More and more research is touting the health benefits of vegetarianism. For those worried that eating less meat means less nutrition, a vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients you need. To make the transition easier, consider meat substitutes.
More and more research is touting the health benefits of vegetarianism. Not only will you feel healthier, but there’s evidence that a meat-free diet can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, prevent and manage diabetes and may ease rheumatoid arthritis, among other diseases.
A vegetarian diet avoids all meat, including fish and poultry, and focuses on fruits, vegetables, dried beans and peas, grains, seeds and nuts. Because there are many reasons for becoming a vegetarian—the desire to be healthier, objections to killing animals and/or concerns about environmental damage from raising animals—there are several types of vegetarians. Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat animal products such as cheese, milk and eggs. While vegans abstain from all animal products (and foods that contain animal products, such as chocolate that has dairy in it), “semi-vegetarians” may eat fish or occasionally eat meat in small servings. However, research shows that as you decrease your intake of animal-based foods, health benefits increase, so vegan diets are the healthiest overall.
Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet
Research has found that vegetarians have lower rates of numerous health problems, including obesity, cardiovascular disease (CVD), hypertension, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, gallstones, kidney stones, constipation and diverticular disease (“Health Implications of a Vegetarian Diet,” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine). Furthermore, many studies have shown increased longevity among vegetarians. The link between vegetarianism and health is twofold. Researchers cite the benefits of avoiding meat’s harmful attributes, such as saturated fat and cholesterol, while reaping the healthy properties of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts.
Cardiovascular disease. The most consistent evidence for the health benefits of a vegetarian diet relates to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) and CHD-related deaths. These findings could be linked to vegetarians’ generally lower LDL (low-density lipoprotein or the “bad” form of cholesterol) levels, lower body weight and a lower incidence of diabetes and hypertension, all of which contribute to CVD risk.
Several studies have demonstrated that consuming more whole grains lowered CVD events and that eating legumes (beans) reduced the risk of CHD and CVD. A diet that includes nuts has been found to protect against CHD, while soy protein has been shown to reduce total and LDL cholesterol levels. Since 1999, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a health claim that foods high in soy protein may help lower heart disease risk.
Overweight and obesity. Research has consistently shown that vegetarians, and particularly vegans, are leaner than omnivores. This is likely because vegetarians typically eat less fat, fewer calories and more dietary fiber. Vegetarians more regularly consume whole grains and nuts, which reduce the risk of obesity and weight gain. On the other hand, a higher consumption of red meat increases risk of weight gain.
Diabetes. Studies have demonstrated a significantly lower risk of type 2 diabetes in vegetarians. In an Adventist Health study involving more than 60,000 men and women, those following a vegan diet were found to have a diabetes prevalence that was approximately one third that of nonvegetarians. In addition, a vegetarian diet, including a lower intake of saturated fat and a higher intake of dietary fiber, whole grains, legumes and nuts, may protect against and assist in the management of type 2 diabetes. Weight loss, another advantage of a vegetarian diet, is also a factor because even shedding a few pounds can help you prevent and manage type 2 diabetes.
Cancer. Overall, cancer rates in vegetarians appear to be moderately lower than others living in the same communities, and life expectancy appears to be greater. However, results for specific cancers are less convincing and require more study. The health benefits of protective compounds in a plant-based diet have been linked to cancer prevention and slower cancer cell growth. In addition, the consumption of red meat cooked at high temperatures, diets rich in animal fat and cholesterol or diets high in animal protein may increase the risk of developing cancer.
Diverticular disease. Vegetarians tend to have a lower incidence of diverticular disease than nonvegetarians. This is believed to be a result of the higher dietary fiber intake of vegetarians from an increased consumption of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes. More recent research suggests that diets high in fat and red meat, independent of fiber intake, may be linked to an increase in diverticulitis.
Kidney disease. High intakes of animal protein may have adverse effects for those with underlying kidney problems. A study of individuals with type 2 diabetes found that eliminating red meat from the diet, either by replacing it with chicken or by following a lacto-vegetarian, low-protein diet improved renal function and blood fat levels.
Hypertension. Several studies found that a diet high in fruit, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products significantly reduced blood pressure in those with normal blood pressure or mild hypertension.
Other diseases. Limited research suggests that a vegetarian diet may also reduce the risk of other health conditions, including gallstones, rheumatoid arthritis and gout. Although these findings are positive and add to the evidence of the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, the small number of studies indicates that further research is required.
Getting the Right Nutrients
Meat eaters may be surprised to find out that vegetarian diets can meet all the recommendations for daily nutrients. The key is to consume a variety and the right amount of foods to meet your calorie needs. Vegetarians often need to focus on consuming adequate protein, iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Choose My Plate program lists which foods have the most of these nutrients.
- Protein is essential for growth and maintenance. By eating a variety of plant-based foods—beans, nuts, nut butters, peas and soy products (such as tofu, tempeh, veggie burgers)—you can easily meet your protein needs. Milk products and eggs are also good protein sources for lacto-ovo vegetarians.
- Iron functions primarily as a carrier of oxygen in the blood. Iron sources include iron-fortified breakfast cereals, spinach, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, turnip greens, molasses, whole wheat breads, peas and some dried fruits (apricots, prunes, raisins).
- Calcium builds bones and teeth and maintains bone strength. Sources include calcium-fortified soy milk, breakfast cereals and orange juice; tofu made with calcium sulfate; and some dark-green leafy vegetables (collard greens, turnip greens, bok choy, mustard greens). However, consuming enough plant foods to meet calcium needs is difficult, so you may need to supplement your diet with either dairy products (for lacto-vegetarians) and/or calcium supplements.
- Zinc is necessary for many biochemical reactions and helps the immune system function properly. Sources include many types of beans (white beans, kidney beans and chickpeas), zinc-fortified breakfast cereals, wheat germ and pumpkin seeds.
- Vitamin B12 helps keep muscles strong. Because it is found mainly in animal products and some fortified foods—milk products, eggs, breakfast cereals, soy milk, veggie burgers and nutritional yeast—vegans, especially, may need supplements.
Going from a meat-based diet to one filled with vegetables and grains can be challenging. If you’ve consumed hamburgers all your life, how do you switch to broccoli? The key is to do it gradually: eating less meat every day while increasing your intake of veggies, fruits, beans and grains.
For those who can’t make the full transition, experts say that reducing your consumption of meat, especially red meat, while increasing vegetables and legumes, will improve your health. You can start by preparing a vegetarian meal one or two days a week. Another way to ease into a vegetarian diet is to keep your favorite meals but substitute vegetables for meat: pasta with marinara or pesto sauce, veggie pizza, vegetable lasagna, vegetarian chili, bean burritos or tacos.
Build meals around protein sources that are naturally low in fat, such as beans, lentils and rice. Don't overload meals with high-fat cheeses to replace the meat. You can find good vegetarian recipes on the Internet, or visit restaurants that offer a lot of vegetarian options. Indian and Asian restaurants are always a good bet.
Check out these ideas for meals with meat substitutes, and see the sidebar for more options (from Web MD):
- Vegetarian stuffed peppers. Stuff bell peppers with a blend of rice and veggies. Instead of ground beef, add beans or meatless sausage crumbles. Season as usual.
- Veggie omelet. Eggs are a good source of protein. Instead of a ham and cheese in an omelet, substitute carrots, mushrooms and spinach.
- Eggplant parmesan. Fans of chicken parmesan can substitute eggplant (using thin slices) in place of chicken. If you also skip dairy, you can use a soy-based cheese instead of Parmesan.
- Portobello burger. Hamburgers are always hard to give up, but a grilled portobello mushroom on a whole wheat bun can hit the spot. Top with lettuce, tomato or cheese, just as you would a hamburger.
“Health Implications of a Vegetarian Diet,” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine
“Becoming a Vegetarian,” Web MD
“Vegetarian diet: How to get the best nutrition,” Mayo Clinic
“What is the vegetarian diet? What are the benefits of a vegetarian diet?” Sept. 12, 2014, Medical News Today
“Vegetarian Foods: Powerful for Health,” Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors