Yes, vegetarian diets are really more healthful! In the National Library of Medicine (NLM) research database at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, you'll find about 750 studies with the word "vegetarian" in their title, and more than 100,000 study participants have had their diets studied in the context of vegetarian eating. Reduced risk of chronic diseases is a well-documented health benefit of vegetarian eating, including reduced risk of the following conditions: atherosclerosis, cancers (select types), coronary artery disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Based on the overall study results from vegetarian diet studies, here are some important take-away points that you need to know.
- Quality is key. You cannot assume that you are automatically going to be healthier if you lower your animal food intake without regard to your overall food quality and dietary balance. The research shows that vegetarian diets, if poorly balanced and based on low-quality plant foods, can actually increase risk of certain nutrient deficiencies including iron, selenium, zinc, vitamin B3, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and protein. With the possible exception of vitamin B12, we believe that you can usually steer clear of these nutrient deficiency risks by choosing high-quality plant foods and taking overall dietary balance into account. ( For more information on the vitamin B12 issue, please see "Is vitamin B12 really a problem in a vegetarian diet?")
- A "purist" approach is not required. A vegetarian diet providing substantial health benefits does not require you to take an all-or-nothing approach to plant versus animal foods. Most vegetarians enjoy measurable health benefits while routinely consuming some fish, eggs, and dairy, and even meat and poultry on occasion. Many people qualify as "semi-vegetarian"—which from a research standpoint, means that they consume meat and poultry more than once per month but less than once per week. In the majority of studies, complete elimination of animal foods (referred to as a "vegan" diet) is not associated with a significant increase in health benefits in comparison to other types of vegetarian diets that include animal foods.
- Lifestyle overlap. Studies on vegetarian diets show that vegetarians often express a clear level of commitment to healthy eating, and that they may be more "health conscious" with respect to their overall lifestyle. For example, in comparison to non-vegetarians, vegetarians are less likely to smoke or consume alcohol in excess. To some extent, it might make sense to say that vegetarians are able to enjoy some unique health benefits because they have become more involved in the world of food and they are "into" healthy eating. At HealthyFood, we believe that most everyone is likely to become more involved in the world of food once they get a taste of how easy and delicious it can be to enjoy whole fresh foods in an everyday way.
More Information on Vegetarian Diets
For more information on the subject of vegetarian diets, please see our overview article "A Practical Look at Vegetarian Diets" as well as the following Q+As.
To see the research articles we reviewed in the writing of these articles, see here