The Health Benefits and Risks of Being a Vegetarian

Learn about various types of vegetarianism, their health benefits and important factors for success.

If you’ve ever thought about becoming a vegetarian, here’s good news for you! Evidence suggests that a properly planned vegetarian diet lowers the risk of heart attacks, Type 2 Diabetes, and numerous other chronic illnesses. 

Vegetarian diets continue to grow in popularity for a variety of reasons, including animal welfare, religious and cultural considerations, the use of hormones and antibiotics with livestock, and environmental sustainability.  

A typical vegetarian diet avoids consumption of meat, poultry, fish, and seafood. However, a vegetarian diet can have variations depending on which foods that are excluded or included.  For example: 

  • Ovo-vegetarian: Excludes meat, poultry, fish, seafood and dairy products, but includes eggs 
  • Lacto-vegetarian: Excludes meat, poultry, fish, seafood and eggs, but includes dairy products 
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Excludes meat, poultry, fish and seafood, but includes dairy products and eggs 
  • Pescatarian: Excludes meat, poultry, dairy and eggs, but includes fish and seafood 
  • Vegan: Excludes meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy and eggs 
  • Semi-vegetarian: Occasionally includes meat, dairy, eggs, poultry and seafood 

What are the benefits of a properly planned vegetarian diet? 

  • Lower risk of cardiovascular events, such as heart attack 

Consumption of less saturated fats and more phytonutrients, Vitamin C, fiber, folic acid, magnesium, and potassium relative to meat-eaters, reduces total and bad cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, and prevents weight gain. These influence long-term health and reduce the risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke. 

  • Lower risk of Type 2 Diabetes 

Research has shown that a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of Type 2 Diabetes. High fiber whole grains and legumes are digested slowly, This helps maintain steady blood sugar levels, preventing a rapid rise in blood sugar level as demonstrated with refined carbohydrates and starches.  

  • Reduced risk of certain cancers 

Multiple studies have proven that vegetarians who eat a variety of fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of developing certain cancers compared to non-vegetarians. Avoiding eating red meat, whether you are a vegetarian or not, eliminates the risk factor for colorectal cancer. 

What essential nutrients are challenging to get on a vegetarian diet? 

  • Proteins  

If not properly planned, all vegans may fall short on daily protein needs. Proteins are required for healthy skin, muscles, bones, and organs. Lacto-ovo vegetarians get proteins from eggs and dairy products. Non-meaty sources of proteins include soy products, legumes, lentils, nuts, whole grains (wheat, oats, barley, and brown rice), and seeds. 

  • Calcium  

Dairy foods have highest amounts of calcium. Vegetarian diets that do not include dairy products may put you at risk of a calcium deficiency if you don’t properly plan. Besides their vital role in building and maintaining strong bones and teeth, calcium is required for proper functioning of the heart, muscles, and nerves. Dark green vegetables such as kale, broccoli, collard greens, turnip, and Chinese cabbage are good sources of calcium. Other options are calcium fortified or enriched products such as cereals and juices. 

  • Vitamin D  

Vitamin D, along with calcium, is required to maintain healthy bones. A deficiency happens if not enough Vitamin D fortified foods are consumed or there is limited sun exposure or both. Vitamin D is generally added to cow’s milk and cereals. 

  • Vitamin B12  

Vitamin B12, which is almost exclusively found in animal products, is required for our red blood cells to produce hemoglobin and prevent anemia. This deficiency may go unnoticed in vegans for a long time until severe problems occur. Therefore, it is important to get Vitamin B12 from supplements, cereals, and fortified soy products. 

  • Vitamin K  

Though some Vitamin K is present in green leafy vegetables, vegetarians should rely on fortified foods to get Vitamin K. Vitamin K is needed for blood clotting and building bones. 

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids  

Omega-3 fatty acids, Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) found in fish or eggs have numerous benefits for the heart and body metabolism. Fortified products and supplements should be considered to consumers of Omega-3 fatty acids. Plant-based sources of Omega-3 fatty acids are canola oil, flax seed, soy oil, soybeans, and walnuts. However, these are not sufficient to meet the body’s daily needs. 

  • Iron and Zinc 

Iron and Zinc are not easily absorbed from plant sources.  

Iron is required for hemoglobin synthesis of red blood cells and to prevent anemia. Lentils, whole grain products, dark-leafy vegetables, and dried fruits are good sources of iron. The amount of iron required for vegetarians is almost double the requirement for meat and poultry eaters. To increase absorption of iron, Vitamin C foods should be consumed at the same time. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, strawberries, cabbage, broccoli, and tomatoes. 

Zinc is required for many enzymes in the body. It is also essential for protein formation. Good sources of zinc include cheese, whole grains, soy products, nuts, legumes, and wheat germ. 

  • Iodine 

Vegans do not get enough iodine in their diet. It is important to use iodized salt to boost your intake. Iodine deficiency can lead to deficiency of thyroid hormones, causing a goiter. 

The take home message 

Giving up meat and adopting a vegetarian diet provide many health benefits for preventing and treating certain diseases. However, it is important to know and focus on consuming nutrients that can be challenging to get when eating a vegetarian diet. An appropriately planned diet has nutritious, well-balanced foods and beverages that emphasize nutrients that are missing if meals are not planned properly. You might consider a pescatarian or Lacto-ovo vegetarian diet which provides more nutrients for a healthy body than a vegan diet, such as calcium, Vitamin D, Omega-3 fatty acids, and protein from dairy products, eggs, fish, and seafood.  

Equip your kitchen, learn about food substitutions, pack in proteins, and plan your well-balanced diet. The key to healthy nutrition is to carefully choose the best foods to include, and cut down on prepared foods that contain high quantities of sugar, salt, and fat. Your body will thank you!  

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