Health Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet
Vegetarian diets are becoming increasingly popular due to their health benefits (1), anti-carnism (2), ethical issues on killing and cruel treatment of animals for human consumption (3), and environmental impacts. High meat consumption has often fallen under scrutiny and has been declared as a threat to both human health and the environment.
Researchers have stressed on the fact that the increasing pressures on human health, animals, and planets, are expected to have negative consequences for global food security (Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition 2016). Hence, a transition to a reduced meat diet is necessary.
Vegetarianism is rising, for example in Germany 7.8 million people are vegetarian and worldwide the number of vegetarians and vegans are expected to be around one Billion (4). A rising trend is also evident in gastronomy, in 2015 there were 317 vegetarian restaurants in Germany which grew by 80.6%, with 616 restaurants (4).
What is a vegetarian diet?
The term vegetarian is constantly evolving hence becoming difficult to define since there are some vegetarians who abstain from all animal products and some occasionally consume red meat, poultry, and fish and still identify themselves vegetarians (5).
There are different types of vegetarians (Table 1) such as lacto-ovo-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pescatarian, flexitarian, ovo-vegetarian, and plant-based diet (6).
|Type of diet||Includes||Excludes||A vegetarian diet?|
|Non-red meat eat-er/|
|all other foods from animals and plant sources||Beef, pork, and lamb||No|
|Plant based||all foods, but bases diet on foods from plant sources and limits foods from animal sources||None, but limits food from animal sources to some degree||No, used as a gen-eral term which in-cludes diets that ei-ther limit animal based foods or ex-clude one or more foods from animal sources|
|Pesco-vegetarian||Fish, dairy products, eggs, and all foods from plant sources||None, but limits food from animal sources to some degree|
All meats but fish and shellfish
|Pollo-vegetarian||Poultry, dairy prod-ucts, all foods from plant sources||all meats but poultry such as turkey, goose, quail, duck, and chicken||No|
|Lacto-ovo-vegetarian||dairy products, eggs, and all foods from plant sources||all meats e.g. beef, pork, poultry, lamb, venison, fish, shell-fish, and wild game||Yes|
|Lacto-vegetarian||dairy products and all foods from plant sources||all meats and eggs||Yes|
|Ovo-vegetarian||Eggs and all foods from plant sources||All meats and dairy products||Yes|
|Vegan||All foods from plant sources||All meats, eggs, and dairy products||Yes|
Understanding the motivation behind following a vegetarian diet
An individual might choose a vegetarian lifestyle due to:
- ethical reasons and health benefits (7),
- environmental concerns,
- weight control,
- religious factors (8; 5),
- feelings of disgust at the sensory properties of meat (5),
- and not liking the taste of meat (9).
- In addition, some individuals adhere to a vegetarian diet due to economic reasons, being born in a vegetarian family and disgusted by meat (8).
Many people switch to vegetarian diets for a certain period of time but are not able to sustain it for a longer period. A study conducted in Western New York on vegetarians (10) underlined three major factors that influence the maintenance of a vegetarian diet.
- There are personal factors that include conviction about animal welfare, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight on a vegetarian diet, and acquiring skills and knowledge of vegetarian cooking.
- Social circle plays a role which includes family and friends who are vegetarian, involved in animal rights and environmental protection groups and who receive support from family members.
- The availability and accessibility of vegetarian foods is also a decisive factor when it comes to sticking to a vegetarian diet (10).
The study concluded that social network is crucial in the maintenance of a vegetarian diet (10; 11), supported a recent study which indicated that family pressure to eat meat is a barrier when it comes to abstaining from meat, hence social support is crucial (5).
Factors leading to abandoning vegetarian diets are related to improper nutrition, missing the taste of meat, and switching to an environment where consumption of meat is a norm (5). There are different forms of vegetarianism and motivation behind such a lifestyle also varies.
Here is why a vegetarian diet is healthy for you
1. Nutrient dense
Fruits and vegetables are high in vitamin, minerals, and antioxidants proving beneficial for your digestive system, providing immunity against various illnesses, has an anti-aging effect and guards against cancer and heart diseases.
2. Prevents cancer
Vegetarian diets are inherently high in fiber, low in saturated fats, and loaded with cancer-protective phytochemicals that help in preventing cancer. Studies have shown that vegetarians are 40% less likely to develop cancer as compared to meat eaters (19).
Moreover, the WHO has recognized excessive consumption of red meat as carcinogenic to human health (20). A carcinogen is a chemical formed during the preparation of meat such as cooking and processing. Consumption of meat has known health benefits, yet many health organizations advise limiting the intake of red and processed meat due to various health risks associated with excessive meat eating.
A recent report by World Health Organization revealed the carcinogenic and cancer-causing elements in processed meat and increasing levels of antimicrobial resistance in meat. Antimicrobial resistance implies the ability of bacteria/viruses to resist the effects of drugs which means that the growth of germs is not stopped, and they are not killed.
Infections caused by such resistant organisms require expensive and toxic alternatives and in some cases, are difficult to treat. In case, of animal food, when animals get antibiotics the drug-resistant bacteria survive and multiplies in their guts (21). When the meat is not cooked properly the bacteria can spread to the human body (21).
3. Boosts heart health
A recent study showed a correlation between high intake of healthy plant-based diet and substantially lower risk of coronary heart disease. Whereas a plant-based diet that includes less-healthy plant foods is associated with a higher risk of coronary heart disease (22). Doctor Axe provides very detailed information on coronary heart disease and natural remedies to overcome it.
Animal products are inherently high in saturated fat and a leading cause of cholesterol in the diet. Studies suggest that a vegetarian diet high in fiber and low in fat combined with stress-reducing tools, exercise, and prescribed drug intervention can prevent the hardening of arteries.
4. Helps with weight loss
Vegetarian diets omit the intake of meat, hence losing weight is easier as compared to the meat-based diets (23). If you include healthy options in your vegetarian diet such as fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes and quality protein you are on your way to a healthy weight and shedding extra weight becomes very easy.
By avoiding foods that are high in unhealthy fat and low fiber instead opting for foods with high-quality fat (in limited quantity) and high in fiber you can easily lose weight. Among weight loss, you will encounter major improvements in blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and you can even cure type 2 diabetes.
There are a couple of things to consider if you wish to follow a strict plant-based diet such as deficiency in Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, zinc, amino acids, and iron. However, as I always say it is about maintaining a healthy balance according to your body type and lifestyle. If you are not willing to give up meat entirely you can always include some animal-based products in your diet but in adequate amounts. According to researchers having animal-based product three times a week can be beneficial for health.
At the end of the day, it is all about enjoying what you eat and staying healthy!
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20. World Health Organization. Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. October 2015.
21. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Antibiotic Resistance (AR) Solutions Initiatives. [Online] January 5, 2017. [Cited: April 16, 2017.] https://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/solutions-initiative/ar-food.html.
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