The obvious disadvantages of a vegetarian diet include the lack of meat products, such as poultry, beef, pork and fish. Though taste is subjective, many people have an aversion to a meatless diet because they fear they would miss consuming meat due to personal preference or cultural reasons.
Nutrition statistics show there are an estimated 1.5 billion vegetarians in the world, according to a January 2010 working paper from the Economic and Social Research Institute in Ireland and Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.
They help drive demand for the many vegetarian meat alternatives on the market, so the main vegetarian benefits and disadvantages are related to health rather than taste. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a vegetarian diet can be balanced and healthy when consisting of a wide variety of foods. However, there are several nutrients that vegetarians are at increased risk of having a deficiency in, such as vitamin B12 and iron.
The health disadvantages of being a vegetarian can be avoided by carefully planning your food intake around certain nutrients and potentially taking some supplements. While a healthy vegetarian diet requires more planning and effort, the advantages may make the disadvantages worth it.
Fewer Complete Proteins
Some of the advantages and disadvantages of vegetarian food relate to protein. The advantage is that plant-based proteins like legumes and nuts are cholesterol-free, but the disadvantage is that there are fewer complete proteins to choose from.
According to MedlinePlus, complete proteins are formed when all essential amino acids are present. There are nine essential amino acids that the body needs to function. Plants rarely contain all nine essential amino acids in one source alone, so MedlinePlus recommends consuming a variety of plant proteins, such as beans and rice, throughout the day to meet this need.
The Cleveland Clinic suggests that complete proteins are not something to worry about, even if you are vegan or vegetarian. While the common plant-based proteins — legumes, grains, nuts, seeds and certain vegetarians — are incomplete, consuming multiple sources of plant proteins throughout the day should provide all the essential amino acids over time. Quinoa, tofu and hemp seeds are exceptions, as these foods are complete vegan proteins.
People who consume meat do not have to think about this because animal products are naturally complete. To get all of their amino acids, vegetarians must consume various sources of protein.
Read more: 13 Surprising Vegetarian Sources of Protein
Increased Nutrient Deficiency Risks
When you restrict any of the main food groups, you increase your risk of nutrient deficiency. For vegetarians, eliminating meat products poses the increased need to find alternative sources of certain vitamins and minerals.
Vegetarians must pay special attention to the following nutrients, according to the Mayo Clinic:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
- Omega-3 fatty acids
This may seem like a lot of potential nutrient deficiencies, which is one of the major health disadvantages of being a vegetarian. However, many of these nutrient requirements can be easily met on a well-planned vegetarian diet.
The main nutrients to worry about on a vegetarian diet are vitamin B12 and iron. According to the National Institutes of Health, vitamin B12 mainly comes from animal products like beef and seafood. Because of this, vegetarians are at increased risk of vitamin B12 deficiency. Vegetarians may need to increase their consumption of eggs, milk, fortified foods or supplements to meet this need.
Iron is another cause for concern on a vegetarian diet. In a May 2018 study published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, researchers found that vegetarians are more likely to acquire an iron deficiency than non-vegetarians. Vegetarians are urged to consume bioavailable sources of iron, including legumes, grains and dark leafy greens.
Lower Levels of Creatine
Creatine is an amino acid used by the muscles that is made of other amino acids: glycine, arginine and methionine. It is commonly taken in supplement form by professional athletes, but it is also found in meat and fish. Since vegetarians do not consume such products, their creatine levels may be lower than non-vegetarians.
Recent research suggests that vegetarians and vegans have nearly depleted pools of creatine due to the elimination of creatine-rich food sources. Some researchers recommend creatine supplementation in athletes who consume a meatless diet.
A small April 2018 study with just 40 participants published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that the creatine levels in omnivorous women declined during the course of three months on a vegetarian diet. Creatine supplementation was used to increase creatine levels in the vegetarian group, but diet alone was found to be insufficient for maintaining higher levels of creatine.
Though creatine is a non-essential amino acid that is made by synthesizing other amino acids, it still has some benefits related to exercise and muscle strength. Athletes, especially those who do sprinting and weight lifting, may consider supplementing their vegetarian diet with creatine. However, the average person may not need creatine supplements.
May Be High in Cholesterol
Worrying about high cholesterol levels does not seem like one of the health disadvantages of being a vegetarian. However, vegetarians consume some animal products that contain cholesterol, including milk and eggs. Though they are high in protein, the cholesterol in eggs may cause cholesterol levels to rise in vegetarians.
A March 2019 study published in JAMA Network found that higher egg consumption is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality. Researchers found that adding an additional half an egg per day significantly increased the risk of heart disease and all-cause mortality. The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans does not have an upper cholesterol limit, which the researchers believe should be amended.
The evidence on cholesterol content and increased factors in high egg consumption is varied. Other studies suggest that the cholesterol in eggs is beneficial for heart health, but recent research recommends limiting egg consumption.
Vegetarians who consume eggs for the protein and B vitamins may want to find other sources for these nutrients. Alternatively, egg whites may be used as a substitute for egg yolks, though they contain fewer nutrients than whole eggs.
Requires More Effort
In general, there are many advantages and disadvantages of vegetarian food. However, one of the biggest critiques of the vegetarian diet is that it requires more effort in terms of time, knowledge and money.
Making the transition to vegetarianism is not an easy one. Many health experts recommend slowly eliminating meat products to avoid overwhelm or deficiencies in the body.
Many people also worry that going vegetarian or vegan is more expensive than consuming a mixed diet. Starches like potatoes, beans and rice tend to be affordable grocery staples, but fresh produce, nuts and meatless alternatives can be pricey.
When weighing the vegetarian benefits and disadvantages, consider the extra effort it requires to switch to a meatless diet. Over time, less effort may be required as your knowledge of vegetarian nutrition increases.
Supplementation May Be Necessary
Since some nutritional deficiencies are more likely on a meatless diet, vegetarians may take supplements to be on the safe side. Supplements on a vegetarian diet are not required, however a vitamin B12 supplement is recommended for vegans and vegetarians.
One way to ensure you are meeting all of your nutritional requirements is by consuming a varied diet and getting regular tests. Some people choose to take a vegetarian multivitamin that contain some of the most common nutrients that are lacking in a meatless diet. Multivitamins are popular among people of all diets, including non-vegetarians, as a precaution.
Advantages of a Vegetarian Diet
There are pros and cons of almost any diet. Even a well-balanced diet has its critiques. Some say healthy food is expensive, while others complain a nutritious diet is lacking in indulgent foods. Though vegetarians must be mindful of certain nutritional deficiencies, it has its fair share of advantages, too.
A meatless diet has proven health benefits. Vegetarian diets traditionally incorporate milk and eggs, but strict vegetarians (a.k.a. vegans) eliminate these animal products, too. The benefits of a strictly plant-based diet have been studied in recent years, and the findings point to reduced risks of cancer and heart disease.
If you are considering becoming a vegetarian, simply be conscious of the vegetarian benefits and disadvantages. Though a meatless diet has some downsides, you may want to experience the advantages and disadvantages of vegetarian food for yourself.
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 5. USDA Food Patterns: Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern”
- MedlinePlus: “Amino Acids”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Do I Need to Worry About Eating ‘Complete’ Proteins?”
- Mayo Clinic: “Vegetarian Diet: How to Get the Best Nutrition”
- Office of Dietary Supplements of the National Institutes of Health: “Vitamin B12 Fact Sheet for Consumers”
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: “The Effect of Vegetarian Diets on Iron Status in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”
- JAMA Network: “Associations of Dietary Cholesterol or Egg Consumption With Incident Cardiovascular Disease and Mortality”
- Heart: “Associations of Egg Consumption With Cardiovascular Disease in a Cohort Study of 0.5 Million Chinese Adults”
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Chapter 1. A Closer Look Inside Healthy Eating Patterns"
- European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “The Prevalence of Cobalamin Deficiency Among Vegetarians Assessed by Serum Vitamin B12: A Review of Literature”
- Clinical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: “Vegetarian, Vegan Diets and Multiple Health Outcomes: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies”
- Mayo Clinic: "Creatine"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Vegan Diets: Practical Advice for Athletes and Exercisers"
- MedlinePlus: "Creatine"
- British Journal of Nutrition: "Changing to a Vegetarian Diet Reduces the Body Creatine Pool in Omnivorous Women, But Appears Not to Affect Carnitine and Carnosine Homeostasis: A Randomised Trial"