Vegetarian Diets: Good for Your Health
Vegetarian diets can reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity.

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Picture of man eating vegetarian food Vegetarian Diets: Good for Your Health

Should you switch to a plant-only diet? Studies have shown that a well-planned vegetarian diet can help lower your risks for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, among other benefits.

Vegetarian diets often include a lot of whole grains, beans, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Research shows that diets based around these super-foods are healthy. They are rich in fiber and other powerful vitamins and minerals. They also have lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein.

But vegetarians can make poor food choices like anyone else. Their diet has to be carefully planned to reap these healthy benefits. Vegetarians who exist on fatty cheeses, bagels, heavily processed soy foods, and few veggies or beans are no better off than their meatier counterparts.

The power of plant foods
Studies have shown that well-planned vegetarian diets may be helpful in the prevention or management of the following chronic conditions:

Obesity. In several studies, a balanced vegetarian diet has been linked to having a lower body weight.

  • Fruits and vegetables contain a lot of water. Along with the high fiber content found in all plant foods, this creates a feeling of fullness.
  • A large plate of vegetables piled on top of a bed of brown rice and beans leaves little room in your stomach for a second helping or dessert.

Heart disease. Death from heart disease is lower in vegetarians than in others.

  • Plant foods tend to be very low in artery-clogging saturated fat, a major cause of heart disease.
  • Dietary cholesterol, found only in animal foods, is typically lower in vegetarians and absent in vegans.
  • Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are also rich in certain vitamins. This may provide extra protection for your heart.

Hypertension. Some studies have shown that vegetarians tend to have lower blood pressure and less hypertension than others. The reason is not yet clear.

  • This may be due to a combined effect of helpful compounds from plant foods.
  • The lower glycemic index of vegetarian diets may also be a factor.

Diabetes. High-fiber, plant-based diets may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. Some possible reasons include:

  • The lower body weight of most vegetarians helps to prevent type 2 diabetes or keep it in check.
  • A plant-based diet, rich in beans and slowly digested grains, may improve blood sugar control.

Cancer. Vegetarians have an overall lower cancer rate than people in general. It is not clear how much is due to diet.

  • Higher intakes of fiber, phytochemicals, and antioxidants - all found in plant foods - are thought to play a cancer-fighting role.
  • Vegetarian diets come closer to matching the dietary guidelines issued by the National Cancer Institute than other diets.

There is also promising research on the benefits of vegetarianism in helping prevent or manage kidney disease, dementia, gallstones, and rheumatoid arthritis, though more studies are needed.

Not a vegetarian? Don't panic!
You don't need to be a vegetarian to reap the benefits of a plant-based diet. If your diet is heavy on animal foods, such as fatty meats and cheeses, gradually cut back on serving sizes and increase vegetable portions. Choose leaner meats, fish, skinless chicken, and low-fat dairy. Replace some meat meals with vegetarian ones. You may lose a few pounds and gain a healthier lease on life when you do.

Also be sure to be physically active and refrain from smoking. Keep in mind that many vegetarians are health-conscious. They exercise regularly, maintain a desirable body weight, and don't smoke. These factors likely improve the overall health of vegetarians and account for part of the health benefit attributed to what they eat.

By Jane Schwartz Harrison, RD, Staff Nutritionist
Created on 07/02/2008
Updated on 05/20/2011
Sources:
  • American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. Journal of the American Dietetic Assocation. 2009;1266-1282.
  • American Cancer Society. Vegetarianism.
  • Zarraga IG, Schwarz ER. Impact of dietary patterns and interventions on cardiovascular health. Circulation. 2006;114:961-973.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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