What You Need to Know About the Vegetarian Diet
Based on the countless faux meat products that have popped up in grocery stores and vegetarian-friendly dishes that have made their way onto restaurant menus over the last few years, it seems like the world is leaning into plant-based eating.
But is a vegetarian diet really worth the hype? Here, the low-down on the meat-free eating style, plus all the benefits of being vegetarian that may convince you to say adios to beef, poultry, and seafood for good.
What Is a Vegetarian Diet?
There are a lot of dietary labels for meat-free eaters nowadays, and there’s a lot of nuance to each of them. In general, though, someone who follows a vegetarian diet will mainly eat plant foods and avoid animal proteins including meat and seafood, but they will eat eggs and dairy, says Alex Caspero, M.A., R.D., a registered dietitian and plant-based chef. To get even more nitty-gritty on the labels, a lacto-vegetarian is a person who eats plant foods and dairy products (but not eggs), an ovo-vegetarian is someone who eats plant foods and eggs (but not dairy), and a lacto-ovo vegetarian eats plant foods, dairy products, and eggs (which, is essentially the basic definition of a vegetarian). Compared to people who consider themselves “plant-based,” vegetarians may rely more heavily on dairy and eggs, but again, there’s no standardized definition for either the "plant-based" or "vegetarian" terms, adds Caspero. (See: What's the Difference Between a Plant-Based Diet and a Vegan Diet?)
And no, eating “plant foods” doesn’t mean you’re just noshing on rabbit food all day every day. “I think sometimes when we hear the words plant foods we automatically think of fruits and vegetables, but obviously there are so many more that are central to the diet, including legumes, beans, nuts, seeds, grains,” says Caspero. “And the vegetarian diet also includes things such as animal-derived kinds of milk, cheeses, and eggs" — a distinct difference between veganism. (Related: How to Cook Beans So They *Actually* Taste Good)
Benefits of Being Vegetarian
Vegetarians have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
You can thank the fiber in all those oats, veggies, and beans for this vegetarian diet benefit. A review of 31 meta-analyses, published in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine, found that consuming high amounts of fiber — which is primarily found in vegetarian-friendly plant foods including beans and peas, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts — can significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. The primary reason: Soluble fiber, the type of fiber that makes you feel full and slows digestion, actually reduces the amount of LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, aka the “bad” cholesterol) in the blood, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Having high LDL levels can lead to the buildup of plaque in your arteries, which can ultimately cause a heart attack or stroke, according to the Mayo Clinic. (BTW, here's how much fiber you should actually be getting in your diet.)
Even studies that specifically researched vegetarians discovered this perk. A 10-year-long study of more than 76,000 people found that, on average, the vegetarians in the study were 24 percent less likely to die of heart disease than the non-vegetarians.
Vegetarian diets promote a healthy gut.
All that fiber also comes with vegetarian diet benefits for your digestive health. “Because vegetarian patterns of eating tend to be higher in fiber, generally there’s improved mobility, so you have better bowel movements, and that’s linked to the reduction of some cancers [such as colon cancer],” says Maya Feller, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist and Shape Brain Trust member. Plus, the prebiotic fibers you score from noshing on onions, garlic, dandelion greens, asparagus, and artichokes will fuel probiotics, the “good” bacteria that support a healthy gut, she adds.
Vegetarians have a lower risk of developing diabetes.
Turns out, people who eat predominantly plants tend to have much lower rates of type 2 diabetes, says Caspero. And research backs this vegetarian diet benefit up: A 2008 study found that vegetarians were 74 percent less likely to develop diabetes than non-vegetarians during a 17-year period. “The reason comes down to a lot of factors, but the fiber is really the key thing,” she explains.
Reminder, diabetes is caused when blood sugar levels are too high for a prolonged period of time. But increasing soluble fiber intake can help lower blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity, which allows cells to use blood glucose more effectively and further reduces blood sugar. “Just eating more plants is going to boost up your fiber intake, and that is going to create a decreased risk for two of the top medical conditions, type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease,” says Caspero.
Vegetarian diets lower blood pressure.
In case high school health class is all a blur, here’s a quick recap: High dietary sodium intake is linked with high blood pressure — a condition in which blood pushes up against the walls of your arteries with higher-than-typical pressure — which increases the risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Sticking to a vegetarian diet, however, can help keep your blood pressure low. In fact, a JAMA Internal Medicine review of 32 observational studies found that vegetarians had lower blood pressure than meat-eating omnivores.
So what’s driving the decrease? Many of the fruits and veggies included in vegetarian diets, such as bananas, sweet potatoes, and artichokes, are rich in potassium and low in sodium. When you consume potassium, your blood vessels widen and you excrete more sodium through urine — a process that reduces the force of blood against the arteries and the size of plasma (which carries salt, water, and enzymes) in the blood, ultimately lowering blood pressure, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Vegetarians may have increased longevity.
While not necessarily vegetarian-specific, a review of six studies found that very low meat intake was linked with a significant decrease in risk of death, and when study participants stuck to this eating style for more than two decades, their life expectancy increased by an average of 3.6 years. What’s more, “when we look at the Blue Zones — areas where there is a higher population than would be anticipated of those who live over 100 — they tend to all be plant-predominant,” says Caspero. “They’re not specifically plant-based, vegan, or even vegetarian, but just people who tend to eat more plants and lower amounts of things like dairy and red meat.” (Related: What Is the Blue Zone Diet?)
Drawbacks of a Vegetarian Diet
Since vitamin B12, a nutrient that helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy, is found primarily in animal foods and in some fortified foods such as cereals, Caspero recommends those following a vegetarian diet take a supplement to reach their daily recommended dietary allowance of 2.4 micrograms. “That can be an added cost and can be an inconvenience, but thankfully B12 supplementation is very cheap, so you’re only talking a couple of dollars a month,” she adds.
For the same reason, vegetarians may also need to keep an eye on their intake of iron, a mineral that’s used to make proteins in red blood cells that carry oxygen from the lungs throughout the body and to muscles. The problem: The type of iron found in plants isn’t absorbed as well as the type of iron found in meat, says Feller. That means that vegetarians need to consume nearly twice as much iron to get their fill, per the NIH. “In general, what we tell people is to have vitamin C with it [so the body absorbs it better] and to be intentional,” says Feller. “You may want to think about having some fortified grain products or taking a supplement if you’re seeing clinical manifestations of iron deficiency.” Try adding iron-rich plant foods such as lentils, spinach, and tofu to your plate and pairing them with vitamin C-packed red and green peppers, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts to get the maximum vegetarian benefits.
Aside from the potential nutrient deficiencies, Caspero also notes that being vegetarian can sometimes put you in a tough spot during social situations. “If you grew up in a place that is still really heavily meat-based or your family or partner still wants to eat an omnivore diet, there can be some friction when it comes to reducing or removing those foods completely,” she says. To make the situation easier, Caspero recommends focusing on the foods the entire household enjoys that just happen to be vegetarian, which will ensure no one feels like they’re giving up their favorite foods.
In general, the vegetarian diet is fine for anyone to try out. “I don’t know of any population where it would be harmful or where I wouldn’t recommend a vegetarian diet,” says Caspero. And Feller agrees: “I think when it’s well-balanced and there’s sufficient and macro and micronutrients, it’s a fantastic way of eating.”
So, Is Being Vegetarian Healthy?
Though plant-based eaters may seem like the epitome of health, simply ditching meat doesn’t mean you’re automatically healthy, says Caspero. “If I’m suddenly eating a vegetarian diet that’s really rich in dairy, cheese, and refined grain products, I’m probably not going to see any of those purported health benefits that we know are linked to plant-based diets, which come from eating more plants,” she says. Translation: Whole plant foods need to be a part of your diet in order to potentially see any health perks.
What's more, the vegetarian diet isn't the flavorless, uninspired eating style everyone makes it out to be, says Caspero. Omnivores tend to center their meals around one protein and then round out their meals with a side or two, but this way of eating is upended when you cut out the meat portion, she says.
“It feels really scary, but I think going vegetarian expands your diet because you think about food in a way that perhaps you didn’t before,” she explains. “You figure out you can make a whole meal of grilled butternut squash steaks, some really yummy curries, or different kinds of vegetable-forward meals that maybe you wouldn’t have thought of before because your focus was on that traditional protein. Now, you’re focusing more on the wonderful plant-based foods that used to be an afterthought.”