Many people are switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet for personal reasons such as health, the environment, or because they do not wish to consume animal products. While there are many health benefits to a vegetarian or vegan diet, there can also be some drawbacks. We have taken a look at both the positives and the negatives of a vegetarian or vegan diet, so that you can make up your own mind.
Types of Vegetarianism
There are several different types of vegetarianism that can fit underneath the blanket term of “vegetarian”. A person may be a semi-vegetarian, that is, a person that is willing to eat chicken and fish but will not eat any other forms of meat. An ovo-lacto vegetarian is a vegetarian that does not eat any meat, but will eat eggs and dairy products. An ovo-vegetarian will not eat meat or dairy products but they will eat eggs. A lacto-vegetarian will not eat meat or eggs, but will consume dairy products.
A vegan is the strictest of all the types of vegetarianism. Someone who is following a vegan diet will not consume any type of animal product or by-product whatsoever. This includes honey and yeast. Many vegans also extend their choices past the foods they eat, choosing not to use or wear any product that comes from an animal.
Benefits of a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet
A vegetarian or vegan diet can be very healthy and have a lot of benefits for the person on the diet. Some of the major benefits are outlined below:
- A healthier heart – a vegetarian or vegan diet is far lower in saturated fats than the diet of a person that consumes animal products. Vegetarians get more “good” fats such as omega 3 and omega 6, essential fatty acids that the body needs. These good fats help to reduce the levels of bad cholesterol in the blood, reducing the risk of heart disease.
- Healthier skin – as well as consuming a higher quantity of good fats, vegetarians and vegans generally eat more fruits and vegetables, which contain vitamins that are essential for healthy skin.
- Higher antioxidant consumption – antioxidants are vital for the body as they help to combat damaging free radicals. Two of the best antioxidants – vitamin C and vitamin E – are commonly found in vegetarian or vegan meals thanks to the higher number of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains that are consumed.
- Avoiding allergies – many people are allergic to milk or other dairy products and following a vegetarian or vegan diet can help to alleviate problems with lactose intolerance or allergy. There are heaps of replacements available – from soy and rice milks to soy cheese, soy yoghurt and so on. Soy is a great choice as it helps to replace the protein that you would normally get from milk.
- Avoiding diabetes and gall bladder problems – research has shown that vegetarians and vegans are not as likely to contract diabetes or have gall bladder problems. Some people actually become vegetarian if there is a family history of diabetes or if they suffer from high blood sugar levels, so that they can avoid getting the disease.
Possible Problems that may occur from a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet
While there are many significant benefits associated with all the forms of vegetarianism, there can be some problems if the person does not eat a correctly balanced diet. Choosing not to eat animal products means that some vital nutrients that are contained within these may be lacking in some vegetarians or vegans that do not replace the nutrients with suitable plant sources. Some nutrients that vegetarians or vegans need to be aware of are:
- Protein – is made up of different kinds of amino acids, and the body needs complete proteins in order to be able to use it in the body. Meat and other animal products are sources of complete proteins. Dairy products and eggs are great sources of protein for vegetarians but vegans need to get their protein from other sources such as wheat, nuts, and beans. However, these are incomplete proteins. Soy products contain protein and are one of the only vegetable products that can provide a protein that can be digested as well as the protein that you would normally get from animal products.
- Iron – vegetarians and vegans need to be careful with their diet to ensure that they are getting an adequate iron intake. There are significant amounts of iron in plant sources but this is non-heme iron, which is more difficult for the body to absorb. To increase the levels of iron in your blood, it is important to eat a lot of plant iron and avoid substances that can inhibit the absorption of the iron, such as tea, coffee, and fibre. It can be helpful to have the iron with vitamin C as vitamin C helps the absorption of iron.
- Zinc – traditional diets seem to help the body to absorb zinc while vegetarian and vegan diets inhibit the absorption. To overcome this problem, it is important to eat more foods that contain zinc such as soy beans, cashew nuts, and sunflower seeds. Also ensure that the fruits and vegetables that you eat are thoroughly washed.
- Calcium – vegetarians that consume dairy products should have no problems with the amount of calcium that they get in their daily diet. However, vegans will need to get all of their calcium from plant sources such as leafy green vegetables, soy products, beans, almonds, and foods that have been calcium-fortified. To ensure that the maximum amount of calcium is being absorbed by the body, do not eat foods that are high in oxalates, as these inhibit calcium absorption. Examples of these foods are spinach, beet greens and swiss chard.
- Vitamin B12 – a deficiency in vitamin B12 is common amongst many vegetarians and vegans as this vitamin does not exist naturally in plant foods. To get vitamin B12, it is important to look for foods that have been fortified with this vitamin or take a supplement as it is an important vitamin for the body.