Whether you are a confirmed carnivore or a veggie-curious individual, the benefits of a vegetarian diet are hard to ignore. In addition to the direct health benefits of lowering blood pressure and reducing your risk of cancer, a low or no-meat diet is better for the planet. Studies continue to show the ecological damage caused by large-scale meat and poultry production is taking a toll on the planet.
Some people would be reluctant to switch their quarter-pounder for a veggie burger, but the options available to people who choose to become vegetarian are increasing in quantity and quality. Unlike a lot of fad diets and quick fix eating plans that can do more harm than good, changing to a vegetarian lifestyle can have long-lasting benefits.
What is a Vegetarian Diet?
Simply put a vegetarian diet is one that refers to eating a diet free of meat, fish, pork, and poultry. Beyond that simplistic definition, there are several ways to more clearly define exactly what you do and do not choose to eat.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarians, for example, cut meat and fish out of their diets while milk and eggs are still fair game. Others are more strict and eliminate eggs, dairy products, or both. At the far end of the spectrum is the vegan diet, which involves no animal products whatsoever in the food you eat. On the more permissive side, you will find the pescatarians, who will still eat some seafood, and the flexitarians, who are vegetarian most of the time but will still eat meat occasionally.
What flavor of vegetarianism you choose is up to you—and possibly your doctor. Some people choose vegetarianism on a moral or ethical basis. Others have vegetarianism chosen for them when they run into a health condition that requires cutting meat to avoid cancer or heart disease. How strict you are about your vegetarianism may depend on ethical, environmental, or medical realities. Everyone is different, and your specific dietary needs might lead you to include some dairy products, eggs, or the occasional piece of fish or meat in your diet.
By and large, a lot of the foods you will eat if you become a vegetarian are things you already consume. This includes familiar plant foods like black beans, avocado, leafy greens, hummus, fruit, cereals, and bread. You may find you also need to branch out and include some new foods like flaxseed, chia seeds, and quinoa to fill in the nutritional gaps left by the meat or dairy you are no longer eating.
Tips for Getting Started
Many people, especially many Americans, have grown up eating a diet with a high level of meat, fish, and other animal products. If this is you, it could be tempting to think vegetarian meals would be nothing more than salads and side dishes. Thankfully, this need not be the case.
Doing your research and planning ahead will help immensely in adapting to your new diet. Building a meal plan will help you explore the world of vegetarian cuisine, and more importantly it will help you plan out your meals to ensure you are getting a good balance of the vitamins and nutrients you need.
A meat-free diet does not mean you are eating only veggies. Fruits, nuts, whole grains, and other foods are definitely part of a well-rounded vegetarian diet. In fact, without a wide range of foods, you may be hard pressed to get all the vitamins and nutrients you need to stay healthy.
You would also be wrong to think that changing to a vegetarian diet means leaving all the good food behind. Crave-worthy guacamole is a vegetarian treat containing avocados, which are a great source of dietary fat. The chickpeas in hummus are another high-quality, flavor-packed ingredient you get to keep on the menu.
Not all fruits and vegetables are created equal when it comes to nutritional content. Some plant foods are among the healthiest foods you can eat, but others leave a little to be desired. You can start off on the right foot by working with a short list of nutritious vegetables that will help you make the most of your new diet.
Choosing the right ingredients is sometimes as easy as making quick substitutions. Leafy greens are important sources of nutrients, but the lettuce used in many salads is far less nutritious than an option like kale. Other nutrient-dense veggies that should be on your list to eat on a regular basis are asparagus, broccoli, carrots, and cabbage.
What kind of vegetarianism you choose to practice is going to affect how hard you need to work to get the nutrients you need. Lacto-vegetarians who still drink cow milk and consume other dairy products have access to significant sources of protein and dietary fat that are not available to more strict vegetarians or vegans.
As more and more people adopt vegetarian diets, fortified products such as calcium-enriched soy milk and other soy products offer an alternative to dairy products that can still provide the nutrients you need.
Health Benefits of Vegetarianism
Sticking with a diet high in fruits and veggies can have a wide range of health benefits. Not only does a vegetarian diet decrease your likelihood of heart disease, many studies have also shown that vegetarian diets may help stabilize blood sugar levels. This is a potentially significant benefit, especially for people who have type-2 diabetes or who are at risk for becoming diabetic.
Beyond blood sugar, vegetarians have also been shown to lose weight faster than their meat eating counterparts. Studies have shown there can be measurable increases in how fast your body can shed pounds when you remove meat, fish and poultry from your diet.
Perhaps more promising than all of these benefits is the research that indicates vegetarian diets may lower your risk of certain types of cancer. Studies have shown there may be a correlation between lower rates of colon, rectal, breast, and stomach cancer and becoming a vegetarian.
Vegetarian diets are also a possible answer for people who have struggled to lose weight. Studies that have compared the effects of sticking with the veggies versus simply eating a low-calorie omnivorous diet have shown that vegetarian diets can be more effective in helping people lose weight. For individuals considering gastric bypass surgery or other weight loss procedures, a vegetarian diet may be one more option to try before resorting to more invasive forms of weight management.
A Vegetarian Diet Promotes Heart Health
One of the most compelling health reasons people pick a vegetarian diet is to lower their risk of heart disease. There is still ongoing research into exactly how much you can reduce your chances of cardiovascular disease by cutting meat out of your diet, but there is general agreement from a wide range of the medical community that reducing your intake of red meat can help lower your chances of a heart attack.
Removing or reducing the amount of meat in your diet works to improve heart health in several ways. In addition to lowering your levels of triglycerides, a meatless diet has been shown to lower high levels of LDL or “bad” cholesterol, which can be a risk factor for heart attacks. Vegetarianism may also help lower your blood pressure, which further reduces your chances of heart disease.
Getting the Nutrients You Need
For all the good you can gain from a vegetarian diet, there are downsides and challenges if you are not careful. Research suggests eating meat may lead to an increased risk of some cancers, but meat, fish, and poultry also contain vital nutrients, fats, and proteins that are essential to keeping your body healthy.
This doesn’t mean you are trapped eating meat, of course. If you are going to adopt a strict vegetarian diet, you will merely need to do a little extra homework to ensure you are getting the nutrients your body needs from your new diet.
Calcium, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin b12 are all examples of essential nutrients that are harder to come by with a strict vegetarian or vegan diet. Nutritional deficiencies in these and other micronutrients can be a concern, but adopting a varied diet filled with whole grains, fortified foods, alternative protein sources, and a wide range of nuts, fruit, and vegetables will help reduce your chances of nutritional deficits.
The consequences of nutritional deficiencies arising from a vegetarian diet can be quite severe. Loss of bone mass, anemia, generalized weakness, and even thyroid issues are all possible if you are unable to fill your diet with enough protein, calcium, iron, iodine, and other nutrients. Thankfully, a little planning, a bit of experimentation and working with your doctor or a dietician can help you make sure you are getting the foods you need to stay healthy. Adding multivitamins and dietary supplements may also help to shore up the nutritional content of your diet if you are not getting the nutrients you need from your food.
Is a Vegetarian Diet Right for You?
Success with any kind of dietary change, whether large or small, relies on planning ahead and having people help you navigate the transition to your new eating habits. This is true if you are just cutting a few calories or dropping some sweets out of your diet or if you are making a wholesale change from an omnivorous diet containing meat to a vegetarian one.
Identifying a list of foods you want to include in your diet is a great first step. From there, making a meal plan can help you make sure you are getting the nutrients you need. More and more vegetarian recipes, cookbooks, menu items, and whole restaurants are available than ever before to help you stick with your new veggie-centric lifestyle.
Being conscious of what you are eating is very important for people who have had gastric bypass surgery or other non-surgical weight loss procedures. If you have had the volume of your stomach reduced, it is going to be harder for you to get the nutrients you need, especially if you are not eating nutrient and calorie dense foods like meat and fish.
Any long-term weight loss plan takes planning. Changing to a meatless diet takes even more careful planning. Changing your diet if you have reduced the volume of your stomach as part of your weight loss plan makes it even more essential you have the guidance and medical advice you need to stay healthy as you meet your weight loss goals.
At NEW You Weight Loss, our doctors and dietitians can help you understand the risks and rewards associated with your dietary choices. We can also help you make the best decisions about what to cut and what to keep in your diet so you can continue to steadily work toward your forever figure in a safe and healthy manner. If you are wondering if a change in your diet is the next step for you, request a consultation today.