Are Vegetarian Diets Healthy?

Today, many people have adopted a vegetarian diet or are considering a switch. Reasons range from disease prevention to concern for the environment.

A typical vegetarian diet not only has less saturated fat and cholesterol than a meat-based one, but it also provides a number of beneficial plant polyphenols, many of which have only been recently identified.

However, there are some potential deficiencies to consider as well.

Below, we'll explore the possible pitfalls and how to avert them if going "meatless" is your thing.

First, Let’s Define Vegetarian

A vegetarian diet technically contains no animal products, but a number of people who call themselves vegetarians consume fish and even poultry. Those who eat eggs and dairy are known as ovo-lactovegetarians.

Do Vegetarians Get Enough Quality Protein?

While plants provide an abundance of nutrients, their ability to supply amino acids (the building blocks of protein) is limited. Eggs, for example, have a full spectrum of amino acids, earning them the title of "the perfect protein," to which all other sources are compared.

Because some plants (particularly grains) are higher in the essential amino acid arginine, and others (beans and legumes) are higher in lysine, the combination of both was recommended to obtain a complete source of protein. According to author Frances Moore Lappé, these combinations are typical in cultures around the world.

For example, beans with rice are a staple of the Mexican diet. In India, you’ll typically eat lentils and naan bread, and in the Middle East falafel patties made of chick peas are served with pita bread. Lappé suggested that a moderate amount of dairy could be added to a meal to have a complete protein source.

Decades later, Lappé admitted that it was not necessary to combine foods in order to get enough protein if one is eating a healthy diet. Nevertheless, the quality and quantity of protein in a vegetarian diet is still a valid concern.

Where Protein Supplements Fit In

For those who don't have the time to consider the amount of protein in every meal, protein powders blended into shakes and smoothies are an excellent choice.

Pea, soy, and rice protein powders are the natural choice for vegans, and whey protein is a healthy option for lactovegetarians.

Watch Out for Vitamin B12 Deficiencies

Another nutrient that vegetarians should be concerned about is vitamin B12, which is mainly found in animal products. A deficiency can cause fatigue, memory loss, nerve problems, confusion, and even dementia.

While injectable vitamin B12 may be the optimal way to supplement, more convenient (and less painful!) options are available. Taking vitamin B12 sublingually (under the tongue) is a better way to absorb it than swallowing.

Iron Deficiencies are Also Common in Vegetarians

Although the need for iron has frequently been exaggerated and too much is actually unhealthy, vegetarians are often iron-deficient.

Iron is of particular importance to children and for women during their reproductive years. Of course, blood testing can rule out a deficiency.

Zinc is another mineral that can be insufficient in some vegetarian diets. Fortunately, it can be easily obtained through supplementation.

The Bottom Line

Is a vegetarian diet healthy?

Yes, it definitely can be … as long as it contains quality protein and adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals.

What's your take? Please tell us in the comments!


Anonymous said...

Hemp and pumpkin seed proteins are far better choices than the ones you've mentioned. Pea protein can encourage gout and all rice protein is contaminated with heavy metals as they all come from overseas where rice is grown in contaminated conditions. I'd beware of soy protein as well.

Rui de Castro said...

Thanks anonymous: Hemp and pumpkin seeds sounds much better than grains and beans! I buy that! Even soy, unless it is MIso, Natto or tamari (fermented) even tempeh maybe they are OK?!

Anonymous said...

Agreed (with the first commenter)! Hemp and quinoa are excellent for protein, and pumpkin seeds provide iron. Hemp also contains omegas of all sorts. I eat a mostly vegan diet and have had bloodwork done quite often to check my B12, D, iron, etc., which have all been fine. You just have to know what to replace to ensure you get those key nutrients. Unfortunately, our mostly meat-eating society is accustomed to associating certain nutrients only with meat and dairy, when there are suitable vegan alternatives that, unfortunately, are not as well known.

Life Extension said...

Anonymous - Vegan and vegetarian diets can be healthy. It just takes a little bit of extra work to make sure you're obtaining the right amounts of nutrients.

Anonymous said...

Are any of you up to date on why we should NOT be eating grains? Not just because of the GMO situation, but because of the adverse health effects of grains ... wheat, rye, barley, etc. I gave up grains and had a dramatic reversal of many health problems so I am now considered on a Paleo diet, no grains, dairy, sugar, and it's changed my life. I won't give up my source of protein for a vegan or vegetarian diet now that I'm aware of the detriments of grains.

Rui de Castro said...

I was just told about this Paleo diet from an ex-macrobiotic guy here in Lisbon's organic supermarket Co-op Biocoop

Life Extension said...

Anonymous - We're aware of certain issues with grains, especially in gluten-sensitive people. And yes, some people do remarkably well with a Paleo diet. A one-size approach doesn't work for all people. :-)

Joan Zarbatany, BA, RHN said...

First Let's Define Vegetarian - no and I mean NO self-respecting vegetarian would EVER eat fish or poultry. That's an oxymoron. And now Mark Hyman has come out with the Pegan or Paleo-vegan designation. I often wonder if we vegans and/or vegetarians make you carnivores feel very uncomfortable with yourselves since you always seem to want to co-opt the title.
As for what Frances Moore Lappé wrote in her first version of Diet for a Small Planet, please stop bringing that up. Yes she did retract it later but everyone still wants to make it a central point. We get enough protein and everything else. And as for iron, just remember that heme iron (from animals) isn't all it's cracked up to be. All the heme iron is absorbed by the body - not good for people with hemochromatosis. The non-heme iron (from plants) is used as needed. If the body is low, it will all be absorbed. If the body has sufficient iron, it will be excreted. The body is magnificent that way. And yes, some iron is bound by oxalic acid. There's a very simple solution - use lemon juice or something made up of vitamin C to break it down in order to make the iron available (as in spinach salad).

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