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Is life as a vegetarian really healthy?

13 April, 2015

The term “vegetarian” refers to a person who chooses not to eat certain animal products, most commonly meat, poultry, and fish. There are generally five types of vegetarians:

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians - Those who consume eggs and dairy products, but refrain from beef, pork, poultry, fish, shellfish, or animal flesh of any kind. Most vegetarians are lacto-ovo-vegetarians;
  • Ovo-vegetarian - Those who don’t eat meat or dairy products but do eat eggs;
  • Lacto-vegetarian - Those who don’t eat meat or eggs but do have dairy products;
  • Pescetarian: Those who refrain from meat with the exception of fish; and
  • Vegan - Those who don’t eat meat, fish, dairy, eggs, or any other animal by-product.

People become vegetarian for a variety of reasons, including health, religious convictions, concerns about animal welfare, the use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock, and even for financial reasons. While the Australian Bureau of Statistics has little information on the number of people living in Australia who are vegetarian, it is estimated that 5% of Aussies stick to a vegetarian diet (2011), and that number could be growing.

But is a vegetarian diet healthy?

This is a question that has split many health professionals for a long time. Most will agree that there are both pros and cons to a vegetarian diet, but on a scale which way would it tip?

Here we take a look at what some of the top professionals are saying.

The past

Twenty years ago, most health organisations had serious doubts over whether or not a vegetarian diet could be healthy. The concern was that vegetarians presented a high risk of iron and vitamin B-12 deficiencies, as most sources are found in meat, seafood and poultry.

The main symptom of a B-12 deficiency (known as pernicious anaemia) is fatigue, however if neglected it could lead to permanent nerve damage. B12 helps with metabolism, converting food into stable energy, utilising iron, producing healthy red blood cells, and can play a vital role in overall health.

The concern with low iron is that it can cause anaemia, producing symptoms such as tiredness, weakness, shortness of breath, and headaches. Without iron, your body can’t make enough healthy oxygen-carrying red blood cells and your body becomes oxygen-starved.

Other concerns along with iron and B-12 deficiencies included:

Low cholesterol levels: Virtually every medical study, even to this day, suggests that vegetarians have lower cholesterol levels than non-vegetarians. While high cholesterol can be unhealthy, continuous low levels have been associated with early death.

Increased risk of colorectal cancer: An Oxford study revealed that vegetarians demonstrated a 39% higher incidence of colorectal cancer; having said that, the same study showed that too much red meat is directly linked to colorectal cancer.

Lower bone mineral density: Without good levels of protein, calcium, iron and vitamin D, vegetarians present a high risk of low bone-mineral density. This can lead to osteopenia or osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become brittle and fragile.

Insufficient omega-3 fatty acids: Essential fatty acids are detrimental to health and are required for normal growth and development. These are primarily found in pasture-raised meats and dairy foods, as well as fish. vegetarian_1

But fast-forward twenty years and studies are confirming the health benefits of a vegetarian diet. In 2009, the American Diabetic Association released a position paper that stated “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases”.

What does “appropriately planned” mean?

The thoughts surrounding a vegetarian diet is that providing you carefully follow nutritional advice and make wise choices with your foods, there is no reason why being a vegetarian can’t be healthy. In fact, many professionals will go as far as to say that vegetarianism is the preferred option these days.

All of the above concerns still arise when referring to vegetarianism, but with more research being carried out into the diet and more nutritionally-sound products becoming available, plant-based eating is now recognised as a healthy, nutritionally sufficient diet that can be used as a way to reduce the risk for many chronic diseases.

Commonly linked with the desire to be healthy, vegetarians also seem to connect their diet with good levels of exercise.

In terms of the above risks, we now know that there are many alternate forms for acquiring what your body needs. Vegetarians can eat:

  • Yeast extract, fortified cereals, fortified soy products and cheese for Vitamin B-12;
  • Tofu, soybeans, quinoa, spirulina, spinach and pumpkin seeds for iron*;
  • Mushrooms and fortified milks for Vitamin D, as well as aim for 10 minutes of sun exposure each day;
  • Tofu, beans, egg whites, nuts and seeds for protein; and
  • Flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds and perilla oil for omega-3 fatty acids

*There are two forms of iron, haem iron and non-haem iron. Haem iron is mostly found in meat, poultry and fish, and is the easiest to absorb. Non-haem iron is found in plant-based foods, but is less well-absorbed. Therefore you must work harder to acquire enough iron for your body to work efficiently.

What about protection from major diseases?

This is still debatable in the medical industry, as there is not yet enough evidence to say exactly how a vegetarian diet influences long-term health. A person can be a vegetarian living off Cheezels, soft drink, burritos and Pop Tarts, so being a vegetarian doesn’t always mean that healthy food choices are made. There are also other factors to consider, such as cigarettes, exercise and excessive alcohol, which most certainly pay a large role in your overall health.vegetarian_2
But here’s what research has shown so far:

Heart disease: A study of more than 76,000 participants showed that vegetarians, on average, were 25% less likely to die of heart disease. This is thought to be as a result of a diet high in whole grains, nuts and legumes.

Cancer: Hundreds of studies have declared the benefits associated with eating lots of fruits and vegetables, and that getting five fruits and vegetables a day can help keep cancer away. However, so can fish, so a combination of the two is recommended for keeping cancer at bay.

Type 2 Diabetes: Research suggests a lowered risk of up to 50% of developing Type 2 Diabetes after taking BMI into account. This could be the result of no processed meats, such as bacon and hot dogs.

So what’s the verdict?

Choosing to eat all or mainly vegetarian food is not a decision to be made lightly. “Appropriately planned” is definitely the key, and it’s essential that you find healthy meat substitutions before considering a vegetarian lifestyle.

Only you can decide what kind of vegetarian you want to be. Start small and make smart choices, and remember that good health is about good foods. Moderation is important, and that’s true whether you eat meat or not.

Most health professionals will agree that as long as you exercise regularly, make wise lifestyle choices, monitor what goes into your mouth and limit your “bad foods”, you’ve got the basics covered for a healthy life.


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