Are vegetarians healthier? An expert weighs in

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published February 11, 2019

Key Takeaways

Vegetarianism is more popular now than ever before, and there are several different types of vegetarianism. Overall, 3.3% of US adults consider themselves vegetarians, of whom nearly half are vegan. Most vegetarians are young adults who have conformed to this lifestyle either for health reasons, personal beliefs, or a combination of the two.

MDLinx spoke with Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, to gain further insight regarding vegetarianism.

According to Maples, “People choose to become vegetarian for various reasons. Some are looking for health benefits, or to prevent or treat diseases. Some think of vegetarianism as a way to address ethical issues like world hunger. Some are looking for environmental benefits, though all food production impacts the environment. Some follow a vegetarian diet for religious or spiritual reasons. (Religions like Hinduism or Seventh Day Adventists advocate strict vegetarianism.) Some recognize that a plant-based diet can be cheaper than one that includes meat. Others enjoy the flavor mix of vegetarian dishes. Some picky eaters become vegetarian, as they have textural issues with meat. Some go vegetarian to mask an eating disorder, though vegetarianism does not increase the risk of eating disorders. Vegetarianism may be a way of eating but, for some, it becomes a lifestyle.”

Are you thinking about taking the leap to vegetarianism? Before you make this change, it’s necessary to be informed of the vegetarian diet and its health benefits and drawbacks.

MDLinx:What exactly does a vegetarian diet entail?

Isabel Maples (IM): The term “vegetarian diet” may have a different meaning for different people. Broadly defined, it means avoiding foods from animal sources.

  • A flexitarian mostly follows a no-meat diet but occasionally includes red meat, poultry, or fish/seafood maybe 1-2 times per week.
  • A pescetarian follows a semi-vegetarian diet by not including red meat or poultry but does eat seafood (fish and/or shellfish).
  • A lacto-ovo vegetarian avoids red meat, poultry, and seafood but consumes eggs and dairy foods like milk, cheese, and yogurt. Most vegetarians in the United States fit into this category.
  • A lacto-vegetarian avoids meat, poultry, fish, and eggs but consumes dairy foods.
  • An ovo-vegetarian avoids dairy, meat, poultry, and fish but eats eggs.
  • A vegan strictly avoids all animal-derived products, including red meat, poultry, fish, animal milk, and milk products. Many also avoid foods with animal components, like rennet for cheese-making; gelatin from collagen; marshmallows (gelatin); refried beans made with lard; fries cooked in beef tallow; baked goods made with cream, eggs, egg albumin, or butter; margarine made with whey or casein from milk; and foods flavored with meat extracts. Some avoid honey, also.
  • A fruititarian diet is a vegetarian diet variation that promotes consumption of primarily raw fruit. There are seven food groups to choose from that do include fruit, vegetable seeds, and nuts. The diet is low in protein and nutrients. It is dangerous for pregnant women. Unlike other vegetarian diets, the fruititarian diet has little scientific research behind it.


MDLinx:Is vegetarianism a healthier lifestyle choice?

IM: Both omnivores and vegetarians can have healthy diets. The trick is in choosing more nutrient-rich foods and balancing how much you eat. Simply avoiding or limiting meat, dairy, and/or eggs doesn’t automatically equal a better diet. Poorly planned meals and snacks, with a lot of high-calorie foods, may still come up low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and calcium-rich foods—and, therefore, lack the fiber and nutrients that come with those foods.

In some studies, researchers have shown that vegetarianism may be associated with lower blood pressure, lower body weight, lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, improved blood glucose control, and lower risk of some cancers. Researchers of the EPIC-Oxford study, Adventist Health Study-2, and Swedish Mammography Cohort Study have all shown the health benefits of vegetarianism.

MDLinx:Can you incorporate elements of vegetarianism into a regular diet?

IM: A “plant-based diet” that we hear so much about today is not necessarily a vegetarian diet. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends a plant-based diet, which it defines as two-thirds of the diet [consisting of] plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes (dried beans and peas).

Whether you’re vegetarian or not, try these tips for better health:

  • Venture beyond potatoes and tomatoes. They can both be nutritious choices but mix it up and go beyond the most common veggies, for more vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (plus flavor!).
  • Vary your fruits and vegetables, choosing from dark green leafy vegetables to orange, dark yellow, and red ones.
  • Build a meal around healthy grains like brown rice, quinoa, or barley.
  • Choose beans, peas and lentils more often—chili with beans, black beans on tacos, pasta primavera with beans, chick peas on your salad, white bean and veggie soup, bean burritos, hummus with raw carrots, and so forth.
  • Include nuts and seeds in your diet. They supply protein and phytonutrients. They’re healthy fats, but the calories still add up. Enjoy the flavor but make a little go a long way by moderating your portion size. Try unsalted nuts and nut butters without salt, added sugar, or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

MDLinx:Can vegetarianism decrease caloric intake?

IM: With two-thirds of American adults overweight or obese, weight management is one reason people might turn to a vegetarian diet. According to some studies, vegetarians have lower body mass index (BMI), an indicator of a healthy weight. In the Adventist Health Study-2, mean BMI was highest for meat eaters (28.8) and lowest for vegans (23.6). In the EPIC-Oxford study, meat-eaters had the highest BMI (24.4) compared with vegans (22.5). In the Swedish Mammography Cohort Study, 40% of omnivores were overweight or obese compared with 25% of lacto-vegetarians.

People who choose to become vegetarian may also make healthier lifestyle choices, like exercising, avoiding smoking, and not drinking alcohol in excess.

MDLinx:When is it a good time for someone to become a vegetarian?

IM: According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, with proper planning and food selection, a vegetarian diet can be healthy throughout the lifecycle. Registered dietitian (RD) nutritionists can help people transition to a meatless diet, whether that's sometime or all the time.

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