The popularity of plant-based diets is on the rise. In fact, according to a 2018 Gallup poll, 5% of Americans consider themselves vegetarian. That translates to about 16 million people. (1) What’s more, 37% of all Americans report consistently opting for vegetarian meals when eating out. (2) With the popularity and availability of new meat alternatives and other vegetarian options, going veg is easier than ever. But is vegetarianism right for you?

People choose to become vegetarian for a lot of reasons. For some, it’s an ethical decision based on opposition to animal cruelty. For others, it’s an environmental concern. Raising meat produces more climate-changing emissions—especially methane—than growing plant-based foods. (3)(4) For many, however, it’s a way to improve their health.

Did you know?
Becoming vegetarian won’t automatically make you healthier. Chips, cookies, and pizza are technically vegetarian but typically low in nutrition.

man in kitchen cutting up tomatoes

A growing number of people are opting to eliminate meat from their diet, often with healthy results.

What is a vegetarian diet?

At its core, a vegetarian diet is one that eliminates meat and other animal products. But becoming vegetarian isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of eating.

Here are the five most common types of vegetarianism:

  • Lacto-vegetarians don’t eat meat, fish, poultry, and eggs but they do eat dairy
  • Ovo-vegetarians don’t eat meat, poultry, seafood or dairy, but they can eat eggs
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians avoid meat, fish, and poultry, but do include dairy and eggs
  • Pescatarian diets exclude meat and poultry, dairy, and eggs, but allow fish
  • Vegans have the strictest diet. They don’t eat meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy or honey

Benefits of a vegetarian diet

Many people who follow a vegetarian diet tend to eat large amounts of fresh, often organic, plant-based foods. These foods are typically high in both fiber and anti-oxidants, which have been linked in studies to better health and a lower risk of numerous diseases.

Weight loss

Studies show that a well-planned vegetarian diet can help people achieve and maintain healthy weight loss. (5) In one study that appeared in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 74 overweight people with type 2 diabetes were assigned to eat either a vegetarian diet or a conventional anti-diabetic diet. The researchers found that the vegetarian diet was almost twice as effective as the conventional diet for weight loss. The vegetarian diet also reduced a type of body fat called subfascial fat that is associated with insulin resistance. (6)

nurse taking an elderly woman's blood pressure

Improved cardiovascular health is one of the most well-researched benefits of vegetarianism.

Heart health

Vegetarian diets are well known for conferring a multitude of cardiovascular benefits. Research reports that a plant-based diet lowers both blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and reduces the clumping of platelets in arteries.

Did you know?
It’s so effective that it’s estimated to reduce the risk of developing or dying from coronary heart disease by 40%. (7)

In one recent long-term study of more than 48,000 people, researchers compared the cardiovascular health in those eating a vegetarian diet, a pescatarian diet, and a meat-based diet. After 18 years, the study found that pescatarians had a 13% lower rate of ischemic heart disease, and vegetarians had a 22% lower rate. But the news from this particular study wasn’t all positive. The researchers also noted that the vegetarians had a 20% higher rate of stroke compared to the meat-eaters. (8)

Lower risk of type 2 diabetes

Diabetes is one of the fastest-growing diseases in the U.S. According to the American Diabetes Association, more than 30 million Americans currently suffer from type 2 diabetes. (9) But, even though diabetes is becoming more prevalent among the general population, rates are significantly lower in those eating a vegetarian diet.

One two-year study of more than 15,000 people found vegetarians had half the odds of developing type 2 diabetes compared to non-vegetarians. And the risk was even lower in people adhering to a vegan diet. (10) But the quality of the foods you eat matters too. A recent long-term study involving nearly 70,000 men and women discovered that those who focused on high-quality, minimally processed plant foods—think whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and healthy oils like olive or avocado oil—reduced their risk by an impressive 34%. Those eating more processed, less healthy plant food also had a lower risk, but only 16%—about 50% of that enjoyed by those eating healthier foods. (11)

Better digestive health

One possible mechanism for a plant-based diet’s positive effects may be its influence on the bacteria living in the human digestive tract. Studies comparing the microbiome of meat-eaters to non-meat eaters have found that vegans and vegetarians tend to have a larger abundance of key bacteria called bacteroidetes and a lower incidence of other bacteria known as firmicutes compared to omnivores. (12)

According to one recent study in the Frontiers of Nutrition, people following a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle also have a more diverse and stable microbiome than people who eat meat. Diversity is important since different strains of bacteria provide different health benefits. The fiber found in vegetarian diets also encourages the growth of short-chain fatty acids that improve immunity, reduce inflammation, and help regulate how the intestines work. (13)

A vegetarian diet also reduces the risk of diverticular disease, a condition that occurs when small bulging pouches form in the wall of the colon. Research suggests that about 35% of people under the age of 50 have diverticulosis, with the risk increasing with age. (14) While most people don’t experience any symptoms, these pouches can become inflamed and infected in some people, causing a complication known as diverticulitis. But according to the EPIC-Oxford study, adopting a fiber-rich vegetarian diet reduces the risk of diverticular disease by 31% compared to a diet that regularly includes meat. (15)

Reduced risk of cancer

It’s estimated that what you eat accounts for at least 30% of all cancers. With that in mind, investigators evaluated data from the Adventist Health Study-2 found that people eating a vegan diet had significantly less risk for all types of cancer. For women, that included female-specific cancers like ovarian cancer. The researchers also noted that those eating a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet had a decreased risk of gastrointestinal cancers. The authors of this study concluded that vegetarian diets provide significant protection against cancer. (16)

Did you know?
Vegetarians are at a lower risk of cataract than their meat-eating counterparts. (17)

plant-based dish with chick peas and vegetables

Focusing on minimally-processed fresh food can maximize the benefits of a vegetarian diet.

Building a healthy vegetarian diet

As tempting as it might be to grab a ready-made vegetarian meal from the freezer section or dip into the drive-through for a veggie burger and fries, it’s considerably better to focus on fresh, unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Your shopping list should include fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh, and plant-based milk types. If weight loss is among the reasons for adopting this way of eating, careful planning can even help you incorporate a ketogenic diet into a vegetarian lifestyle!

For those with celiac, irritable bowel syndrome or other digestive issues, a vegetarian diet can be modified to be low-FODMAP. FODMAP stands for a group of specific carbohydrates that can trigger symptoms in people with functional gastrointestinal conditions. FODMAPs include foods like wheat, beans, dairy, and specific fruits and vegetables. Fortunately, there are low-FODMAP alternatives that fit into a vegetarian diet, including tofu, lentils, quinoa, nuts, seeds, and many vegetables.

Addressing nutritional deficiencies

One of the most common misconceptions about vegetarian diets is that it is lacking in protein. While it’s true that, ounce for ounce meat is higher in protein than plants, people eating a traditional lacto-ovo vegetarian diet get more than enough protein to meet healthy requirements. (18) What about vegans who don’t eat eggs or dairy? Certain plants provide all the essential amino acids needed to supply the body with protein. These include quinoa, buckwheat, and soy. (19) Hemp, rice, and pea protein powders can also supplement a strict vegan diet.

Protein aside, there are other nutrients that may be in short supply if you’re following a vegetarian or vegan diet. The most common deficiencies are calcium, iron, and vitamin B12. (20)(21)(22)(23) Vegetarian-friendly supplements can help fill in these nutritional gaps.

The bottom line

Studies consistently show that eating a plant-based diet can be part of a healthy lifestyle. But whether you choose to be lacto-ovo, keto-vegetarian, or vegan, the secret is in the foods you choose. Opting for minimally-processed whole foods in lieu of chemically-filled ultra-processed foods can provide the nutrients your body needs to thrive—sans meat.

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  1. What percentage of Americans are vegetarian? Gallup. September 27, 2019. Available at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/267074/percentage-americans-vegetarian.aspx
  2. How many adults eat vegetarian and vegan meals when eating out? The Vegetarian Resource Group Harris Poll. 2016. Available at: https://www.vrg.org/nutshell/Polls/2016_adults_veg.htm
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