With our society becoming more health conscious, vegetarian and vegan diets have become increasingly popular. What are really the health benefits?
BY: LINDSAY CHETELAT, RD, CDN
A multitude of dairy and meat alternatives can now be found in grocery stores and there has been a surge in vegetarian restaurants and cafes across America.
So what’s up with the vegetarian appeal?
People may choose to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet for ethical reasons, religious morals, concern for the proper treatment of animals, the desire to improve health, and commitment to help preserve the environment.
Vegetarian diets can be followed by all populations throughout any stage of the life cycle, including pregnant and lactating women, athletes, and children. However, it is essential to ask a health professional, such as a registered dietitian, before to help ensure that a vegetarian diet will meet an individual’s needs appropriately.
Are you a vegetarian or vegan?
If your answer is yes, keep reading for important tips!
If your answer is no, you may be wondering why people would commit to a life without meat. You may even be moving towards the exit button on this browser because you can’t imagine your life without bacon. But, I encourage you to keep reading and become more informed about the benefits of a plant-based diet!
Vegetarians generally have lower rates of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. They also have lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol), and body mass indices (BMI). Let’s take a closer look:
Based on extensive large-scale research studies, vegetarians have a lower risk of heart disease. This lower risk stayed true even after controlling for BMI, smoking, and social class. Reduced blood lipid levels and BMI, and higher intakes of soluble fiber, plant sterols, and phytochemicals among vegetarians contribute to the lower risk of heart disease in this population.
Lower rates of hypertension, or high blood pressure, were also seen among vegetarians. This is possibly due to lower BMI and higher intakes of potassium and magnesium, two important blood pressure-regulating nutrients of the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet.
TYPE 2 DIABETES
Nuts, whole grains, legumes, and vegetables are key components of vegetarian diets that help improve the body’s response to insulin, or insulin sensitivity. These fiber-containing foods are also helpful for people who have already been diagnosed with diabetes. The research shows that those who consume 3 servings of whole grain foods daily have a 20-30% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who have limited whole grain intake.
Another large-scale research study showed that people who followed a vegetarian lifestyle have a significantly reduced risk for female-specific and gastrointestinal cancers, such as colorectal and prostate. Phytochemicals and fiber that are abundant in vegetarian diets help mitigate the processes involved in the proliferation and progression of cancer.
We can’t talk about the benefits without bringing up the potential risks.
If a vegetarian diet is not done the right way, there is an increased risk of nutrient deficiencies. The following are nutrients of concern for vegetarians followed by food sources and supplements to include to make sure your vegetarian diet is not at risk:
- Vitamin B12
- Long-chain Omega-3 fats
- Vitamin D
While there is a risk of nutrient deficiencies associated with a vegetarian diet, planning is key to ensure vegetarian and vegan alternatives are consumed to prevent these deficiencies. Even those who aren’t ready to commit to a lifetime of vegetarianism or veganism can experience the wonderful benefits of including more plant-based meals in their diet. Challenge yourself by increasing your intake of plant-based foods and participate in Meatless Mondays. It’s better for you and the environment, what’s not to love?
Want to know more about vegetarian diets?
Check out the North American Vegetarian Society, and take a look at the Vegetarian Resource Group website for awesome vegetarian resources, including recipes and meal plans.
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Lindsay Chetelat, RD, CDN is a NYC-based Registered Dietitian focusing on empowering individuals to take care of their bodies. Her approach is rooted in helping others gain an appreciation for their bodies through the food they take in, and creating a mindset that transformation is about the progress one is willing to make in their journey, not quick diet fixes.