Do you follow a vegetarian diet or are you considering doing so? You’d be joining more than six million Americans who presently eat no meat, fish, or poultry. And you might see significant improvements in your health.
“Traditionally, research into vegetarianism focused mainly on potential nutritional deficiencies, but in recent years the pendulum has swung the other way, and studies are confirming the health benefits of meat-free eating,” according to the Harvard Women’s Health Watch. “Plant-based eating is recognized as not only nutritionally sufficient, but also as a way to reduce the risk for many chronic illnesses.”
Eating a mainly plant-based diet can lower your risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Vegetarians tend to consume less saturated fat and cholesterol than meat eaters, and higher amounts of fiber as well as many vitamins and minerals. This contributes to lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and lower body mass index. All of those factors are associated with longevity and a reduced risk for chronic illnesses.
But simply avoiding meat will not ensure better health. “I meet vegetarians who eat mostly macaroni and cheese three times a day,” says Andrew Weil, MD. “That’s not a healthy diet.” Consuming a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and other plant-based foods is essential.
You Are What You Eat
“Although the word ‘vegetarian’ implies an emphasis on vegetables in the diet, in practice it has been traditionally been interpreted to mean an absence of meat,” writes Gary E. Fraser, MD, PhD, of the Loma Linda University Medical Center in California. He notes the difficulty in trying to evaluate vegetarian diets based on such narrow criteria. “It unfortunately allows the possibility of grouping together subjects under one label who may eat in quite different ways.”
The American Dietetic Association (ADA) has stated that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” The key phrase there is “appropriately planned.” Getting all of your essential nutrients from a plant-based diet requires some work.
“The vegan diet, in which you eat only plant-based foods—no cheese, eggs, honey, or other animal-derived foods—does require you to think about the nutrients you might be missing,” says Dr. Weil. And the Harvard Women’s Health Watch newsletter cautions that “people who follow a vegetarian and especially a vegan diet may be at risk of getting insufficient amounts of vitamins D and K, both needed for bone health.”
Filling in the Gaps
Following a restrictive diet can be challenging as far as getting all the nutrients you need. Going vegan, for example, eliminates food sources of vitamin B12 and calcium-rich milk products. Vegetarians should be particularly aware of the following nutrients.
Calcium. Essential for building and maintaining teeth and bones. The best sources are low-fat milk and other dairy foods, but you’ll get sufficient amounts from dark green vegetables such as collard greens, kale, and broccoli. Some juices, cereals, yogurt, and soy products are enriched with calcium.
Iodine. A component of thyroid hormones, which help regulate metabolism and the function of the brain, heart, kidneys, and thyroid gland. A small amount of iodized salt (1/4 teaspoon) each day can be helpful for vegetarians.
Iron. A key component of red blood cells. While it’s abundant in beans and peas, whole grains, and dark green, leafy vegetables, the form of iron found in plants is not as easily absorbed as that from meat. Pairing foods high in vitamin C with your iron sources will help the body absorb it.
Omega-3 fatty acids. Crucial for cardiovascular health. Plant sources include walnuts, flaxseeds, and soy. “Be aware that the vegetarian sources of omega 3s are not as good as oily fish,” says Dr. Weil. “Consider taking a fish oil supplement or, at least, an algae-derived supplement.”
Protein. Maintains healthy skin, bones, muscles, and organs. Eggs and dairy are good sources, but sufficient protein can also be obtained from plant-based foods if a variety of them—particularly soy products, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains—are eaten throughout the day.”
Vitamin B12. Necessary for the production of red blood cells and to prevent anemia. It’s found almost exclusively in animal products. Consider a vitamin supplement, vitamin-enriched cereals, or fortified soy products.
Vitamin D. Essential for bone health. This vitamin is added to cow’s milk and some brands of rice milk and soy milk. If you’re not eating fortified foods or getting adequate sunlight, consider supplementing with vitamin D2, which is the form derived from plants.
Zinc. A key component of many enzymes. Like iron, it isn’t easily absorbed from plants, but good sources are whole grains, legumes, and nuts. Cheese is a good source if you eat dairy products.
Vegans are total vegetarians, eating only plant-based foods. They avoid all food derived from animals, including meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, and cheese.
Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat no meat, poultry or fish, but do consume eggs and dairy products.
Lacto-vegetarians avoid meat, poultry, fish, and eggs, but eat dairy products.
Ovo-vegetarians avoid meat, poultry, fish, and dairy, but do eat eggs.
Partial vegetarians avoid red meat but may eat fish (pesco-vegetarians) or poultry (pollo-vegetarians).