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Is Vegetarianism Healthy?

Ruth Goodlaxson's picture

I became a vegetarian about two years ago, and have since gone through periods of veganism as well as fish-eating. My choice was mostly motivated by ecological reasons, but I became curious about the health effects of vegetarianism after I noticed changes in how I felt after a change in diet. I found I lost weight as a vegetarian, and had more energy; I also had significantly increased energy in the first month of veganism, though this effect wore off eventually. I wanted to gather more observations to discover if my assumption that vegetarianism was healthier was, in fact, true, and true for people other than myself.

Researching for this paper, I quickly discovered that there is a lot of conflicting information about the implications of vegetarianism on one’s health. This discrepancy is even more evident for veganism. There are many websites claiming to have clinical studies backing their arguments for and against vegetarianism, from the Vegan Society to National Beef Council, and most seem to have a specific agenda that colors their presentation of the studies done on the health effects of a diet low in animal products. Overall, the general consensus appears to be that a vegetarian diet is correlated with lower rates of obesity, heart disease and a longer life expectancy than the average Western diet, though there are other factors that may explain this relationship.

Deciding exactly how vegetarianism is to be defined is of primary importance. Most studies agreed that “a vegetarian diet is broadly defined as a diet excluding animal products such as meat, poultry and fish,” (1) but also recognized that there are variations in diets of individuals, and most studies dealt with a diet that included individuals who are meat once a week or less. That being said, there appear to be many benefits to vegetarianism. One study done in the UK suggests that vegans and vegetarians tend to gain less weight than meat-eating individuals; over a period of five years, Oxford University studied the eating habits of 22,000 individuals. Everyone gained an average of two kilos, but those who switched to a vegetarian diet gained about half a kilo less. (2) Vegetarianism has also been shown to lower cholesterol. Prof. David Jenkins of the University of Toronto tested the effect of combining soy protein, nuts and fibers in a vegetarian diet and found that subjects’ cholesterol has dropped by 29% at the end of a month on this diet; researches said “the findings suggested the combination diet may be as effective as statins.” (3) These benefits are particularly relevant for most Americans, since our high-fat, low exercise lifestyles often lead to obesity and high cholesterol, a combination which is very hard on the heart. From these observations, it seems that lowering meat consumption would help combat the heart disease that is so prevalent in our society.

There have also been investigations into whether low meat consumption impacts human life expectancy. One article from 2003 found that of four studies reviewed, four showed that a very low intake of meat was correlated with decreased mortality. (4) This suggests that there is reason to believe vegetarianism is “good for you.” However, another article found that only mortality from ischemic heart disease was effected by level of meat consumption. It was 20% lower in occasional meat eaters as compared to the general population, 34% lower in people who ate fish, 34% lower in lactoovovegetarians and 26% lower in vegans. This data points to the idea that consumption of fewer animal products is not necessarily better for one’s heart, as the vegans had a higher mortality rate from heart disease than those who consumed some animal products.

However, there are factors other than vegetarianism that could account for this, as certain sources were quick to point out. For one, it has been found that a high IQ is linked to being vegetarian. (5) According to a study conducted by Southampton University, vegetarians were more likely to be female, of higher occupational class and have had more education than non-vegetarians. People of this background and with a higher IQ could tend to generally be more aware of health issues, and so less likely to be overweight or have heart disease.

There are certain deficiencies and risks associated with being vegetarian. (1) There are not many plant sources of Vitamin B12, for example, and B12 deficiency can be fairly serious. Iron sources, too, can be problematic; iron from plants appears to be more difficult to absorb than iron from animal products. This is relevant for US diets, as iron is the most common deficiency in the country. Zinc, too, can be difficult to acquire in absence of meat products. However, there are alternate sources and even my most anti-vegetarian source from the National Beef Council stated that a well-planned vegetarian diet can satisfy nutritional needs for individuals in all stages of life.

There were some concerns raised in one article, saying “following a vegetarian diet may be a first step toward eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa.” (1) This would be a legitimate concern, but I was unable to find anything to support this claim in other sources. I would be curious to discover if there is a link between vegetarianism and eating disorders, for example, if it is often used to mask anorexia. But such a relationship, if it does exist, would not be a health concern of a vegetarian diet in the way it is followed by the majority of vegetarians.

The consensus appears to be that while a strict vegetarian diet is not necessarily the most beneficial, a diet in which meat intake is reduced from a traditional Western diet can help to reduce cholesterol and control weight. Naturally, it is important to have a varied, well-planned diet regardless of the amount of meat consumed, but vegetarianism appears to have some benefit. This could be because of other lifestyle choices that frequently accompany lower meat intake, but also because it is a diet that lends itself to higher consumption of “healthy” foods, such as grains and vegetables. This issue is made complicated by the layers of other factors involved that effect health. Are vegetarians less likely to be overweight because of their diet, or because they are likely to be more highly educated? It is a difficult question to answer, but despite the risk of deficiencies in certain areas, there appears to be an association between better health and vegetarianism.

1); Article linked from the National Beef Council

2); “Rejecting Meet Keeps Weight Low” from BBC World News

3); “Vegetarian Diet Cuts Heart Risk” from BBC World News

4); “Does low meat consumption increase life expectancy in humans?” from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

5); “High IQ Linked to Being Vegetarian” from BBC World News


steve's picture

one last thought

I would like to become vegetarian, for I do think it would be beneficial. However id like to say that I think there are still things in meats that are beneficial and necessary. For instance yes soy is a protein and high in amino acids blah blah blah but my concern and reason for not consuming it is because its a very slow release protein (which is really good for a lot of people, just not for my active lifestyle) and soy protein contributes to estrogen and is linked to prostate cancer/problems. I've found overall that soy is great for women, while bad for men, and forms of protein like from meat and whey is better for men and bad for women. Of course I don't have any sources to cite from because I'm just responding in a non premeditiated way, but nonetheless I think I might start making a trend towards vegetarianism because overall more veggies and fruits and less meat is better, but I don't think I'll eliminate meat, or at least not fish and certainly not dairy. That's just stupid haha. I can honestly say trying to be healthy off of only fruits veggies and grains is just.....wrong. the vitamins you're missing are absolutely imperative for optimal health and I would like to say that vitamin supplements have recently been given a huge debunk in being proven that ONLY vitamin D supplements are properly absorbed by your body and used properly to contribute to your health. They're more harm than good basically is what the research concluded from the wear they do on your liver and kidneys and sometimes even stomach depending on the vitamin and its form

steven Ault's picture

The article mixes up

The article mixes up vegetarianism and veganism in much the same way that 'The vegetarian Myth' book does. Vegetarians do not lack vitamin B12. It is found in dairy products. It's vegans who may have 'issues' with vitamin B12. Sometimes vegetarians and vegans make themselves ill, not through their diet, but through stress, because they think TOO MUCH about what they eat, and are victims of bitchy bullying. "Oh you're looking pale, I think you should eat meat". Stop obsessing about food. There is too much scientificaly unproven info on the internet. Steve (veggie).
p.s cows milk is for calfs not humans!

Stephen K's picture

It depends on how the vegan diet is handled...

Being there is a difference between a vegetarian and vegan, both can be extremely healthy if gone about correctly.

Personally, I'm brand new to the world of vegetarianism. I'm a vegetarian slowly shifting my way to a 100% vegan.

The bottom line is... vegetables are extremely healthy for you! Doctors argue you need multiple servings a day (about 5 to 6) and lack of vegetables can result in a possible future of heart disease, stroke and even cancer! I know of many people who hated eating their veggies as a kid and their diet still lacks them today and it's a dangerous situation!

I have know many people who eat diets rich in meat and eliminate many vegetables. Although in many cases they appear, lean & fit, they show signs of weaken immune systems, often getting sick often! Diets heavy in plant food can boost your immune system.

Many scientist also argue that nature proves the benefits of a plant-rich diet! Gorillas themselves, our closet living ancestors, often survive on complete vegetation such as leaves, stems, roots, vines, herbs, trees, and grasses. Although the gorilla's dining options are limited and these "foods" often extremely low nutritional quality, which forces them to eat a lot of it --- AS HUMANS, we can find many highly nutritionally dense vegetables such as brown rice, oats, apples, carrots, green beans, spinach, bananas, etc. Our bountiful options, allow us, as people, to adapt to vegetarian options that actually work well with our lifestyles and demands.

As far as people who argue that being a vegetarian solely and eliminating meat entirely isn't healthy... Well, the argument against being a vegetarian or vegan, as always been about the lack of protein found in meatless diets.

Some food experts argue that flesh from meat or eggs or cheese are "complete proteins" because they contain amino acides that your body desperately needs. This is true. And although, many vegetarians eat nuts that high in protein (peanuts, almonds, etc), many nuts lack amino acides, making them incomplete proteins. BUT a soy bean changes that whole argument! That's because soy beans are extremely rich in amino acides, making them a complete protein.

Now, in the case of vegetarians who eat cheese and eggs, not having enough complete proteins is not an issue. BUT for vegans who don't eat any animal products (no cheese, no eats, no meat, nothing), without soy beans, you could argue their diet is unhealthy.

It just depends on their type of diet and how they go about it.

Karl's picture

I agree with your points. Soy

I agree with your points. Soy is the only complete protein (non meat) food that contains the 11 amino acids we need. I chose lacto-ovo vegatarian because since there are both arguments for meat I choose to eat eggs, which are the only complete nitrogen food. And dairy is a no brainer because cows need to be milked. Anyways, I chose this lifestlye for health reasons but also economic. I didn't like the huge companies controlling my food. But herein lies the nightmare. Monsanto owns most of the soy beans in this country and they are GMO beans through and through. This evil company does not allow any farmer to reuse their beans. You must buy monsanto every season. So even within organic choices we have evil entities. It's like i can't win unless I hide from society and grow my own food and raise my own chickens. The day may never come when health will outweigh money in reasons for owning a food company- it's sad

Vegan's picture

Vegan Diet

I personally have been a vegetarian for 10 years at which point I switched to veganism which I have been for 3 years. I do believe that less meat consumption in general is not only healthier but more environmentally friendly than a diet engorged in meat. From my experience it is easier to be an unhealthy vegan if you are not paying close attention to what you are eating, however when done correctly I do think it is a healthy choice.

I've always been skinny and since going vegan and paying more attention to my weight I've gone from an underweight BMI to a normal BMI. I believe the general trend of losing weight occurs because the majority of people don't monitor their diets and taking out fatty, cholesterol laden meat naturally decreases the average number of calories consumed.

I do think more humane research needs to be done into the effects of all diets to be able to effectively judge which choices are best, but I will always recommend less meat to someone eating the Standard American Diet.

Randy S's picture

Simple Biblical Guidelines

We have not been left to grope completely in the dark on this topic. For thousands of years, simple, dietary instructions regarging the proportional use of plants and meat in our diet have applied, and millions have included a variation of this diet into their daily lives.

The Bible answers the diet question in straight-forward terms. There are generally four food groups listed in diminishing order. Those nearer the top, merit more consideration:

  1. Trees yielding food bearing seeds
  2. Plants yielding food bearing seeds
  3. Field Plants
  4. Clean Meat
Paul Grobstein's picture

vegetarianism and diversity

Maybe these are "difficult questions to answer" because of human diversity, ie some people respond one way, others other ways? If so, population studies may show an average response that isn't in fact meaningful for individuals. See, for example, Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?