Vegetarian diets focus on plant-based foods as the main source of nutrients. There are many types of vegetarian diets, and according to the Mayo Clinic, they are as follows:
- Lacto-vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish, poultry, and eggs, as well as foods that contain them. Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter, are included.
- Ovo-vegetarian diets exclude meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products, but allow eggs.
- Lacto-Ovo vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish, and poultry, but allow dairy products and eggs.
- Pescatarian diets exclude meat and poultry, dairy, and eggs, but allow fish.
- Pollotarian diets exclude meat, dairy, and fish, but allow poultry.
- Vegan diets exclude meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products — and foods that contain these products.
- The one thing all vegetarian diets have in common is that they exclude meat, and all vegetarians but Pollotarians exclude poultry as well.
- There are many benefits to cutting out meat and poultry from your diet. Vegetarians enjoy the following health benefits:
Lower cholesterol levels
On average, vegetarians have a lower total cholesterol concentration in their blood than non-vegetarians. This should come as no surprise, as meat is primarily comprised of saturated fatty acids, which increase ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol levels in the blood when eaten in excess. Vegetarians who do not eat dairy products may have even lower cholesterol levels, as butter and full-fat cheese, milk, and yogurt all contain saturated fats which raise cholesterol levels. High cholesterol levels put you at risk for heart disease and stroke, the two leading causes of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have high cholesterol, your doctor will most likely recommend going on a diet that limits meat and dairy intake, as well as other foods which contain saturated fats.
Supports heart health
A diet that excludes meat is a heart-healthy diet. According to a study, people already diagnosed with a heart condition can reverse damage to the heart. Even in severe cases—through lifestyle changes such as switching to a vegetarian diet. Moreover, plant-based foods—such as nuts—are proven to have protective elements against ischemic heart disease (IHD) and to increase overall health and longevity.
The more plant-based foods you eat, the more antioxidants you will consume. Antioxidants are compounds that inhibit the process of oxidation in the body. Oxidation forms free radicals, which are harmful toxins that cause damage to healthy cell DNA, leading to chronic inflammation, disease, and cancer. The more antioxidants you consume, the lower your risk of developing inflammatory disease or cancer. Foods that contain antioxidants include fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds— which are eaten in abundance in vegetarian diets.
May reduce the risk of diabetes
Plant-based diets are beneficial for improving the incidence of type-2 diabetes. This is especially true for vegetarians who limit their intake of processed foods and sugar. A 2011 study on people with type-2 diabetes found that a calorie-restricted vegetarian diet can improve insulin sensitivity more effectively than a conventional diabetic diet. Even more effective was a vegetarian diet paired with exercise.
Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes easily pass through your digestive system because they contain fiber and digestive enzymes that make the digestion process more efficient—speeding it up, but also allowing a higher rate of absorption of essential nutrients. Meat lacks fiber, and protein and fat take a long time for your body to break down. Many people who eat meat have problems with digestion. Whereas people on plant-based diets often have smooth digestion and fewer gastrointestinal issues.
May support weight loss
A diet high in plant-based foods is one of your best chances at fighting obesity—or ridding yourself of those few extra pounds. Fruits, vegetables, and legumes are low in calories and contain high amounts of fiber, which keeps you full for a long time after eating. Another factor that facilitates a vegetarian’s weight loss is that the “diet” is a long-term one. People who choose to cut out certain foods for short periods of time will often gain the weight back. Whereas people who are conscious about what they eat, and restrict certain foods long-term, will have more success sticking to their goal weight.
No carcinogens from cooked meat
When meat— including beef, pork, fish, or poultry— is cooked at high temperatures, certain chemicals are released, including heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). According to the National Cancer Institute, HCAs and PAHs are mutagenic. This means, they cause changes or mutations to healthy cell DNA, which leads to cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, the only current dietary guideline for limiting the consumption of these harmful chemicals is to limit the consumption of red and processed meats.
Fewer hormones and antibiotics
Cattle raised for meat are regularly injected with hormones to promote growth (to produce more meat), as well as antibiotics to ward off any infection that would render them “inedible.” If the cattle are receiving these injections, one could only conclude that the people consuming meat from those cattle are consuming the hormones and antibiotics as well. Today, adolescents are approaching puberty at an earlier age than ever before, and experts claim that one of the reasons is due to the growth hormones present in the animal products we consume.
The rate at which the world is consuming animal products is not sustainable, according to the Worldwatch Institute. Over 51 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to animal agriculture. The amount of grain, water, transportation, and workforce needed to support the animal products consumed, is taking a major toll on our environment. Consume fewer animal products, and you are helping to reduce pollution and relieve strain on our environment.
It’s more doable now than ever before
According to a 2016 national poll commissioned by The Vegetarian Resource Group and conducted by Harris Poll, 37 percent of the US population always or sometimes eats vegetarian meals when eating out. Numbers are even higher in other countries like Australia. Where 11% of the population eats only vegetarian as opposed to the 3-9% of Americans who only eat vegetarian. In India, where up to 40% of the population is vegetarian. A 2010 study published by The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) estimated that 21.8% of the world’s population is vegetarian. Vegetarian options are available in almost every restaurant now. Online forums and blogs are excellent resources for all types of vegetarians looking to be inspired. Try new recipes, and get creative. Thinking of going vegetarian? Talk to your doctor about nutrients you may need to supplement, such as iron and vitamin B12.