A vegetarian diet can be very healthy, but the diet won't automatically be healthier by cutting out meat. There’s no doubt that vegetarian diets are good for your health. Research shows that people with a balanced plant-based diet are slimmer and healthier in some cases than meat eaters. They also have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and type 2 diabetes. However, being vegetarian can also increase some health risks. Like any other diet, it is about what you consume in nutrition. Not all vegetarians are vegan and being either does not mean healthy.
Vegan or Vegetarian
By traditional definition, a vegetarian (food/diet focused) does not eat meat, fish or poultry. There are other variations that include raw foods, eggs and dairy. People who primarily follow a vegetarian diet but include fish are referred to as pescatarian, while those who are veggie focused, but occasionally eat meat are considered flexitarian.
Vegans (lifestyle focused) involve no animal products in the lifestyle including food, ingredients (i.e., avoiding gelatin, honey or casein), clothing, household and body products. They follow general guidelines of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the largest animal rights organization in the world.
The lines have become blurred in distinguishing the two as consumers confuse and use the terms interchangeably, but they are different. Vegetarians don't consume meat. Vegans don't engage animal products in their daily lifestyle, including their food intake.
Typical plant-based diets are rich in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and legumes. A true vegetarian has a plant-powered diet. However, it's not uncommon for some to replace a meat with multiple servings of carbohydrates, which are necessary, but quality and quantity matters. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests that 45 to 65 percent of daily calories should come from unrefined complex carbohydrates (non-starchy veggies, nuts, fruit). Refined simple carbs, including starches like potatoes and corn, should be minimal. Highly processed foods and refined carbs, are the downfall of any diet including vegetarianism. Regularly indulging in these foods can diminish the health benefits gained from eating meat-free. Eating an unhealthy vegetarian diet poses a higher risk of illness than a well-balanced diet that includes meat and dairy.
Harvard Studies show that while diets with healthy plant foods decrease diabetes risk by 34%, diets with less healthy plant foods and substitutes increase risk of diabetes by 16%. Vegetarians also tend to have lowered levels of white blood cells, which reduces immune system power and increases vulnerability to disease, infection and sickness.
So how can you avoid common mistakes and ensure you are eating a healthy vegetarian diet?
Mix It Up
Avoid or reduce prepackaged plant-based snacks and meals. Forget what the front of the package says. Buzz words and phrases like "organic" or "Non-GMO" are appearing on everything from candy to canned goods. If you pick it up to buy it, marketers have done their job. However, your job as a health-conscious consumer is to read the back for nutrition facts and ingredients. It's a form of dietary self-defense.
Different fruits, vegetables and grains will nourish you in different ways, so it’s important to mix up the menu to make sure you aren’t missing out on essential vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. Focus on getting healthy carbs (sweet potatoes, brown rice and quinoa), good fats (avocado, nuts and seeds), protein (legumes, tofu), calcium (dark leafy greens, broccoli, almonds), iron (lentils, soybeans, nuts), vitamin B12 (fortified soy or nut milk) and vitamin D (mushrooms, fortified soy milk) in your diet.
Adopting a vegetarian lifestyle doesn’t mean you miss out on your favorite comfort foods. Change them to meat-free and watch for highly processed foods. For example, try switching regular pork ribs for BBQ Portobello (oven baked portobello mushroom strips with your favorite barbeque sauce), or Eggplant Gratin. Both recipes are in the Flexitarian Forward recipe e-book which provides more than 60 plant-powered options for vegetarians, vegans and anyone who occasionally eats meat. Many of the Main Dish recipes provide vegetarian and vegan preparation alternatives. The Drinks recipes are all juices, smoothies and other drinks.
What About Supplements
Theoretically, you can get all the nutrients your body needs without supplements. However, if your diet isn't planned properly and you don't have a clear understanding of whole food values, your wellness and medical needs or health condition, you could miss out on essential nutrients. For example, vegetarians and vegans need iron, vitamin B12, calcium and protein, which primarily come from meat and animal products. If you don't eat meat, you need to include a quality supplement to get the required nutrition. Doubling up on vegetables and carbs doesn't sufficiently address the deficit.
Choosing drug store supplements based on packaging advertising is also tricky. You might be buying products that contain more bulking agents and other ingredients than the actual supplement.
Some groups are advised to take vitamin supplements, regardless of their diet choices. It's always best to start with a thorough physical including lab work from your doctor. Knowing your current health state and medications, if applicable helps determine your next steps to improving or maintaining wellness. Work with your doctor when considering adding supplements with medications as they can sometimes interfere with efficacy of the meds, and vis versa.
VKNOX is a holistic nutrition wellness practitioner, certified behavior change specialist, certified fitness nutrition educator, lifestyle transformation coach and author. She is the creator of the R.A.W. Lifestyle System.