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Vegetarian Diet: What are the risks and benefits?

September 11, 2018
Lily Moran

It wasn’t so long ago that vegetarians were considered kooks—old hippies and treehuggers. No longer. Millions of Americans now call themselves vegetarians or vegans. And it wasn’t so long ago that a vegetarian diet was considered nutritionally insufficient. That’s no longer true either. A fully nutritious vegetarian diet does require some planning to ensure you’re getting the necessary protein, vitamins, and minerals that meat provides—but it can be easy.

Why delete the meat

 Some six to eight million U.S. adults eat no meat, fish, or poultry, according to a poll commissioned by the nonprofit Vegetarian Resource Group.

Several million more have eliminated red meat, but still eat chicken or fish. And about two million have become vegans, eliminating not only animal flesh, but also all animal-derived products such as milk, cheese, eggs, and gelatin.

The reasons for maintaining a vegetarian diet come in all shapes and sizes:

  • It’s healthier, reducing the risk of many chronic diseases
  • It’s my religion
  • It doesn’t harm animals
  • It reduces the likelihood of exposure to the hormones and antibiotics found in factory-raised meat
  • It uses up fewer environmental resources
  • It’s less expensive than a meat-based diet

But are all of these points actually hard truths? Let’s explore…

Top trend

If you’ve considered going vegetarian in one way or another, but hesitate, it might help to know how many people have made the change before you, and how many more are projected do the same.

A giant international delivery service company called Just Eat has named veganism as a top consumer trend in 2018, due to users striving for “healthy lifestyles.”

By giant, we mean 20 million customers across the globe.

Just Eat expects veganism to be the “biggest food trend of the coming year.”  Keep in mind that veganism, as I mentioned, is the most limited, “hardest-core” non-animal-based diet option.

Just Eat reported a 94 percent increase—nearly double—in the overall “healthy food ordered” category this year over 2016, according to one source.

Another source reported a 987 percent increase in demand for the full basket of vegetarian options this year.

This is big. But is it a comet flashing across the skies, or a long-term, steady presence meeting a growing, legitimate need?

Let’s review what a vegetarian diet claims to provide.

Health benefits of a vegetarian/plant-based diet

Can becoming a vegetarian protect you against major diseases?

It sure looks that way. In broad strokes, vegetarians, compared with meat eaters, consume:

  • Less saturated fat and cholesterol
  • More vitamins C and E
  • More dietary fiber and folic acid
  • More potassium
  • More magnesium
  • More antioxidant phytochemicals such as carotenoids and flavonoids
  • More vitamin D

As a result, they’re likely to have:

  • Lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower body mass index (BMI)

All of these are strongly associated with a longer, healthier life and a reduced risk of many chronic diseases.

Again, these are broad strokes, and not what science would call conclusive proof. That would require research taking other lifestyle factors into account—smoking, alcohol consumption, and exercise habits, to name a few.

But we do know that vegetarians are less likely to engage in these unhealthy activities than nonvegetarians.

So without data that proves a vegetarian diet, all by itself, contributes to positive health outcomes, all we can responsibly say is wow, it sure looks like a contributing factor.

Here’s what some of the research into specific diseases has shown so far.

Heart disease. Evidence shows that vegetarians have a lower risk of death from cardiac causes.

In one of the largest studies, several years ago, researchers combined the findings of five different studies, involving more than 76,000 participants.

Vegetarians, on average, were 25 percent less likely to die of heart disease.

In another study, this one involving 65,000 people, researchers found a 19 percent lower risk of death from heart disease among vegetarians. That said, there were few deaths in either group, so the observed differences can’t be considered statistically significant.

Cancer. Hundreds of studies suggest that eating lots of fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of developing certain cancers, and there’s evidence that vegetarians have a lower incidence of cancer than nonvegetarians do.

Type 2 diabetes. Research suggests that a predominantly plant-based diet can reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes—by a lot. One study found that vegetarians’ risk of developing diabetes was half that of nonvegetarians.

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Another found a similar correlation—participants who ate red meat, especially processed meats, like bacon and hot dogs, had double the risk of diabetes.

Osteoporosis. There’s a legitimate concern, particularly among women, that a vegetarian diet that excludes calcium-rich dairy products increases the risk of osteoporosis.

But lacto-ovo and other vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy products get at least as much calcium as meat-eaters. No need for them to worry about not getting enough.

Vegans, however, typically consume less calcium than recommended. One study found that 75 percent of vegans got less than the recommended daily amount of calcium, and that vegans in general had a relatively high rate of fractures.

Colon cancer. Eliminating red meat will eliminate a risk factor for colon cancer. That’s whether you’re a vegetarian or not.

We’re not sure whether avoiding all animal products reduces the risk further. But we do know that vegetarians usually have lower levels of potential carcinogens in their colons.

Are there risks associated with a vegetarian diet?

There are issues, but calling them risks is a stretch. There’s far greater risk in the standard American diet of overly salted, sugared, preserved, and otherwise polluted and processed food.

But being vegetarian doesn’t mean non-stop pasta, pizza and bread.

“The key issue associated with a plant-based diet can come from not shopping wisely and not compensating for nutrients formerly provided by animal products,” says Lona Sandon, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

“If you do not have a plan in place for getting the nutrients found in animal sources through vegetarian sources, you can come up short on:

  • Protein
  • B12
  • Calcium
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin K

“Many of these nutrients can be found in vegetarian sources,” Sandon continues. “To get them requires a wide variety of food choices and some planning. Don’t just stop eating meat: You need to find an alternative source of nutrients.”

What are best practices for vegetarians?

Here are some ground rules to get the most from a vegetarian diet.  Nonvegetarians would do themselves a big favor following the same guidelines.

  • Avoid refined carbohydrates and sugars from processed foods, as you will already be eating sufficient carbs overall.
  • Although green leafy vegetables contain some vitamin K, vegans may also need to rely on fortified foods, including some types of soy milk, rice milk, organic orange juice, and breakfast cereals. And they should almost certainly take a vitamin D supplement.
  • As a safety net, take a multivitamin that contains 100 percent of the daily value (DV) for B12 and at least 70 percent of the DV for zinc.
  • Be sure to consume plenty of plant-based forms of omega-3 fats, such as whole soy foods, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, canola oil, dark leafy greens, wheat germ, walnuts and other nuts. Maybe take an algae-based DHA supplement.
  • To get all the protein you need, include beans, whole soy foods, quinoa, nuts, whole grains, and seeds in your regular diet.
  • If managing a chronic disease, always check with your health care provider before taking any supplements.
  • Eat large quantities of fresh or frozen fruits and veggies, especially non-starchy veggies, to take advantage of their appetite-controlling fiber.
  • Replace saturated and trans fats with good fats from nuts, olive oil, avocado oil, and canola oil.
  • If losing weight is a goal, remember that if you eat too many calories, even from nutritious, low-fat, plant-based foods, you’ll gain weight.

In short, a properly planned vegetarian diet can work wonders for your health as long as you compensate for the important nutrients you’ll give up in animal products.

Bottom line

Ongoing studies are confirming daily the health benefits of meat-free eating.

The American Dietetic Association wraps up the case: “Appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”

That’s a pretty firm foundation to build a new vegetarian diet on.

You’ve seen the variety of choices—what to restrict, what to give up, what to include.  That can make menu planning, shopping, and even mealtime less enjoyable when you start out.

But you’re aware of the potential life-prolonging health benefits. Are they worth some extra time and effort? Moreover, the world’s vegetarian foodies are a constant source of superb dishes that can make mealtime a delight—and can even change your life. Many of us vividly remember our reaction to our first Thai, Indian, Tex-Mex, or Middle Eastern meal.

“OMG, this is delicious! I have to learn to do this myself!”

All you need then is a vegetarian or vegan cookbook or website, and off you go.

Take a meat-free test drive

If you’re still unsure whether you want to go, you can get many of the health benefits of being vegetarian without going in all the way.

The Mediterranean diet, for example, is associated with longer life and a reduced risk of several chronic illnesses. It’s built on plenty of plant-based foods, with limited meat.

You can get a taste of life with less meat by aiming for the Mediterranean model, and replacing meat with plant-based protein—beans or tofu, for example— two or three times a week.

If you’ve decided which direction you want to take, make sure your doctor is involved in the process.  You don’t want an allergic reaction to a new herb, or spice, or other unfamiliar ingredient. Your overall health should also be a factor. Your doctor’s assessment will help you choose your changes.

Happy, healthy eating—and thriving!


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