Is Going Vegetarian Always a Healthier Eating Option?
There are a number of reasons for someone to become a vegetarian, from ethical reasons to reasons involving the climate emergency to health reasons, and with the societal move toward eating less meat, many people have begun considering vegetarianism as an option.
A vegetarian diet is easier than ever to follow these days, with plenty of options on the market for meat alternatives, and protein supplements catered to those who do not eat meat. It is very easy to get all of the nutrients your body needs when you follow a healthy vegetarian diet today.
But, as the craze for meatless Mondays rages on, we've been asking ourselves if it is a healthier option. Does becoming a vegetarian mean you're choosing a healthier diet, or is there no difference between vegetarian diets and those followed by meat-eaters?
We've done some research into vegetarian diets, including different types of vegetarians, the health benefits of becoming a vegetarian, and if it is healthier than a diet including meat. To find out more, keep on reading!
What is a vegetarian diet?
A vegetarian diet is one in which no meat is consumed. This includes red meat, poultry, and fish, though dairy products and egg products are allowed. Vegetarian eating grew out of ethical values in the west but has been a diet followed from the time of ancient civilisations.
Many cultures around the world find vegetarian and vegan diets throughout their histories and this plant-based diet has been thought healthier and cleaner in this time too.
Types of vegetarian diets
Vegetarian diets vary across people. Some choose to eat everything but meat, while others may opt to exclude dairy products from their diet, preferring milk alternatives like soy milk. The type of vegetarian diet you follow is down to preference and there is no right or wrong answer.
To find out more about vegetarian diets, keep reading now.
Variations of the vegetarian diet
There are many varieties of vegetarian diets, from those who eat eggs but not dairy products to those who eat dairy foods and eggs to those who eat meat occasionally but generally follow a diet rich in plant-based foods.
Under the vegetarian banner, there are a few key types of vegetarian. These include:
- Lacto-Ovo vegetarians, who eat both eggs and dairy products
- Lacto vegetarians, who eat dairy products, but not eggs
- Ovo vegetarians who eat eggs but not dairy products, turning instead to dairy alternatives like soy milk
The vegan diet, in the west, grew out of the vegetarian diet in the early part of the 20th century, though examples of vegan diets have been seen throughout history in other cultures. The vegan diet is usually chosen for ethical reasons concerning animal rights and the climate, but some choose it for health reasons too.
The vegan diet excludes all animal products, including eggs, dairy products, and other animal derivatives.
An alternative to the vegan diet is a plant-based diet. This diet was popularized in the later part of the 20th century by a nutritionist and focuses on plant-based foods but is not as strict as a vegan diet. The plant-based diet encourages consuming lots of whole grains and other whole foods but does not completely ban meat and animal derivatives.
A pescatarian diet is a variation of the vegetarian diet in which one chooses to eat fish but no other kinds of meat. The pescatarian diet is thought to have the same carbon footprint as the vegetarian diet and so, if you're choosing a vegetarian diet for the climate but don't want to totally give up fish, this could be an option for you.
This diet offers flexibility, hence the name, and is the best way to ease yourself into a vegetarian diet. Flexitarians tend to eat a lot less meat and animal products, but do eat them sometimes. Some people choose to only eat meat when eating out, whereas others eat meat only occasionally.
Should I become a vegetarian?
Becoming vegetarian is a choice made based on a variety of factors, but there are some health benefits that come with it.
Choosing to avoid meat means you can avoid the antibiotics pumped into many animals before they are slaughtered, and avoid any of the hormones from the meat too. These compounds can cause havoc in the human body and can be detrimental to our health.
Another reason for becoming vegetarian usually involve the rights of the animals and their treatment on cattle, chicken, and dairy farms. There are numerous organisations that highlight the ill-treatment faced by many animals and for some, this is reason enough to avoid eating meat.
Finally, in recent years, it has been found that eating a vegetarian diet is much better for the environment. Meat and dairy production has a huge carbon footprint and the industry is one of the biggest polluters on the planet. As the climate emergency grows in menace, many people are choosing a meatless diet to try and do what they can to help.
Are those who eat a vegetarian diet healthier than meat-eaters?
We've touched lightly on the health benefits of a vegetarian diet but now we're going to delve deeper. While a vegetarian diet is your choice, there are some health benefits from becoming a vegetarian and eating appropriately planned vegetarian diets can help with healthy weight loss, improve heart health, and offer many health benefits beyond.
To find out more about the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, read on.
Improves heart health
As previously discussed, the vegetarian diet is a heart-healthy diet, in fact, vegetarians are thought to be at least a third less likely to be hospitalised for heart disease than meat-eaters.
Though not all vegetarians follow a healthy diet, the reduction of meat consumption can do wonders for your heart. In addition, vegetarians tend to eat more heart-healthy foods, like nuts and seeds, legumes, vegetables and fruits, and whole grains.
Reduces cancer risk
Though not a huge advantage, a vegetarian diet can slightly lower the risk of developing cancer. It is thought that while a vegan diet reduces cancer risk more so than a vegetarian diet, those who are vegetarian eat more fruits and vegetables easily, making the risk lower.
It has been found that Lacto-Ovo vegetarians have a lowered risk of gastrointestinal cancers and vegans have lowered risk of female-specific cancers.
Could prevent the development of type 2 diabetes
A healthy vegetarian diet that is high in low-glycemic foods can help to prevent type 2 diabetes. The thinking is the same as with heart health in that vegetarians tend to choose a diet richer in whole foods.
Lowers blood pressure
Plant foods are lower in sodium, fat, and cholesterol, all of which contribute to high blood pressure. Removing these things from your diet can lower blood pressure which will boost your overall health.
Meat products tend to contain more sodium, fat, and cholesterol than plant-based foods meaning that becoming vegetarian can reduce the amount of these compounds in your diet.
Promotes healthy bones
Animal products draw calcium out of the bones, making for weaker bones. In countries where vegetarian diets are followed, people tend to have better health, indeed, many studies have found that bone health is increased in vegetarians, particularly Lacto-Ovo vegetarians.
Decreases symptoms of asthma
There are some studies that suggest following a vegetarian diet can decrease the symptoms of asthma. It is thought animal products cause allergies and inflammation that makes the condition worse.
Some considerations before becoming vegetarian
While there are many health benefits to becoming vegetarian, there are some considerations to make before choosing a diet devoid of meat products.
First is the cost. A vegetarian diet can be more expensive, particularly if it extends into veganism. Meat substitutes tend to cost more and so meatless meals can be more expensive to make.
Secondly, some people may not be able to fully follow a vegetarian diet due to allergies and intolerances. Certain allergies can make it difficult for people to get all of the nutrients they need and cutting out meat could make this even harder. The advantages of eating less meat need to be weighed against the safety of this kind of diet for your body.
Thirdly, some who follow vegetarian diets of varying kinds can find that they lack certain vitamins, like iron and B12. This means you may need to supplement your diet to ensure your body is getting all of the essential vitamins and minerals it means.
Finally, a vegetarian diet is only as healthy as you make it. There are many, many vegetarian options in junk food sections of supermarkets now, meaning that eating an unhealthy vegetarian diet is really easy. Vegetarian diets provide health benefits when they are balanced and full of whole and healthy foods. Becoming vegetarian isn't the answer to a healthy diet, but you can choose to make it a healthy diet.
The vegetarian diet comes with many health benefits. It contributes to good heart health, good bone health, lowers your type 2 diabetes risk, and can protect you against a range of chronic illnesses. But while it is a healthier choice, it is only as healthy as you make it.
Vegetarianism isn't a fix-all for a healthy diet. Your diet is only as balanced and whole as you make it and the benefits of a vegetarian diet come from eating a good diet.
There are many different kinds of vegetarianism, including flexitarians, pescatarians, vegans, and those on plant-based diets. How much you follow the diets is up to you but the evidence suggests that a diet rich in plant foods is the healthiest diet you can choose.
Vegetarianism can reduce your carbon footprint and is an ethical choice for those concerned with animal rights, and can extend into your lifestyle including the clothes you choose. The decision should be entirely yours and there are different degrees of the lifestyle. Why not try out a meatless meal a few times a week and see how you feel. Even partial vegetarians can experience the incredible benefits of this diet.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the health risks of a vegetarian diet?
There are some health risks associated with going vegetarian and though it comes with a lot of health benefits, the diet may be unsuitable for some. Vegetarians can find that their body does not get enough of the vital nutrients it needs when they stop eating meat and so you need to ensure your diet is full of healthy and balanced foods. In addition, you may find yourself low in iron or B12 when you cut out meat and may need to supplement your diet. The vegetarian diet may be unsuitable for some with certain intolerance and allergies too.
Is a vegetarian diet healthy long term?
A vegetarian diet can be very healthy long term. Studies show that those who have been vegetarian for more than twenty years have reduced the risk of many chronic illnesses, including heart disease, a lower risk of cancer, less risk of developing type 2 diabetes, as well as better bone health. The vegetarian diet, when followed well, can help you to be more healthy overall and have more energy too. In addition, a vegetarian diet means you avoid any antibiotics and hormones found in many animal products that can be harmful to human health.
Why you should not be a vegetarian?
There aren't really any reasons you shouldn't be vegetarian unless you have severe allergies that restrict what you can eat. A vegetarian diet, when followed well, gives your body all of the nutrients it needs and contributes to good overall health, good heart health, good bone health, and protects you from a variety of chronic illnesses, like heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes. The vegetarian diet is not one to be avoided as it comes with many health benefits.
Is it worth going vegetarian?
Going vegetarian can make you feel more energised and contributes to improved overall health. The diet, if filled with whole and balanced foods, can help to improve your heart health and your bone health and can protect against heart conditions like heart disease. It also protects against strokes and can lower your risk of cancer. Though not a perfect diet, eating less meat contributes to lower blood pressure and can aid in healthy weight loss too. Vegetarianism is a good choice for those trying to boost their health, provided you follow a healthy vegetarian diet.