Do Vegetarians Have The Upper Hand?

Various forms of vegetarianism are growing in popularity and for many reasons, but is it truly advisable from a health perspective?

February 25, 2016
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There are a lot of niche dietary preferences (paleo, gluten free, low carb), but I think the one that sparks the most curiosity is vegetarianism or, better yet, veganism. But what do you eat? How do you get enough protein? Perhaps most fundamentally, why?

For a while, the most common reason was ethics: It’s wrong to kill an animal when there are perfectly edible, nutritious plant foods available. Other reasons that are rising in popularity are personal health and sustainability.

There are also different “types” of vegetarianism. Lacto-ovo vegetarians consume eggs and dairy, while vegans reject anything derived from an animal. There are also pescetarians (who eat fish) and pollotarians (who eat chicken). More recently, there are “veggans” (vegans who eat eggs) and pegans (a hybrid of vegan and paleo). Oh and then there are “flexitarians” who will occasionally eat animal products, but not always.

There are arguments on both sides of the fence when it comes to vegetarianism, but does one side edge out the other?

THE PROS

We have to establish one thing early on: Vegetarians and, yes, vegans can easily meet their protein needs and live perfectly healthy lives without animal products. The question is not whether vegetarian diets can be healthy, but are they superior to animal-based ones?

A lot of the evidence says yes. Vegetarian diets have been associated with lower cholesterol, blood pressure, heart disease, and certain cancers. In fact, of Harvard’s list of 11 foods that may help lower cholesterol, a whopping 10 are plants.

Cancer, specifically, has gotten a lot of media attention over the past year after the International Agency for Research on Cancer published a statement that red and processed meats are significantly associated with increased risk of colon cancer. From this perspective, a diet that eschews them would by nature be a healthier one.

Seventh-day Adventists are another oft-cited example of the benefits of a plant-based diet. Compared to 3 percent of U.S. citizens overall, 30 percent of Seventh-day Adventists are vegetarian. They are also known for living extremely long and healthy lives. Many researchers think it has a lot to do with their plant-based diets.

Our health is not the only consideration for the “ideal” healthy diet, however. Our food choices have a direct and significant impact on the environment. Although a few studies have played devil’s advocate, the vast majority of evidence shows that animal products put a greater strain on the planet than plants do. A healthy diet has to account for how it affects the sustainability of the food system and planet overall, and vegetarianism seems to have the upper hand here.

THE CONS

Even though a healthy vegetarian diet is more than possible, you do have to be vigilant about nutrition. Animal products are our main sources of certain nutrients, including vitamin B12 and EPA/DHA (the forms of omega-3 fats most readily used by the body). It’s easier to get these nutrients without relying on supplements if you continue to eat animal products to some degree.

It’s also extremely important to note that just because a vegetarian diet can be healthier than an omnivorous one, that does not hold true for all vegetarian diets. Some individuals, for example, default to being “pastatarians,” a tongue-in-cheek term for vegetarians who rely on carbohydrates almost exclusively. There are also plenty of “accidentally vegan” foods and other vegetarian-friendly but highly processed products, such as Oreos and low-quality veggie burgers; filling your diet with these foods would not guarantee improved health.

Vegetarianism is also likely too extreme for the majority of individuals. By going too gung-ho on strict vegetarianism, we run the risk of alienating a lot of people who start to feel overwhelmed or intimidated and decide against even trying.

BOTTOM LINE: FIT OR FLOP?

FIT! As far as I know, there is little evidence that eating no animal products is significantly healthier than simply eating less, choosing higher quality options, and filling most of our diets with fiber-rich, vitamin-rich plants. However, done well, a vegetarian diet could be an express ticket to personal and planetary health.

If going full veggie is a bit of a stretch for you, experiment with Meatless Monday or dishes that use meat as a garnish; stir-fries are especially good for this. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Harvard Medical School both have excellent tips for reducing or eliminating animal products.

Regardless of how you choose to get your protein, focus on filling your diet with plenty of plants. And if you do decide to transition to a more plant-based diet, listen to your body and get regular blood work to see how you as an individual respond to those dietary changes.

There is no one-size-fits-all diet, but I think we could all stand to learn at least a thing or two from our veggie-loving compatriots.

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