Vegetarians are at lower risk for some major diseases, plus their diets are more environmentally friendly.
If you've ever considered going vegetarian, science has some compelling evidence for why you might want to give it a go. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a major authority in the nutritional science world, just released a paper with new information about where they stand on vegetarian diets. The researchers evaluated numerous recent studies (both observational ones and experimental trials) done on vegetarianism, weighing the evidence of benefits of the diet as well as potential risks. The verdict? A well-planned vegetarian diet is completely healthy, and may even help prevent certain diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. What's more, vegetarian diets are also more environmentally friendly, since they use less natural resources and are associated with less damage to the environment.
Many people wonder what nutrients you lose when you stop eating meat and fish, especially since fish contains those important omega-3 fatty acids. While the paper does outline some nutritional concerns for vegetarians like iron, B12, and zinc deficiencies, it emphasizes that as long as you're eating a well-rounded diet, you can get these nutrients relatively easily. To get omega-3s, eat nuts and seeds like chia, flax, canola, and hemp, or their oils. Iron can be found in leafy green vegetables, legumes, and grains like quinoa. B12 is only found in animal products, but if you eat eggs or drink milk daily, you get the recommended intake. (Vegans need a B12 supplement or foods fortified with the vitamin.) Zinc can be found in soy products, legumes, grains, and cheese.
As for protein, the paper states that "vegetarian, including vegan, diets typically meet or exceed recommended protein intakes, when caloric intakes are adequate." So as long as you're eating enough calories and your diet incorporates whole, healthy foods, you're probably getting plenty of protein as a vegetarian. (If you're still worried, here are 6 high-protein vegan meal ideas.)
So what are the benefits? The most striking correlation mentioned in the paper is between vegetarianism and lowered risk of type 2 diabetes—vegans are 62 percent less likely to develop it, and Lacto-Ovo vegetarians are 38 percent less likely. Various studies have also linked vegetarianism to an overall 18 percent reduced risk of cancer. Additionally, the eating style may protect against obesity, which is related to not only diabetes but also heart disease. It's worth noting that if you're willing to eat a well-balanced diet like the one mentioned above, you're probably pretty health-minded to start with, which can make lowering your risk for these diseases easier in general. Interestingly, the researchers mention that veggie diets are A-OK for kids, since they get into the (ideally, lifelong) habit of eating more fruits and vegetables early on. It's also of note that vegetarian and vegan diets are considered healthy for children of all ages, minus ones who are of breastfeeding only age, which is 6 months and under. It's not uncommon for parents to be criticized for allowing or encouraging their children to skip meat and animal products, but according to the paper, there are no negative health effects of doing so as long as the diet incorporates key nutrients. (Here, read why vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters.)
Only 3.3 percent of Americans are vegetarian, and of those, 46 percent are vegan. If more people chose not to eat animal products, it could potentially help decrease environmental damage, according to the paper. Essentially, vegetarian diets require less natural resources to be sustained than omnivorous ones. As an example, the researchers cite a study that concluded that "substituting beans for beef in the diet would significantly reduce the environmental footprint worldwide. To produce 1kg protein from kidney beans requires 18 times less land, 10 times less water, 9 times less fuel, 12 times less fertilizer, and 10 times less pesticide in comparison to producing 1kg protein from beef." That's pretty convincing stuff. Plus, animal farms account for over 70 percent of water pollution in lakes and rivers in the U.S., so reducing the need for them could make our water cleaner. Meat production also makes a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, which could be lowered if the demand for meat decreased.
It's worth mentioning that the paper is crystal clear about the fact that the diet must be well-planned in order for someone to reap its benefits. You've got to eat whole, healthy foods more than you're eating unhealthy ones. Think: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, etc. If fact, if you anticipate your vegetarian diet consisting of only pizza, pasta, and french fries, you're probably better off sticking to being a meat-eater and focusing on eating a healthy diet as an omnivore.