Over the last decade or so, there has been a growing number of people switching to a vegetarian diet. This diet, once limited to social outliers and the ‘hippie’ movement, has been fully embraced by many, both in Australia and around the world.
Followers of the vegetarian diet are quick to point out the benefits of the diet compared to an omnivorous eating plan, but fact and fiction are often confused.
Let’s start clearing up exactly what the vegetarian diet is, and what the health benefits might be, right now.
Different Styles of Vegetarianism
The first thing that anyone new to the vegetarian movement should know is that there are different types of vegetarianism. The most well-known of these is veganism, those who avoid all animal products to varying degrees. But there are also fruitarians, who avoid all animal products and all processed foods, lacto-vegetarians, who eat dairy products but not eggs, and lacto-ovo-vegetarians, who eat both dairy products and eggs.
The Vegetarian Diet
With these classifications and subdividers in mind, let’s look at just what we mean when we talk about the vegetarian diet, and what the diet consists of in its entirety. Basically, the vegetarian diet involves lots of fruits and vegetables, the possibility of dairy products, although soya is a regular substitute, a variety of grains and cereals, and often legumes, nuts and seeds.
The Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet
There have been numerous studies done into the possible benefits that a vegetarian diet can have on the individual, but keep in mind that no one diet is a placebo or a guarantee. Still, the evidence certainly suggests that a vegetarian diet can have a positive effect on:
Heart Health: Many fatty red meats, and most processed meats, are high in saturated fat, so it follows logically that removing, or limiting, those foods in your diet will reduce your risk of heart disease. Studies undertaken by the University of Vermont of 500,000 people showed that eating even a small steak every day increased the risk of death from cardiovascular disease among participants.
Weight Loss: Meats can be very high in calories, and although eating large amounts of meat can lead to weight gain in the short-term, there are long-term weight effects as well. A large study in London concluded that individuals who ate around 250 grams of red meat, poultry or processed meat gained more weight over five years than those who ate less meat, even if the number of calories consumed was the same.
Cancer Risk: There have been a number of studies over the years working to either show or debunk the meat-cancer connection. Certainly at present the results seem clear, with a study in the British Journal of Cancer indicating that women who ate the highest level of red and processed meat had the highest risk of breast cancer. In other studies, the consumption of meat has also been linked with pancreatic, colon and gastric cancers.
Skin Health: If is wasn’t enough that a vegetarian diet could make you feel better, there is now evidence that it might make you look better too. The combination of having less fatty and processed meats in the diet, as well as the substantial increase in the consumption of fresh produce filled with antioxidants, has been shown to improve skin health. The antioxidants help to improve circulation, positively alter skin pigmentation and maintain skin tone.
There is certainly a lot of strong evidence indicating that a vegetarian diet may be healthier overall for those that choose to follow it. But, if you aren’t quite up for giving up all of the meat in your diet, consider simply subbing out some meat meals with vegetarian alternatives, and a larger amount of produce. It might not be a full vegetarian change, but it is still a healthy change, and could make a difference to you.