About six percent of Americans say they are exclusively vegetarian or vegan, according to polling from the Vegetarian Resource Group. While this is a fraction of the population, the figure is at an all-time high – and some studies estimate the figure may be closer to 10% to 15%. Twenty years ago, just three percent of Americans were living a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.
More significantly, three-fifths of households in the U.S. say they eat meatless meals sometimes – putting them in the category of “flexitarians” who opt to be vegetarians sometimes but not all of the time.
As American’s plates start to revolve less around meat, what does that mean for overall health? A common perception about people following a vegetarian diet and lifestyle is that they’re healthier than meat eaters. But is that stereotype rooted in science? Does turning away from beef, chicken and pork ultimately help someone be healthier?
Health benefits of vegetarian diets
A growing body of scientific evidence has reassured nutrition experts that a plant-based diet can provide adequate nutrition in all phases of life:
“Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes,” according to a position statement from the American Dietetic Association.
Evidence-based reviews have shown vegetarians have differences in their health when compared to non-vegetarians, according to the American Dietetic Association:
- Vegetarians have a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease, also called coronary heart disease
- Vegetarians have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure
- Vegetarians have lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes
- Vegetarians have lower body mass indexes (BMIs)
- Vegetarians have lower overall cancer rates
Experts believe that elements of vegetarian diets like eating more dietary fiber from fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy products, fiber and phytochemicals– as well as eating less saturated fat and cholesterol due to a lack of animal products in the diet – can contribute to lower risk of chronic diseases.
Another contributing factor to the observed positive effects of a plant-based diet is that most vegetarians have a BMI that’s considered “normal” or lower than average. Researchers believe that measurement alone could be helping to lower the risk of chronic conditions.
Adequate nutrition for vegetarians
But there’s a key distinction in the American Dietetic Association’s stance on vegetarian diets: they need to be “well-planned” for a person to truly reap the health benefits.
Simply not eating meat isn’t quite enough to ensure a healthy diet: meals still need to be balanced nutritionally. If you’re eating larger portions of pasta, rice, nuts and cheese to compensate for the lack of meat or fish on your plate, this could result in a calorie surplus that may lead to unintended weight gain.
The alternative protein sources you’re consuming in place of meat are important to consider. If you’re eating highly processed veggie burgers for most of your meals, or consuming proteins from only one source – like soy – your diet may be lacking the nutritional variety it needs and may be higher in sodium or unhealthy fat than you may think.
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Following a vegetarian diet may mean a person is at risk for not consuming enough protein, vitamin B12 (which is only found in animal products), iron and calcium.
Additionally, eating enough vitamin D or vitamin K, which are important for bone health, is a concern for vegetarians. While leafy green vegetables have vitamin K and calcium, they may not be enough. Additionally, some greens like spinach and Swiss chard have oxalates, which make it harder for the body to absorb calcium. Talk with your doctor about your personal health and your diet to see if you need to make any changes.
- Related: Here’s How to Get Calcium Without Dairy Products
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Types of plant-based diets
For scientific researchers, evaluating the impacts of a vegetarian diet are slightly difficult because there are multiple definitions and ways that people live a plant-based lifestyle.
Following a meatless lifestyle may come from multiple points of motivation. Some people may find it more ethical or humane to eat plants, while others may make the switch on the recommendation of a health care professional. Religious factors may also play a part. Additionally, living a meatless lifestyle may be an economic necessity. Meat – especially beef products – are resource-intensive to raise, a cost that is passed down to the consumer at the grocery store.
The main types of vegetarian diets include:
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarianism: No meat, but allows animal products including dairy, eggs and honey.
- Lacto-vegetarianism: No meat or eggs, but allows dairy products and honey.
- Ovo-vegetarianism: No meat or dairy, but allows eggs and honey.
- Veganism: No animal products. Raw vegans only eat products that can be consumed uncooked or raw.
The subtypes of vegetarian diets include:
- Semi-vegetarianism and flexitarianism: Switches between vegetarian and meat-based diets.
- Pescetarianism: Excludes meat, but allows fish, dairy, eggs and honey.
Researchers agree that more studies are needed to fully understand the impacts of eliminating animal products from a modern diet -- especially among larger, and more demographically diverse, groups.
If you’re interested a plant-based diet, talk to your health care provider about your health and personal dietary needs before making a change.