Is a vegetarian diet healthier?

Following Coeliac Awareness week, this week it’s National Vegetarian Week. As going vegetarian or vegan is quite popular at the moment, it’s worth taking a look at.

Generally speaking, a vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat, poultry, fish or shellfish. However, there are many different versions and ways of being vegetarian. A lacto-ovo vegetarian still eats eggs and dairy products, while a lacto vegetarian includes dairy in their diet but not eggs. Vegans avoid eating any animal products of any kind, and for some that includes honey. You can also get people who follow less strict versions of vegetarianism, such as pescetarians, who eat fish and shellfish, and flexitarians, who are usually vegetarian but occasionally eat meat or poultry.

There is a perception among many health gurus that following a vegetarian or vegan diet is much better for you. And there are certainly proven health benefits to following a diet with less meat. Studies have shown that vegetarians have much lower rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and certain cancers.

However, this is not necessarily the result of eliminating animal products. After all, many unhealthy foods such as crisps, chips, cola and chocolate are vegetarian. Rather, those who follow a vegetarian diet tend to eat far more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and pulses (beans and lentils). Such diets are lower in saturated fat, lower in overall calories and have more fibre and phytonutrients (found in fruits and vegetables). It all comes back to a healthy diet being a plant based one.

In most Western countries we eat far too much meat, especially processed meats (bacon, sausage, salami, etc.). Replacing several meat based meals a week with vegetarian alternatives would certainly improve our health. At the same time, eliminating all animal products can make it difficult to get enough of several key nutrients unless you plan your meals very carefully. This is why, unless someone has a compelling religious or ethical reason, I would not recommend going vegan.

So a vegetarian diet is not necessarily healthier than one which includes meat, fish and poultry. It’s all down to the same fundamentals of getting plenty of plant foods and cutting down on processed junk.


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