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Are Vegetarian Diets Really Healthier?

June 8, 2017 | By Nicole Simmons
Published in: Nutrition

Bins of vegetables at a market

World-renowned figures as diverse as Gandhi and Bob Marley have advocated for the virtues of a vegetarian diet, and to a degree, science does as well. Many scientific studies have demonstrated the remarkable health benefits provided by a vegetarian diet. Of course, where there are studies confirming health benefits of certain foods, a few weeks later someone else releases a different study that seems to contradict the prior study. No wonder everyone's confused. So, if you're wondering if vegetarian diets are healthier for your body, here's the real scoop.

What Exactly is a Vegetarian Diet?

Cutting boardA vegetarian diet is a diet that eliminates all animal flesh, including poultry and fish. Some vegetarians do consume cheese, milk, and eggs. These individuals are referred to as ovo-lacto-vegetarians. In some cases, people choose to abstain from all animal products. A diet free from all animal products is referred to as a vegan diet.

Do Vegetarian Diets Provide Good Nutrition?

Like all diets, a vegetarian diet can be healthful and nutritionally sound if the diet includes essential nutrients. However, this type of diet can be unhealthy if too many calories and saturated fat are consumed. In most cases, a vegetarian diet is lower in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Vegetarian diets may lack the following nutrients:

  • Protein: Meat is an incredible source of protein, but if you're smart, you can glean enough protein and essential amino acids from plant-based sources as long as these sources are varied and you consume enough calories to meet your energy needs.
  • Iron: Vegetarians have a greater risk of experiencing iron deficiency than non-vegetarians. Iron is easily accessed from red meat, liver, and egg yolk. However, iron can be found in spinach and dried beans.
  • Vitamin B-12: This essential vitamin is naturally available only from animal sources. Because of this, vegetarians must find a high-quality supplement to add this to their diets.
  • Vitamin D: If you get at least 15 minutes of exposure to the sun each day, you won't have to worry about adding this supplement to your daily regimen. However, if you're a night owl that rarely goes outside, ensuring you have this in your diet will help make sure you won't come up lacking on vitamin D.
  • Calcium: Research shows that vegetarians absorb and retain calcium more from vegetables like broccoli, kale, and spinach than non-vegetarians.
  • Zinc: Zinc is essential fo growth and development. Grains, nuts, and legumes are excellent sources of zinc. Zinc supplements are also available for folks who don't get enough of this mineral in their diet.

Do Vegetarian Diets Protect You from Diseases and Illnesses?

Vegetarian diets do provide important health benefits. Reduced rates of colon cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and prostate cancer is a positive benefit to a vegetarian diet. A vegetarian diet can aid in preventing diabetes and also reverse adult-onset diabetes in some cases. Vegetarians experience lower risks from heart disease and typically have lower blood pressure readings. A Swedish study noted that individuals suffering from asthma attacks reported having fewer attacks or less severe attacks after switching to a vegetarian diet for a year.

Special Concerns: Pregnancy Infants & Children

Woman holding baggy pants to show weight loss from a healthy dietStudies suggest that pregnant women who abstain from meat have less risk of developing preeclampsia or eclampsia. Breastfeeding mothers who consume a vegetarian diet have breast milk with fewer environmental contaminants than mothers who consume meat. While breastfeeding mothers and pregnant moms have higher nutritional needs, these needs can be met with a vegetarian diet as long as mothers remain committed to eating healthy and taking B-12 supplements and iron as needed. Infants and children also have higher nutritional needs, but again these requirements can be met with breastfeeding for babies and a vegetarian diet higher in healthy fats for kids.

A vegetarian diet can be healthful. As long as healthy individuals stay away from unnecessary sugars and unhealthy excess carbs, there's no reason not to try this diet. The best part of a vegetarian diet is that it's good for weight loss. Many individuals who choose to become vegetarians find that shedding weight is a whole lot easier when you're consuming foods with fewer calories than most meats have.