconut oil, avocado oil, and olive oil. When it comes to sweets, dark chocolate, which will be low in sugar despite its generous fat content, will be satisfying and still fit into a low-carb eating plan.
A thoughtfully planned vegetarian diet can satisfy your nutritional requirements at the same time as it allows you to respect the environment, as well as animal rights. It’s important to find the balance between your personal preferences and your body’s need for macro- and micro-nutrients.
The wide variety of choices available on a vegetarian diet make it easy to follow for those who have made the decision to forgo meats and other flesh foods. Including eggs and dairy products usually makes a vegetarian diet more palatable and versatile.
Studies of children raised on vegetarian diets indicate nutritional needs can be met for healthy growth, and when good eating habits are instilled at a young age, better habits in adulthood are likely to develop. (14)
If you’ve been considering a vegetarian diet, you’ll have to look hard to find drawbacks when it comes to building long-term good health.