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Is a Vegetarian Diet Healthy or Unhealthy?

author image Joseph Ng
Joseph Ng has a Bachelor of Science in Sport and Exercise Science and is an advanced level 3 accredited personal trainer. He also has a diploma in nutrition and health.
Is a Vegetarian Diet Healthy or Unhealthy?
Layers of baked vegetables in a glass casserole dish. Photo Credit: LeeAnnWhite/iStock/Getty Images

A vegetarian diet won't stop you from making unhealthy food choices. Even when you forgo meat products, foods such as french fries and ice cream are still technically vegetarian. Without proper research into vegetarianism, you may end up with nutrient deficiencies. However, by selecting the right foods to replace the nutrients you would get from poultry, meat and seafood, you can improve your health and well-being with a vegetarian diet.

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Improved Health

A vegetarian diet has been linked to lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of heart disease and a longer life span, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This could be due to a vegetarian diet being generally lower in saturated fats and having fewer calories than nonvegetarian meals. Vegetarians tend to consume more fiber, vitamin C and potassium. However, vegetarians also tend to be more health-conscious than others, which means other lifestyle factors, such as exercise, may contribute to improvements in health, according to D. Enette Larson-Meyer, a registered dietitian and author of the "Vegetarian Sports Nutrition."

Nutritional Deficiencies

Vegetarians are at risk of iron and vitamin B-12 deficiencies, as most sources are found in meat, seafood and poultry. An evidence-based review published in a 2013 issue of “Nutrition Reviews” determined that vegetarians were at risk of a vitamin B-12 deficiency regardless of the type of vegetarian-style eating, age or demographic. With a B-12 deficiency, also known as pernicious anemia, the main symptom is fatigue. It can lead to permanent nerve damage if preventive measures such as vitamin B-12 supplements are not taken. Ovo-lacto vegetarians can also get vitamin B-12 and iron from eggs and dairy products, and all vegetarians can get these nutrients from fortified cereals and soy products. Iron can come from plant sources such as fortified foods, chickpeas and spinach.

Foodborne Illness

Many people partake in a vegetarian diet due to the perception that foodborne illnesses derive solely from meat products, according to "The Vegetarian Times." This may lead some to ignore food hygiene practices. However, a 10-year analysis of foodborne illnesses conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that most illnesses were attributed to plant-based foods. Therefore, for a vegetarian diet to remain healthy, maintain food safety practices, such as washing fruits and vegetables and storing and cooking food properly.

The Bottom Line

Whether your vegetarian diet is healthy depends on what you choose to eat. Focus on getting protein from nuts, legumes, beans, whole grains and tofu. Add milk or other dairy products to your daily diet, as well as a plethora of starchy foods, fruits and vegetables in each meal to get fiber, minerals and vitamins. A well-balanced diet is achievable with vegetarianism. Join a support group or vegetarian society and read vegetarian cookbooks so you don’t run out of ideas for healthy meals to prepare.

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