The Risks and Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet

We all know that vegetables are a great source of nutrients that are vital to maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle. But can cutting out meat and animal products and adopting a vegetarian diet increase health benefits and provide you with the proper nutrition you require?

The key to maintaining healthy eating habits is to eat a variety of foods that contain all the essential requirements of good nutrition including fruit, vegetables, and sources of protein and iron, whether vegetarian or not. The following article can provide you with information about the risks and benefits of vegetarianism, and the key to maintaining a healthy diet through balance, variety, and moderation.

What is Vegetarianism?
There are several types of vegetarian diets that individuals generally adopt. However, the essence of vegetarianism lies in cutting down the consumption of meat and animal products such as milk or eggs. A healthy vegetarian diet, and healthy vegetarian meals, will ideally derive as much nutrition as possible from plant-based food such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds.

Of course, vegetarians differ in their attitudes as well as the reasons behind their dietary choices. In general, vegetarian diets are defined by the types of animal-derived foods that are incorporated into a diet, and include the following categories:

  • Vegan diets consist solely of plant-based foods, eliminating meat, poultry and fish as well as animal-derived food such as milk, eggs, cheese, and sometimes honey.
  • Lacto-vegetarian diets eliminate eggs, meat, fish and poultry but consume milk and milk products.
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets eliminate red meat, fish, and poultry but eat eggs, milk and milk products
  • Semivegetarian diets may incorporate small amounts of fish or poultry

The Benefits of Vegetarianism
Because a vegetarian diet incorporates less meat products as sources of nutrition, vegetarian diets commonly contain less fat and cholesterol as well as higher levels of fiber derived from vegetarian food. According to The American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, National Cholesterol Education Program and Committee on Diet and Health of the National Research Council, reducing fat intake to 30% of calories with no more than 10% of these consisting of saturated fats is recommended to lower the risk of chronic disease.

Some of the health benefits associated with a vegetarian diet include the following:

  • Leanness. Dietary fiber can decrease the absorption of food by 2-3%, resulting in a feeling of fullness that can decrease excessive food intake. Vegetarians have also been linked to a lower risk of obesity
  • Lower Blood Pressure. Studies have shown that vegans tend to have blood pressures between 10 to 15 mm Hg lower than non-vegetarians of the same age and sex
  • Lower Serum Cholesterol. Whole-fat milk products and eggs can raise serum blood lipid levels due to saturated fats and cholesterol content
  • Lower Rates of Colon Cancer. A high intake of animal fat and a diet high in meat may pose a risk of colon cancer by increasing the concentration of various carcinogens
  • Lower Rates of Diabetes have been associated with higher consumption of nuts and whole grains

Vegetarian diets have been linked to decreased risks of developing various types of cancers. Studies have shown that individuals who consume high levels of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may decrease the risk by up to 50%. Regular fruit and vegetable consumption has also been linked to decreased risks of fatal heart disease such as myocardial infarction, angina, cerebrovascular, and ischemic heart disease.

Risks of Vegetarianism
Balancing vegetarian food and nutrition is vital to maintaining a healthy vegetarian diet. Strict vegetarians may be at risk of several nutrition deficiencies such as vitamin B-12, riboflavin, zinc, calcium, iron, and essential amino acids such as lysine and methionine. Vegans and vegetarians are also at risk of energy deficiency in the form of calories, particularly in children.

Long-term deficiencies in an inadequate vegetarian diet may lead to the following complications:

  • Osteoporosis as a result of a lack of calcium causing bone demineralization
  • Rickets in children due to a lack of vitamin D
  • Iron-Deficiency Anemia due to low iron storage. One study found that 27% of women and 5% of men who were lacto-ovo-vegetarians had low serum ferritin levels (iron storage)
  • Macrocytic Anemia due to vitamin B-12 deficiency. This has been observed in infants breast-fed by mothers who are strict vegetarians
  • Emaciation or Slow Growth in vegetarian infants and children

Another issue facing vegetarians is low protein quality based on protein digestibility and amino acid composition. The risk associated with the protein quality of plant foods is based on a lack of certain essential amino acids that are found in natural combinations in animal protein. Combining different vegetarian nutrition sources of protein can ensure that all essential amino acids are found in a healthy vegetarian diet.

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