If you or a loved one are considering switching to a vegetarian diet, the first question on your mind is probably something along the lines of “is a vegetarian diet safe?”
People often worry they won’t get enough essential nutrients such as iron and especially protein on a vegetarian diet – they’re afraid that, if they cut meat out of their diet, they’ll have no strength and basically wither away!
While you should always consult with a dietitian before committing to major diet changes, we want to help you put such fears to rest. A vegetarian diet can be just as healthy as an omnivorous diet and – in some cases – even healthier.
What Are The Main Benefits?
Below, we’ll take a look at some of the overall benefits and risks of a vegetarian diet. First, some vegetarian diet benefits include:
#1 Better Heart Health
Several studies have shown that vegetarians have a lower risk of developing cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease than non-vegetarians.
One study [https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/97/3/597/4571519?sid=313781f0-04f6-40af-8e4c-7f3bf07f1565] from the University of Oxford concluded that those on a plant-based diet had a massive 32 % lower chance of dying or being hospitalized as a result of heart issues than those who consumed meat.
The lead researcher, Dr. Francesa Crowe, suspects this is due to the fact that a vegetarian diet can lower levels of cholesterol along with blood pressure.
Another study [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4208768/] performed in India in 2014 came to the same conclusion – that vegetarians are at lower risk for cardiovascular diseases.
#2 Reduced Risk of Certain Cancers
Consumption of red meat has been shown [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC544451/] time and time again to be linked to various forms of cancer, possibly because eating it tends to cause inflammation in the body. Therefore, it follows that cutting these meats out of your diet can lower your risk of developing certain types of cancer.
One study [https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23169929/] confirmed that – out of a huge sample of 70,000 people – vegetarians had a lower risk of having cancer.
Part of the reason for this may be that a vegetarian diet is high in antioxidants – antioxidants prevent free radical damage in the body which is suspected to be one possible cause of cancer. Fruits and vegetables like blueberries, strawberries, kale, and red cabbage – and even other plant-based foods like dark chocolate – are high in antioxidants, so consider adding them to your diet.
# 3 Reduced Risk of Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic syndrome is a condition that includes things like high blood pressure and obesity. Unfortunately, metabolic syndrome can easily lead to other problems such as stroke or heart attack.
The vegetarian diet has [https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25084991/] been [https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26148917/] shown [https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/34/5/1225] to help people avoid metabolic syndrome through various means: for example, as a vegetarian diet generally leads to weight loss, developing problems like type-2 diabetes is less likely. Digestive health is overall better in vegetarians, as well.
So, What Are The Risks?
So, now that we’ve gone through the benefits, what about the drawbacks? One Essential Ingredient of a Vegetarian Diet: Planning
There’s a myth about vegetarianism which we alluded to earlier: “vegetarians don’t get enough nutrients!”. This simply isn’t true, as there are plenty of plant-based foods packed with protein, calcium, and essential vitamins. However, the one grain of truth in this rumor is that vegetarians do need to pay careful attention to their food intake to make sure they are getting enough of these nutrients.
Let’s look at protein, for example: the daily recommended amount of protein for an adult over 19 years of age is 46-55 grams. What vegetarian sources of protein are there? Well, milk (or soy milk), nuts, flaxseed, legumes such as chickpeas, or even veggie burgers all have high amounts of protein. Be sure to pay attention to what you eat each day to make sure you’re getting the recommended amount of protein – this applies to all nutrients.
Another important nutrient is Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 can be found in soybeans and walnuts, as well and fish and eggs if you’re keeping these as part of your diet. The recommended daily amount of omega-3 fatty acids is 250 mg per day.
Vitamin D is available to vegetarians through margarine, almond milk, and fortified orange juice. You’ll want to get 10- 20 micrograms of vitamin D each day.
Overall, determine your dietary needs before starting a vegetarian diet, read nutritional labels, and plan accordingly. The need to do this could be considered the one major “drawback” of a vegetarian diet but it’s really not so bad once you get used to it and learn more about your body.
Plant-Based Iron and Zinc Can Be Harder to Absorb
One hurdle to overcome when adopting a vegetarian diet is that plant-based iron and zinc can be harder for your body to absorb than meat-based iron and zinc. You can get around this problem by increasing your intake of vitamin C – eat foods high in vitamin C while you’re eating foods high in iron and zinc. Some foods high in vitamin C for vegetarians include strawberries, broccoli, and tomatoes.
Vegetarian foods high in iron and zinc are peas and lentils and cheese, soy products, and legumes, respectively. The recommended daily intake of iron for vegetarian men is 14 mg and post-menopausal women. For women who are still menstruating, 32 mg each day is recommended.
For zinc, 7 mg each day should be sufficient for women and around 9.5 mg each day should be enough for men.
Should I Take Supplements on a Vegetarian Diet? You may want to consider taking supplements with a vegetarian diet if you can.
There’s one supplement that you should almost certainly take, and that’s Vitamin B-12. Vitamin B-12 is found mostly in animal products, so one of the vegetarian diet risks is that those on it won’t get enough through food alone. If opting to start a vegetarian diet, you should heavily consider starting with vitamin B-12 supplementation.
Vitamin D is another good supplementation option for vegetarians, as it’s important for immune and hormonal function. Unfortunately, there aren’t many plant-based sources that are rich in this essential vitamin.
Finally, consider calcium supplementation, especially if you plan to go vegan and aren’t able to consume animal milk (soy milk does have some calcium, but much less than animal milk).
Just Because Something’s “Plant-Based” Doesn’t Mean It’s Healthy!
This is one other thing to keep in mind if you plan on becoming a vegetarian: plenty of foods labeled “plant-based” can be processed, especially meat substitutes.
Refined grains, fruit juices, and veggie chips all tend to be pretty unhealthy. Therefore, be on the lookout for these false friends when writing your shopping list or planning your diet.
Overall, vegetarian diets are much healthier than previously believed – you simply have to plan things out to make sure you’re getting enough nutrition.
If you can do that, though, you’ll be able to reap the benefits of a vegetarian diet without suffering any of the negative effects. We think that vegetarian diet benefits outweigh the vegetarian diet risks by a lot.
Finally, if you do decide to opt for a vegetarian diet, be sure to consult a dietician first. Enjoy your greens and good luck to you!