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The Surprising Benefits of Going Vegetarian

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To be or not to be … vegetarian. How many of us have grappled with that question? Whether motivated by wellness, animal welfare, religious beliefs, planetary health, or all four, a vegetarian diet is safe and sustainable. But what does the research say about health benefits? Let’s dig in.

There was a time when being vegetarian seemed fraught with nutritional risks. The potential benefits of a vegetarian diet were secondary to possible deficiencies, at least in the scientific literature. However, a shift in research is portraying plant-based diets in a new light.

A 2016 analysis of 12 randomized controlled trials linked a vegetarian diet to significantly more weight loss than a traditional diet.1Huang RY, Huang CC, Hu FB, Chavarro JE. Vegetarian diets and weight reduction: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Gen Intern Med. 2016;31(1):109-116. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-015-3390-7 In a 2020 study of 9,000 people, those who ate fewer animal products had a lower body mass index (BMI).2Medawar E, Enzenbach C, Roehr S, et al. Less animal-based food, better weight status: associations of the restriction of animal-based product intake with body-mass-index, depressive symptoms and personality in the general population. Nutrients. 2020;12(5):1492. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12051492

A vegetarian diet may lower the risk of colon, breast, and prostate cancer3Watling CZ, Schmidt JA, Dunneram Y, et al. Risk of cancer in regular and low meat-eaters, fish-eaters, and vegetarians: a prospective analysis of UK Biobank participants. BMC Medicine. 2022. https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-022-02256-w and boost heart health. Plant-based diets reduce cardiovascular disease risk by positively influencing cholesterol, BMI, and blood antioxidant levels.4Babalola F, Adesuyi A, David F, et al. A comprehensive review on the effects of vegetarian diets on coronary heart disease. Cureus. 2022;14(10):e29843. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.29843

Vegetarians tend to have lower blood pressure (systolic and diastolic) and less hypertension than omnivores.5Feng H, Yu P, Huang S, et al. The benefit of vegetarian diets for reducing blood pressure in Taiwan: A historically prospective cohort study. J Health Popul Nutr. 2023;42. https://jhpn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s41043-023-00377-3 Their blood sugar may be more level, as rates of insulin resistance, prediabetes, and type 2 diabetes correspondingly drop.6Olfert MD, Wattick RA. Vegetarian diets and the risk of diabetes. Curr Diab Rep. 2018;18(11):101. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11892-018-1070-9

Types of Vegetarian Diets

There are five basic categories of vegetarianism:

  1. Vegan = Excludes meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy, as well as foods that contain these products.
  2. Lacto-Vegetarian = Excludes meat, fish, poultry, and eggs, but dairy foods such as milk, cheese, butter, and yogurt are okay.
  3. Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian = Excludes meat, fish, and poultry. Includes eggs and dairy.
  4. Ovo-Vegetarian = Excludes meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy. Includes eggs.
  5. Pescatarian = Excludes meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, but fish is allowed.

Plant-based foods are the foundation of the flexitarian diet, which includes meat and other animal products in moderation. An emphasis on vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, and whole grains and weekly incorporation of fish and chicken place the Mediterranean diet squarely in the flexitarian category. Animal protein is secondary, relegated to a side dish, or not part of the meal at all.

The differences between vegetarian and vegan diets can be confusing. Eggs, dairy, and honey are accepted vegetarian foods but avoided in veganism, which excludes animal byproducts.

Following a Vegetarian Diet

Creating a healthy, sustainable eating plan is fundamental, regardless of the plant-based diet you choose. Let’s face it: abstaining from meat but gorging daily on fries and ice cream won’t bring anyone closer to achieving their wellness goals.

The challenge for many vegetarians is getting all the necessary vitamins and minerals their bodies need to thrive. A well-rounded vegetarian diet eliminates meat and cuts back on processed foods, saturated fat, and sugar. Whole grains, fruits, nuts, beans, vegetables (specifically dark leafy greens), and healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil should be the foundation.

Fortunately, there’s no time like the present to go vegetarian. The options for replacing meat and dairy are endless, from rice and almond milk to soy and coconut yogurt to mung bean burgers and tofu dogs.

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Key Nutrients

When eliminating whole food groups like meat, poultry, and fish, you may need to look beyond diet to satisfy nutritional needs. Supplements can help ensure vegetarians get adequate essential nutrients, like vitamins B and D, omega-3 fatty acids, and calcium. Dietary supplements fill in nutrient gaps but can’t replace healthy food.

Meat contains amino acids, the building blocks for muscle, bone, and skin. There are fewer amino acids in plant foods than in animal products, but vegetarians who regularly eat soy, peas, rice, and beans are more likely to fulfill daily requirements.

Vitamin B12 deficiency is common among vegetarians because B12 is primarily found in animal products. Supplementing with B12 and eating B12–fortified food can help.

Other potential deficiencies include iodine, zinc, omega-3s (especially DHA and EPA), and iron in women. Vegetarian sources of omega-3 are plentiful: ground flaxseed, chia and hemp seed, rapeseed oil, Brussels sprouts, and walnuts.

Protein, Protein, Protein

While beans, nuts, lentils, and tofu are reliable protein sources, vegetarians are limited only by their imaginations. Plant-based proteins are ubiquitous these days, with quinoa, tempeh, edamame, and seitan readily available at most markets. Recommended protein amounts vary by weight, age, and physical activity. Most people need at least .36 ounces per pound of body weight or 10% to 35% of total daily calories. A 150-lb person should get about 50 grams of protein a day.

Vegetarian Eating on the Go

With the rise in vegetarianism, the days of salad and steamed vegetables as only options are long gone. Waitstaff are agreeable to most modifications and substitutions and much likelier to accommodate diners’ preferences for preparation. Headed to a dinner party? Offer to bring one of your favorite vegetarian dishes to share.

Making the Move to a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet

Vegetarian diets aren’t for everyone, but people who stick with them are in for big health returns. Keep cravings at bay by planning and preparing some meals and snacks in advance. Most important, opt for nutritional balance with a variety of proteins, minerals, and vitamins.

Footnotes

  • 1
    Huang RY, Huang CC, Hu FB, Chavarro JE. Vegetarian diets and weight reduction: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Gen Intern Med. 2016;31(1):109-116. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-015-3390-7
  • 2
    Medawar E, Enzenbach C, Roehr S, et al. Less animal-based food, better weight status: associations of the restriction of animal-based product intake with body-mass-index, depressive symptoms and personality in the general population. Nutrients. 2020;12(5):1492. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12051492
  • 3
    Watling CZ, Schmidt JA, Dunneram Y, et al. Risk of cancer in regular and low meat-eaters, fish-eaters, and vegetarians: a prospective analysis of UK Biobank participants. BMC Medicine. 2022. https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-022-02256-w
  • 4
    Babalola F, Adesuyi A, David F, et al. A comprehensive review on the effects of vegetarian diets on coronary heart disease. Cureus. 2022;14(10):e29843. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.29843
  • 5
    Feng H, Yu P, Huang S, et al. The benefit of vegetarian diets for reducing blood pressure in Taiwan: A historically prospective cohort study. J Health Popul Nutr. 2023;42. https://jhpn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s41043-023-00377-3
  • 6
    Olfert MD, Wattick RA. Vegetarian diets and the risk of diabetes. Curr Diab Rep. 2018;18(11):101. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11892-018-1070-9

This article is provided by

The Institute for Natural Medicine, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. INM’s mission is to transform health care in the United States by increasing public awareness of natural medicine and access to naturopathic doctors. Naturopathic medicine, with its person-centered principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness overwhelming healthcare systems and to empower people to achieve and maintain optimal lifelong health. INM strives to fulfil this mission through the following initiatives:

  • Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of evidence-based natural medicine
  • Access – Connect patients to licensed naturopathic doctors
  • Research – Expand quality research on this complex and comprehensive system of medicine

About The Author(s)

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Institute for Natural Medicine Staff

Our dedicated content team of professional staff writers represents decades of experience covering essential natural health topics in an accessible, evidence-based, and engaging way. Guided by a shared passion for holistic well-being, each and every one of our writers strives to empower our readers to take charge of their health.

Supported by a rigorous fact-checking and medical editing process from licensed naturopathic doctors that examines the latest in peer-reviewed research, our team brings their in-depth knowledge of natural health practices into every piece of content we produce. We strive to be the gold standard for evidence-based natural medicine, providing trustworthy information and inspiring narratives to help you live your best health, naturally.

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