There have never been more vegetarians than there are today – tempted to join the burgeoning masses and reap some of the benefits? We asked the experts about the pros of a vegetarian diet…
It’s rich in nutrients
Although meat, in moderation, provides key vitamins and nutrients, the millions of vegetarians out there will explain how easy it is to get all the essential nutrients without it. Shona Wilkinson, nutritionist at SuperfoodUK says: “Vegetarian diets can be very rich in vitamins, minerals and most other nutrients, if a good variety of vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds, pulses and whole grains are eaten. Vegetables and fruit provide an excellent source of antioxidants. These help protect our cells and tissues, and boost the immune system.”
It’s low in cholesterol
A vegetarian diet that’s low in fibre and high in potassium lowers blood pressure, improves total cholesterol and reduces the risk for both heart attacks and stroke. Fatty red meats and processed meats contain high levels of saturated fats, which can increase the risk of heart-related illness and obesity. Shona explains, “One of the most significant benefits of a vegetarian diet is less saturated fat. High levels of saturated fat are associated with heart disease, obesity and high cholesterol. In comparison to meat, plants are generally low in saturated fat and contain no cholesterol.” So eating less fatty meat will cut down on cholesterol and help to shift unwanted pounds.
It can reduce the risk of cancer
According to the World Health Organisation, one third of all cancers can be prevented with a change in lifestyle, and that can include a healthy diet. As the organisation states: “Diets high in fruits and vegetables may have an independent protective effect against many cancers.” Paired with regular exercise, adopting a healthy vegetarian diet that’s rich in fruit and veg will maintain a healthy body weight, and according to WHO, will also “lower the risk of diet-associated cancers”.
Need more convincing? Dr Sally Norton, NHS weight-loss consultant and health expert at VavistaLife says: “Studies show that vegetarian (including vegan) populations tend to be less overweight and suffer less from diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and more – living longer as a result. Whether that is from avoiding animal products specifically, or having a generally healthier diet and lifestyle anyway, is difficult to be sure of, but good nutrition almost certainly plays a major role.”
It lowers the risk of developing diabetes
Diabetes is often associated with raised blood cholesterol levels, and, as explained, a vegetarian diet can help lower cholesterol. A diet rich in plant-based foods that’s low in fat, low in GI and primarily whole foods focused (fruits, soya foods, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes) contributes to more stable blood sugar levels, so can be beneficial in avoiding and managing type 2 diabetes.
It’s good for the gut
Speaking to The Independent, Cameron Wells, acting director of nutrition education for the nonprofit Physicians Committee and Barnard Medical Center, says eating plant-based foods is a great way to boost your gut health. Plant foods that are rich in positive types of bacteria work hard to support your immune system, boost the digestive system, reduce inflammation, and regulate ghrelin, the hunger hormone. You’ll be less likely to suffer with tummy upset and your appetite will be easier to satisfy. Fermented vegetarian foods in particular – including water kefir, tempeh, kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi – will “diversify your gut bacteria and take your health into high gear.”
It’s better for the environment
Ditching meat and fish is also beneficial for the environment. Livestock farming is responsible for around 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions, so abstaining from meat significantly reduces your carbon footprint. In fact, last year, new research found a widespread switch to vegetarianism could cut emissions by around 63%. But there’s also the moral factor to consider. Billions of livestock are slaughtered each year and over-fishing, for example, has led to a decline in marine species, with some extremely close to extinction, so going veggie is a small step in helping animal conservation efforts.
Okay, so how do you make the switch?
Before you take the plunge into a plant-based diet, there are a few things to consider. If you’re ditching meat, you’ll need to ensure you’re getting enough protein. Pulses including beans, peas and lentils are a low-fat source of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals, so eat plenty of these alongside nuts, eggs and meat alternatives such as tofu, Quorn and tempeh.
Follow Dr Sally Norton’s advice and think about how a vegetarian diet may affect you, plan your nutrients and your meals to ensure you’re sticking to a balanced diet. Or, if you don’t want to go fully vegetarian, cutting down on meat is a great way to boost health. Choose to eat vegetarian meals two or three times per week, replace red meats with fish or Quorn and up your regular intake of fruit and veg for a healthier lifestyle.