Health Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet

Raw Paleo Kale and Quinoa Superfood Salad
A quinoa and kale salad with almonds and edamame. (Image: joshuaraineyphotography/iStock/Getty Images)

Vegetarian diets, when carefully planned, can help reduce the risk for a number of common, chronic diseases while providing your body with all of the nutrients necessary for you to operate with an abundance of energy and vitality. According to the American Dietetic Association, vegetarians are also at lower risk for becoming obese, due to diets with significantly lower levels of saturated fat and cholesterol. It is important, however, to plan your vegetarian diet so that you are consuming sufficient levels of all necessary nutrients.

Heart Healthy

The broad definition of a vegetarian is someone who excludes meat, poultry and fish from his diet. Total vegetarians, also known as vegans, exclude other animal products as well, such as milk, eggs and cheese. It is the position of the ADA that vegetarian diets can be nutritionally adequate and helpful in preventing chronic diseases, including coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. The organization notes that vegetarians, in general, have lower bad cholesterol and lower blood pressure, which leads to lower risk of death from chronic disease. According to a study published in 2004 in "Nutrition," it is the better antioxidant status of long-term vegetarians, when compared to healthy omnivores, that sharply decreases the risk for coronary heart disease and improves overall health.

Cancer Prevention

In addition to heart disease, vegetarian diets can help protect against cancer, according to a study published in 2013 in "Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention." Researchers examined the overall cancer incidence among 69,120 study participants and found that vegan diets protected against female-specific cancers and overall cancers in both genders. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians, or vegetarians who consume eggs and dairy, were also found to have increased protection from gastrointestinal cancers. According to the ADA, higher intakes of fiber and phytochemicals and lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol are among the factors responsible for these cancer-protective effects.

Fiber, Body Weight and Productivity

MedlinePlus notes that vegetarian diets are usually higher in fiber. According to a 2009 paper published in "Nutrition Reviews," individuals with high intakes of dietary fiber are at a significantly decreased risk for heart disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders and obesity. A 2010 article published in "The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" also found that vegetarians diets are associated with a lower body mass index and decreased rates of obesity in children. The nutrition obtained through vegetarian diets has also been associated with improved productivity and quality of life. A study published in 2010 in "Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism" showed that a vegetarian work-site nutrition program improved mental health, vitality and physical function, when compared to a control group.

Avoiding Common Deficiencies

One of the keys to successfully undertaking a vegetarian diet is to carefully plan your meals to avoid the potential deficiencies that are common among vegetarians. According to Brown University, vegetarians can most easily become deficient in protein, calcium, iron, vitamin B-12 and vitamin D, due to the fact that these nutrients are less prevalent in plant-based diets. However, some vegetarian foods are fortified with nutrients such as calcium and vitamin B-12. Dietary supplements can also help fill these nutritional gaps.

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