Vegetarian and vegan (those who do not consume any products from animals) diets have been slowly increasing in popularity in recent years. A poll by the Vegetarian Resource Group in 2016 indicated that about 8 million people in the United States were vegetarian with about half of those people being vegan.
Benefits of a vegetarian diet
Vegetarian diets can provide a number of health, environmental, and budget benefits. A vegetarian diet is often higher in fiber and lower in saturated fat. Excess intake of saturated fat has been shown to contribute to heart disease. Foods high in fiber lower risk of a number of diseases including cancer and heart disease.
According to the American Cancer Society's Guidelines on Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer Prevention, a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables and limited in fat from animal sources is a best bet in cancer prevention. There are a number of substances in plant foods that appear to protect against cancer, such as carotenoids, flavonoids, and phenols. Plant-based foods such as beans, nuts, seeds, and tofu are often lower in cost than animal foods and require less processing so contribute less to the carbon footprint.
Consuming a healthy vegetarian diet
A vegetarian diet that simply eliminates meat and doesn’t replace it with plant-based proteins may be lacking in nutrition. Vegan diets require some special attention to provide all the nutrients the body needs, and for most people will require taking appropriate supplements.
Talk to a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) to learn how to best meet your needs if you choose a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Eating vegetarian isn't right for everyone
If completely eliminating animal products seems too difficult or a vegetarian diet isn't right for you, you can still get health benefits from limiting the consumption of meat, especially high fat meats (such as ribs, sausage, bacon, higher fat ground meat, and fried meats). Choosing to eat some meatless meals can provide some of the benefits and can be as easy as having a peanut butter sandwich for lunch or bean burritos for dinner.
Engaging in regular physical activity, limiting alcohol consumption, and eating plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grains can also provide many health benefits without eliminating animal products.