Although you may not be able to imagine giving up bacon or cheeseburgers, switching over to a plant-based diet can have health and nutritional advantages. In many cases, you can improve your risk factors for a variety of diseases and health problems by simply reducing the amount of meat that you eat, even if you don't give it up entirely.
Eating a vegetarian diet provides several health benefits including those associated with weight control. According to L. Bellows, food and nutrition specialist at Colorado State University Extension, because they eat a plant-based diet, vegetarians tend to consume fewer calories, less fat and have a lower body mass index. BMI is an estimate of body-fat levels. Animal foods, including meat and dairy products, are high in fat, especially saturated fat and cholesterol. The additional fat in these foods not only increase calorie consumption, they elevate the risk of chronic disease.
According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, giving up meat can reduce your risks of cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney stones, gallstones and osteoporosis. Further, ChooseMyPlate.gov from the USDA notes that eating more fruits and vegetables can cut risks of high cholesterol, heart attack and stroke. The drop in such risk factors is partly due to lower cholesterol intake, since plant-based food items are cholesterol-free and dairy products tend to be lower in cholesterol than meat.
Eating fewer meat products or completely removing them from your diet in favor of plant-based substitutes can save you anywhere from a few cents per meal to hundreds of dollars a month besides cutting food production costs. According to Dr. Patricia Muir, Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at Oregon State University, to produce 2,000 calories of beef -- the average daily calorie requirement for one person -- a cow must consume 20,000 calories of corn. Protein is a major nutritional component of meat. Muir reports cattle produce 19 kilograms of protein per acre per year. If soy products are part of your vegetarian diet, you are increasing the economic benefits of not consuming meat, because soybeans produce 200 kilograms of protein per year. Even though soy protein requires a grain food to supply the missing amino acids that make it a complete protein, you are reducing food production costs.
Plant-based diets also offer greater benefits for the environment than diets that include meat. "The New York Times" reported in 2007 that Gidon Eshel, a researcher at Bard College, found vegetarian diets use approximately a ton and a half less carbon dioxide per year than typical meat diets. Meats and meat products, as well as the methods used to process them, create more pollution and require more resources than the production methods for plant-based products. So, vegetarianism can be an environmentally conscious, economical and health-conscious choice.
There are several varieties of vegetarian diets, such as vegans who eat no animal products, lacto vegetarians, whose diets include dairy products, but no meat, poultry, fish or eggs, and partial vegetarians who fish or poultry. Maintaining an adequate nutritional balance involves knowing the nutritional deficiencies in your choice of diet. If you are a vegan -- a total vegetarian -- you may not be getting calcium from your diet. Consuming vegetables with high calcium content, such as broccoli, kale and collards may help correct this nutritional imbalance. Your diet also may be lacking in sufficient amounts of vitamins D and K. Foods that supply higher amounts of these nutrients include green leafy vegetables and fortified foods like soy milk, rice milk, organic orange juice and cereals, Harvard Health Publications recommends vitamin D2 supplements, according to Harvard Health Publications.
A vegetarian diet is healthiest when it's balanced and includes daily servings of all major food groups, including fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, grains and dairy products. Before you make the switch to a meatless diet, talk with your physician or a registered dietitian about how to meet all of your nutritional needs, especially if you deal with a chronic health condition or have other dietary restrictions.
- Colorado State University Extension: Vegetarian Diets
- PCRM.org: Vegetarian Foods - Powerful for Health
- ChooseMyPlate: Why Is It Important to Eat Vegetables?
- Oregon State University: Trophic Issues
- The New York Times: A Vegetarian Diet Reduces the Diner's Carbon Footprint
- Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School: Becoming a Vegetarian