There are significant health differences between vegetarians and meat-eaters, with the majority of the positive ones falling on the side of the plant-eaters. Vegetarian diets themselves differ: Ovo-vegetarians include eggs in their diet, lacto-vegetarians include milk and lacto-ovo-vegetarians include both. There are two less restrictive categories, too: pescatarians, who consume fish, and semi-vegetarians (“flexitarians”), who consume meat occasionally. Regardless of the type of vegetarian, consuming a primarily plant-based diet can yield a great deal of health advantages.
Characteristics of a Plant-Based Diet
Plant-based diets are naturally lower in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol than carnivorous diets but are higher in fiber, vitamins, minerals and health-promoting antioxidants. Plant-based nutrients include potassium, magnesium, folate and vitamins C and E. This difference in nutritional value is likely responsible for the health benefits experienced by vegetarians, but this is true only when the diet emphasizes plants, avoids processed foods, is balanced and includes variety.
Lower Risk of Disease for Vegetarians
Those who follow a plant-based diet are found to have lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancers, type-2 diabetes and insulin resistance. Those who eat meat frequently have a higher risk of cancer and overall disease. Semi-vegetarians, who eat meat about once a week, do not reap the same level of benefit but are still found to have intermediate protection against lifestyle diseases.
Lower Body Weight, Longer Life Expectancy
Vegetarian men live an average of 9.5 years longer than their meat-eating counterparts and vegetarian women an average of 6.1 years longer. In studies, carnivores had the highest body weight for their age and vegans the lowest (an average of 30 pounds lighter), with vegetarians and semi-vegetarians falling in between.
Additional Health Benefits for Vegetarians
Vegetarians are less likely to develop food allergies, are less in danger of foodborne illnesses, and consume fewer of the hormones and antibiotics that are administered to animals and passed on to humans through the carnivorous food chain. Vegetarians are more likely to be educated and health conscious, to exercise regularly and avoid cigarettes and alcohol. Clear skin and increased energy levels are also benefits commonly seen among plant-eaters.
Better Mood, Better Sex
Eating plants can have a positive impact on your disposition and libido. A higher intake results in more energy, calmness and feelings of happiness. These affects are experienced on the days that vegetables and fruits are eaten and also throughout the following day. Plant foods contain libido-boosting properties, and a lower body weight assists with increasing sex hormones as well.
Potential Nutrient Deficiencies
Contrary to popular belief, vegetarians consume about the same amount of most key nutrients as meat-eaters. Zinc and vitamin B-12 are of most concern, while intake of calcium, vitamins A, C, D, E, magnesium and iron are typically no lower than that of meat-eaters. Vitamin B-12 can be challenging as it's mainly found in animal products. Plant sources include fortified cereals, veggie burgers and nutritional yeast. Zinc is found in beans, pumpkin seeds, wheat germ and dairy.
Plant protein can adequately meet or even exceed recommended requirements when a variety of plant foods are consumed. Eating whole grains and legumes (for example, rice and beans) together creates complete proteins. These do not have to be eaten in the same meal and can be spread throughout the day. Plant-based proteins are most favorable because they contain beneficial nutrients such as complex carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins and fiber. Vegetable protein sources include beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds and grains. Whether you're vegetarian or not, these foods should be a central part of your diet. If you are considering going meat-free and have any concerns, you can meet with a registered dietitian to form a personalized plan to fit your life.