A vegetarian diet is often praised as being very healthy, but is it really better for you than one that contains meat? The short answer: It all depends! Read on for the long answer.
First let’s look at what vegetarians eat. You may know two people who call themselves vegetarians who eat quite differently. That’s because there are several types of vegetarians. The main difference is in how much they avoid animal products. In a broad sense, a vegetarian is someone who does not eat any meat, poultry, fish or their byproducts (like cod liver oil or lard). Many vegetarians are lacto-ovo vegetarians, meaning they will not eat meat, poultry or seafood, but will consume eggs and dairy. Lacto-vegetarians will eat dairy but not eggs, and ovo-vegetarians will eat eggs but not dairy. A vegan is the strictest from of vegetarianism. Vegans exclude all animal products, even honey, and eat strictly plant-based foods.
What are the health benefits of a vegetarian diet?
While people may become vegetarian for a number of reasons like concerns about animal welfare or the environment, there are also some health benefits of the diet that are very appealing. Research has shown that people who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet have:
- lower LDL (bad) cholesterol
- lower blood pressure
- lower BMI
- lower incidence of Type 2 diabetes
- lower incidence of cancer
The foundation of a healthy vegetarian diet is made up of plant-based proteins (like
beans and soy products), fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. In other words, the vegetarian diet substitutes meat with more plant-based foods. A balanced and varied vegetarian diet is high in fibre and cancer-fighting antioxidants and phytochemicals. Cutting out meat also means you’ll be eating less saturated fat and cholesterol.
But do you have to completely cut out meat to see health benefits?
Eating a plant-based diet with a moderate amount of animal protein is just as protective from cancer as a vegetarian diet. There is strong evidence to show that eating no more than 18 ounces of red meat (beef, pork and lamb) per week (or 6 portions the size of a deck of cards) and avoiding processed meats altogether (such as deli meat or hot dogs) will reduce your risk of colorectal cancer. Choosing meat that is lower in fat, like skinless chicken breast or fish, will reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet while still giving you all of the nutrients. Oily fish is an excellent source of omega 3, which is important for heart health and brain function, and Vitamin D, which helps build strong bones. All meats are high in protein, iron, Vitamin B12 and zinc.
So no, you don’t have to cut out meat completely to get the same health benefits. Instead, try to reduce the amount of meat while increasing the amount of plant-based foods you eat.
A great way to start is by having one vegetarian meal or one vegetarian day each week (think “Meatless Monday”). Substitute the meat for other plant foods to balance your plate. You might like to:
- try soy based foods high in protein like tofu, tempeh and edamame.
- add legumes to your meals by making bean salads or adding beans to soups and pasta sauce.
- fill up half your plate with vegetables at lunch and dinner.
If you’re not sure where to start, try these
vegetarian dishes from ELLICSR kitchen recipe archive: