Nearly 5 million Americans, or more than 2 percent of the population, follow some form of a vegetarian diet. Although you might miss eating meat when you start a vegetarian diet, the benefits of vegetarianism can outweigh the disadvantages. Being aware of the pros and cons of a vegetarian diet can help you make the healthiest decisions if you try to follow one.
Pro: Better Weight Control
People who follow vegetarian-style eating patterns are less likely to become obese than individuals who do not follow such patterns. This may be partly the result of higher consumption of lower-calorie, more filling foods, such as vegetables, fruit and beans. Obesity is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes and some types of cancer, and more than one-third of American adults are obese. Cutting out high-calorie foods such as fatty meats, butter and full-fat cheeses can result in a diet that is lower in calories.
Con: Possible Nutrient Deficiencies
A well-planned vegetarian diet can be adequate in protein and most other essential nutrients, but vitamin B-12 is a nutrient that is only naturally in animal-based foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products. Lacto-ovo vegetarian diets include dairy products and eggs and can be sufficient in vitamin B-12, but individuals following vegan diets, which exclude dairy products and eggs, need to obtain vitamin B-12 from fortified foods or supplements. Vegan diets can include calcium from fortified sources, such as fortified orange juice and soy milk. Vegans also miss out on the omega-3 fats found in fatty fish. Walnuts and flaxseed provide omega-3 fatty acids, but supplements can provide additional heart-healthy benefits to make up for the lack of seafood in the diet.
Pro: Potential Health Benefits
Potential health benefits include a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure and a longer life expectancy. A vegetarian diet can help you achieve these benefits as long as it includes food sources with potassium and dietary fiber, such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains. Cardiovascular benefits also come from avoiding fatty meats, which are high in saturated fat. In addition, vegetarian diets are low in dietary cholesterol, which is found only in animal-based foods and which can raise your levels of unhealthy low-density lipoprotein, or "bad" cholesterol, and your risk of heart disease.
Con: False Assumption of Automatic Health Benefits
Despite the potential health benefits of vegetarian diets, these results are not automatic. They are more likely when you mainly choose healthy foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and seeds. Vegetarian diets that rely on refined grains, sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages and solid fats can be just as unhealthy as diets that include meat. French fries, doughnuts and snack cakes, for example, are vegetarian, but they can contain dangerous trans fats, which raise your unhealthy LDL cholesterol and lower your levels of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" cholesterol.