You’ve heard buzz over the years that following a vegetarian diet is better for your health, and you’ve probably read a few magazine articles featuring a celeb or two who swore off meat and animal products and “magically” lost weight. So does ditching meat automatically equal weight loss? Will it really help you live longer and be healthier overall?
The Verdict: Vegetarian diets can be unhealthy if you’re not careful
First of all, what exactly constitutes “vegetarian”? There are two basic kinds of vegetarian diet: lacto-ovo and strict (vegan). Most vegetarians fall into the lacto-ovo category: They eat only non-animal products (fruits, veggies, grains, nuts, soy, etc.), but do eat animal byproducts, such as yogurt and eggs. In terms of nutritional requirements, being a lacto-ovo vegetarian isn’t all that different from being a meat-eater, according to Katherine Tallmadge, RD, LD, past media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Vegans, however, don’t eat any animal products whatsoever — and as a result, “they must be very careful in their selection of foods so that they get all the nutrients they need,” says Tallmadge. (Potato chips are vegan, after all.)
That said, following a vegetarian diet “can be nutritionally superior to any other way of eating,” says Tallmadge. “It can be one of the healthiest ways to eat, because we know plant foods are loaded with nutrients to protect our health.”
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than meat eaters. Vegetarians also tend to have a lower body mass index, lower overall cancer rates and lower risk of chronic disease.
But if your vegetarian co-worker is noshing greasy veggie burgers and fries every day for lunch, is he likely to be healthier than you, who always orders the grilled salmon? Definitely not!
“A vegetarian diet doesn’t necessarily lead to weight loss — especially if you eat out at restaurants often,” says Tallmadge. “A lot of times, the only vegetarian dishes on the menu are cheesy and fattening.” It can be hard to find restaurants serving soy burgers or beans and rice, and eating restaurant-size portions of pasta, rice, nuts and cheese could quickly add up to weight gain. According to Tallmadge, the desire to eat lighter meals that provide adequate protein is what makes many vegetarians change their minds and start eating fish.
The most important thing for vegetarians of all kinds to remember is to make sure they are getting key nutrients, including protein, fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium and vitamins D and B-12. Protein is essential for building muscle mass, amino function, fighting disease and healing, according to Tallmadge, so make sure you’re getting protein in each meal throughout the day for optimum absorption. “In order to get essential amino acids and nutrients,” says Tallmadge, “vegans must eat soy protein — the only vegetable protein which is as complete as animal protein. Or they must mix beans with grains.”
If you’re considering going vegetarian, keep these tips in mind:
1. There are numerous research-proven health benefits to following a vegetarian diet, but only if you’re doing it properly and not substituting meat with processed or high-fat vegetarian products.
2. Both lacto-ovo vegetarians and vegans need to make sure they are getting adequate nutrition. It’s a good idea to purchase a book on how to follow a vegetarian diet, or to meet with a nutritionist to outline what a few days of meals looks like.
3. Be aware of how much of your diet is made up of nuts as a source of protein, especially if you’re trying to lose weight. An ounce of nuts is about 180 calories and 5 grams of protein. You should be getting between 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal. So: You’d have to eat thousands of calories worth of something like nuts in order to get the amount of protein you need to be healthy, according to Tallmadge. They’re a healthy food, but high in fat and calories — so be sure to round out your diet with a variety of vegetarian proteins.