Food Myths Debunked: Is a Vegetarian Diet Automatically Healthier?
8 minute read
Are you considering a meat-free and vegetarian diet as a way to boost health, lose weight, and support some of your religious or personal convictions? Those are all good reasons to opt for a meatless lifestyle, but being vegetarian is not the magic fix for health and weight that it’s believed to be by some.
There have been studies in the past that prove the benefits of a vegetarian, or plant-based diet. It could be noted that eating chips, candy, and drinking soda is technically a vegetarian diet.
To clarify then: when we are talking about the vegetarian diet, we mean a plant-based, planned approach to eating, not merely eliminating animal meat.
A vegetarian diet can be a very healthy approach, but it’s not necessarily the best approach for all people. Other diets have also shown similar health benefits with a reduction in weight, less incidence of diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other major illnesses.
Let’s take a deeper look into other diets that include meats that have similar health benefits to a vegetarian lifestyle.
The Mediterranean diet is getting a lot of attention lately for its healthy approach. Even the Mayo Clinic loves the Mediterranean diet for its cardiovascular benefits.
Quite simply, this diet looks at the typical foods and recipes used in Mediterranean-style cooking. The focus is on fresh fruits and vegetables with a healthy approach to fish and whole grains. There is also a limited amount of unhealthy fats.
Closely mimicking the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, the Mediterranean diet has been associated with lower cholesterol, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and a reduced incidence of cancer, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's." Women have also shown a decreased level of breast cancer.
These are some of the common characteristics associated with the diet:
♦ Rich in plant-based foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts
♦ Replaces unhealthy fats, like, butter, with olive oil and canola oil
♦ Uses less salt through a heavier use of herbs and spices for flavor
♦ Limited red meat consumption
♦ Focus on fish and poultry for meat-based protein
♦ Red wine in moderation is often featured
♦ Exercise and walking are common in Mediterranean lifestyles
The DASH diet is not as well-known as other healthy ways to eat, but it’s gaining momentum. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Meaning it’s a heart-healthy diet. But don’t discard the DASH diet just because it focuses on lowering blood pressure, it actually has a lot more to offer.
The DASH diet is also used as a preventative measure against osteoporosis, cancer, stroke, diabetes, as well as heart disease.
The Mayo Clinic outlines the DASH diet as one that focuses on portion size, having a wide variety of foods to get your nutrients from, while limiting sodium. In this diet, vegetables play a significant role, as do fruits and low-fat dairy foods. You’ll also get to enjoy moderate amounts of whole grains, fish, poultry, and nuts.
One major component of the DASH diet is limiting sodium. There are two DASH standards: one that allows up to 2,300 mg of sodium a day and the more restrictive one that allows only 1,500 mg.
If you want to try the DASH diet, aim to hit these goals:
♦ Lowered sodium as mentioned above, no more than 2,300 mg per day
♦ 6-8 servings of grains a day with a focus on whole grains
♦ 4-5 servings of vegetables a day
♦ 4-5 servings of fruits a day
♦ 2-3 servings of dairy a day, low fat and fat-free are the best options
♦ 6 ounces or less of lean meat per day
♦ 4-5 servings of nuts, seeds, and legumes each week
♦ 2-3 servings of fats and oils, avoid all trans fats
♦ Limit sweets to 5 or less a week
♦ Limit alcohol to one per day for women and up to two per day for men or less
The pescatarian diet is kind of a hybrid of the vegetarian diet in that it focuses on plant-based foods but allows fish and seafood as the animal-based protein. University Health News refers to it as a diet that gives you the best of both worlds.
Pescatarians tend to have lower blood pressure, lower risk of cardiovascular issues, and some reduction in the instance of colorectal cancers and other cancers of the colon and rectum. Pescatarians may also see a decrease in the risk of diabetes, inflammation, and Alzheimer’s disease.
One important thing to note about pescatarian diets, because of the focus on fish, there’s a concern about mercury in fish. The Natural Resources Defense Council has a handy chart with a smart seafood buying guide to help you make good choices.
Following a pescatarian diet is as easy as following a vegetarian diet but includes fish and seafood. The trick with this diet, as with all plant-based diets, is learning more about the foods you eat, so you can make well-rounded, diverse choices that will give you all of the nutrients your body needs.
Now that we’ve explored some other diets, let’s return to the vegetarian diet. As mentioned above, a diet filled with junk food can often be classified as vegetarian, and those meal choices are obviously not good for you, as they don’t come with the benefits that one thinks of when they first consider a vegetarian lifestyle.
A plant-based vegetarian diet is one that skips the sugar and junk food or at least limits them. It uses a balanced approach to eating that swaps meat-based proteins for plant-based proteins and racks up vitamin and mineral benefits by focusing on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
The Bottom Line
While adopting a vegetarian lifestyle can be very healthy and beneficial, it doesn’t necessarily mean instant health, and it’s not the only way to achieve those benefits. If a vegetarian eats thoughtfully and with a plant-based focus, they’ve certainly opted to make health a priority. But a vegetarian who skips the plants and hits the junk food isn’t doing their body a favor.
Avoiding all meats is not the only way to reap the rewards of plant-based eating. Limiting meats and focusing on lean meats, poultry, and/or fish can make your diet more enjoyable and practical. Give the DASH diet, the Mediterranean diet, and pescetarianism a try to see if any of those diets appeals to you and fits your health goals.