Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet
In order to answer the question "What are the benefits of a vegetarian diet?" it is useful to define "What is a vegetarian diet?". There is more about this on the page What is a Vegetarian Diet?. The following are short reminders of what different people might mean by the words "vegetarian" and "vegan", hence why one may need to understand more about what people can or will eat.
Another aspect to to question "What are the benefits of a vegetarian diet?" is that of "benefits to whom?". There are many health advantages to consuming a vegetarian diet, that is - benefits to being vegetarian. People following vegetarian diets also have advantages, or one could equally say "benefits", beyond the effects on the people who follow such diets themselves. For example, some vegetarians are mindful of the reduction in animal suffering, e.g. due to poor living conditions and distressing deaths, as a result of their decision to consume non-meat products. Others are more concerned about the wider economic and environmental costs of diets that include meat and the greater efficiency and possibility of feeding the increasing global human population from plant-based sources. This page concentrates on the nutritional benefits of a vegetarian diet to individual vegetarian people - but students preparing essays on this topic might also want to describe some of the wider benefits of vegetarian diets.
What is a vegetarian diet ?
Vegetarians do not eat meat products.
There are, however, different types of vegetarians - see below.
- Vegetarian (no meat or fish or any product made using any part of any animal, including fish and sea-creatures, but products derived from live animals are acceptable so dairy products such as milk, cream, cheese and eggs are included in the diet). This type of vegetarian diet is also called ovolactovegetarian - because eggs and milk products are acceptable.
- Vegan (no meat or fish or any product made using any part of any animal, including fish and sea-creatures, and also excluding any and all products derived from animals - so dairy products such as milk, cream, cheese and eggs are not eaten and other products produced by animals e.g. honey - because that is made by bees - are also unacceptable.)
Other words are also used to refer to diets that are "almost" or "mostly" vegetarian, of which relatively common examples include lactovegetarian (eat dairy products but not eggs) and pescovegetarian (eat fish and seafood).
Many ovolactovegetarians and vegans do not consider pescovegetarians to be entirely vegetarian. Even so, it is useful to understand all these words because confusion can arise due to their similarity. If in doubt, it is generally acceptable to assume that anyone who identifies him or herself as vegetarian does not eat any meat or fish products and, of course, does not eat anything derived from or made using any parts of animals that have been taken from them after their death e.g. cakes and sweets that include gelatin (sometimes written gelatine). However, unless the person states that he or she is vegan or allergic to dairy products, or similar, it is usual to understand that vegetarians do eat products derived from live animals, such as eggs and foods made from milk or honey.
1.0 What are the main nutritional differences between vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets ?
Compared with diets that include a substantial proportion of meat products, vegetarian (including vegan) diets have the following general advantages:
- Vegetarian diets tend to include a higher proportion of dietary fibre - relative to total food or calorie intake - than diets that include meat products. This is not surprising because the best sources of dietary fibre include whole grains and fruits and vegetables that have not been highly processed - so including e.g. apple skins and potato skins that are sometimes removed to produce processed foods from those food sources.
- Vegetarian diets tend to include a higher proportion of unsaturated to saturated fatty acids.
Some vegetarians also do not consume alcoholic beverages.
Avoidance of alcohol is not part of any definition of 'vegetarian' but some people who choose vegetarian diets e.g. for religious, weight loss, or 'healthy lifestyle' reasons also reject alcoholic drinks. Although alcohol is not generally considered bad for health when consumed in modest quantities such as a glass of wine with a meal, vegetarians who also do not drink alcohol may experience some further nutritional benefits due to the relatively low nutritional value of energy (calories) contained in most alcoholic drinks. Therefore, as a proportion of total calories ingested, vegetarians who do not drink alcohol are likely to ingest an even higher proportion of dietary fibre.
2.0 Which medical conditions are statistically less likely to affect vegetarians ?
Research suggests that following a vegetarian (or mostly vegetarian) diet is likely to reduce a person's risk of developing the following medical conditions:
- High blood pressure, which is also known as hypertension
- Mature-onset diabetes (see also general information about diabetes)
- Diverticulitis (diverticulitis is a digestive system disorder)
- Tooth decay, also called dental cavities, or sometimes dental caries
(see also pages about teeth generally and tooth anatomy)
- Certain types of cancers, including:
The above is not a complete list. On-going research about statistical relationships between various diets and lifestyles and occurrence of specific diseases is frequently reported in the news media including scientific publications, newspapers, magazines and websites.
3.0 Other benefits of vegetarian diets
Other benefits of vegetarian diets reflect some of the reasons for choosing a vegetarian diet.
The following are not specifically about nutrition and physical health but may affect the wider view of health (including emotions and spirituality) and lifestyle (including finances and personal or family choices about use of available resources). These are just a few examples of the many benefits of vegetarian diets to, not only vegetarian individuals, but also the wider global community:
- Helps reduce waste and air pollution
This applies particularly to large scale meat (food) production - especially in rich western countries such as those of North America and Europe. Websites and interest groups cite many statistics that generally indicate large amounts of manure (a pollutant when in large quantities), methane gas released by cows, pigs and poultry (contributing to the greenhouse effect), ammonia gas from animal urine, toxic gases from large "manure lagoons", and various other toxic chemicals used for intensive animal farming, etc..
- Helps save water
Very much more water is needed to produce the same quantity (e.g. by mass) of meat than of grain. It has been suggested that animal farming makes a significant contribution to water pollution, especially where animals are farmed intensively.
- Reduce intake of toxic chemicals
Much of the pesticide residue in a typical western diet comes from meat, fish and dairy products e.g. fish sometimes contain heavy metals (such as mercury, lead, cadmium) and meat and dairy products sometimes contain steroids and hormones that are not beneficial in human diets.
- Personal cost-saving
In addition to the arguments about 'saving the planet', eating vegetarian food costs less at a personal and family level too. Meat and fish is expensive but is not essential, so following a vegetarian diet has the additional benefit of saving money.
More information is available from the many websites devoted to nothing but vegetarian and vegan diets and lifestyles. See also the list of health benefits of going vegan at http://www.nursingdegree.net/blog/19/57-health-benefits-of-going-vegan.