People become vegetarians for many reasons, including health,
religious convictions, concerns about animal welfare or the use of antibiotics
and hormones in livestock, or a desire to eat in a way that avoids excessive use
of environmental resources. Some people follow a largely vegetarian diet because
they can’t afford to eat meat. Vegetarianism has become more appealing and
accessible, thanks to the year-round availability of fresh produce, more
vegetarian dining options, and the growing culinary influence of cultures with
largely plant-based diets.
Traditionally, research into vegetarianism focused mainly on potential
nutritional deficiencies, but in recent years, the pendulum has swung the other
way, and studies are confirming the health benefits of meat-free eating.
Nowadays, plant-based eating is recognized as not only nutritionally sufficient
but also as a way to reduce the risk for many chronic illnesses. Appropriately
planned diets are a necessity. Unless you follow recommended guidelines on
nutrition, fat consumption, and weight control, becoming a vegetarian won’t
necessarily be good for you. A diet of soda, cheese pizza, and candy, after all,
is technically vegetarian. For health, it’s important to make sure that you eat
a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It’s also vital to
replace saturated and trans-fats with good fats, such as those found in nuts,
olive oil, and rice bran oil. And always keep in mind that if you eat too many
calories, even from nutritious, low-fat, plant-based foods, you’ll gain weight.
So it’s also important to practice portion control, read food labels, and engage
in regular physical activity.
You can get many of the health benefits of vegetarianism without going all the
way. For example, a Mediterranean eating pattern — known to be associated with
longer life and reduced risk of several chronic illnesses — features an emphasis
on plant foods with a sparing use of meat. Even if you don’t want to become a
complete vegetarian, you can steer your diet in that direction with a few simple
substitutions, such as plant-based sources of protein — beans or tofu, for
example — or fish instead of meat a couple of times a week.
Compared with meat eaters, vegetarians tend to consume less saturated fat and
cholesterol and more vitamins C and E, dietary fiber, folic acid, potassium,
magnesium, and phytochemicals (plant chemicals), such as carotenoids and
flavonoids. As a result, they’re likely to have lower total and LDL (bad)
cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and lower body mass index (BMI), all of which
are associated with longevity and a reduced risk for many chronic diseases.
But there still aren’t enough data to say exactly how a vegetarian diet
influences long-term health. It’s difficult to tease out the influence of
vegetarianism from other practices that vegetarians are more likely to follow,
such as not smoking, not drinking excessively, and getting adequate exercise.
But here’s what some of the research has shown so far:
Heart disease. There’s some evidence that vegetarians have a lower
risk for cardiac events and death from cardiac causes. For heart protection,
it’s best to choose high-fiber whole grains and legumes, which are digested
slowly and have a low glycemic index — that is, they help keep blood sugar
levels steady. Soluble fiber also helps reduce cholesterol levels. Refined
carbohydrates and starches like potatoes, white rice, and white-flour products
cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, which increases the risk of heart attack and
Cancer. Hundreds of studies suggest that eating lots of fruits and vegetables
can reduce the risk of developing certain cancers, and there’s evidence that
vegetarians have a lower incidence of cancer than non-vegetarians do.
Type 2 diabetes. Research suggests that a predominantly
plant-based diet can reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes.
Bone Health. Some women are reluctant to try a vegetarian diet —
especially one that doesn’t include calcium-rich dairy products — because
they’re concerned about osteoporosis. Certain vegetables can supply calcium,
including bok choy, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, collards, and kale.
In conclusion we can say that people who follow a vegetarian and especially a
vegan diet may be at risk of getting insufficient vitamin D and vitamin K, both
needed for bone health. Although green leafy vegetables contain some vitamin K,
vegans may also need to rely on fortified foods, including some types of soy
milk, rice milk, organic orange juice, and breakfast cereals. They may also want
to consider taking a vitamin D2 supplement, though the word is still out on
whether this is truly needed, as many vegans have been living healthy lives for
many decades without any supplementation.