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The long-term health benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet are a much-debated subject. As more people turn to a meat-free diet as a way of life it is important to assess the nutrient intake of such diets.

What is a vegetarian diet?

Vegetarians are defined by the vegetarian society as those who do not consume any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or by-products of animal slaughter. There are also Lacto-ovo vegetarians that consume dairy products and/or eggs and vegans that avoid all animal and animal-derived products.

Is a vegetarian diet healthy?

A well-planned vegetarian/vegan diet can provide your body with all its nutritional requirements. Nevertheless, there are some nutrients deficiencies that are of greater concern when following a vegetarian or vegan diet. Evidence suggests that the nutrients most likely to be consumed in low quantities include omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium.

An insufficient intake of these nutrients can result in health issues such as memory problems, depression, poor bone health and anaemia. Individuals undergoing a vegan diet are more susceptible to calcium and vitamin B12 deficiencies compared to vegetarians.

On the other hand, vegetarian and vegan diets have a tendency to contain less saturated fat and cholesterol compared to the diets of meat eaters. As well as, more likely to contain higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, fibre and plant compounds like phenols.

For this reason, following a plant-based diet could help to lower your risk of certain diseases including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer:

Obesity and weight gain
Studies show that vegetarians have a lower BMI and lower prevalence of obesity compared to non-vegetarians. The reasons for this are unclear but the increased fat and lower fibre consumption present in the average meat eaters diet compared to vegetarian/vegan diet could be a contributing factor.

Those on a vegetarian/vegan diet would also be at a lower risk of type-2 diabetes. This is understandable as diabetes shows a strong correlation with obesity.

Cardiovascular disease
Risk factors for cardiovascular disease include high cholesterol, hypertension and high blood pressure. Meat eaters are at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease compared to those on a plant-based diet. This may be due to a generally higher intake of saturated fat and cholesterol reported in non-vegetarian diets.

The evidence of cancer risk and plant-based diets is unclear. Nonetheless, there are some studies that suggest that vegetarians and vegans may be at lower risk of certain cancers including stomach and colorectal.

Bone health
Research implies that vegetarians and especially vegans have an increased risk of poor bone health. Vegans may have a 30% higher chance of fracture risk compared to meat eaters. This is thought to be due to possible lower intakes of certain vitamins and minerals including calcium and vitamin D.

Overall, it seems that it is possible to follow a healthy balanced vegan or vegetarian diet. A well-planned plant-based diet may lower your risk of certain diseases but it is advisable to be aware of possible nutritional deficiencies.

It is important to note, the role of diet in related diseases is very complex and there will be other factors that may contribute to an increased risk such as exercise, smoking, alcohol intake and stress.

Therefore, it is important to consider many lifestyle factors when trying to lead a healthy way of life. The healthiest diet is a well-balanced one, regardless of whether you are vegetarian, vegan or a meat eater.

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