The Pros and Cons of Vegetarian Diets

by Debra Kirchhof-Glazier

Member, Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association

Vegetarianism is becoming more commonplace in the U.S.  Supermarkets now routinely carry soymilk and vegetarian burgers.  Both fast food and sit-down restaurants often feature vegetarian entrees.  What is involved in vegetarianism and what are the health benefits and risks?

Most people who are vegetarians choose this diet because of compassion for animals or for ecological reasons of eating low on the food chain.  Some, however, adopt vegetarianism primarily for health reasons. All vegetarian diets seek to exclude some form of meat or animal products.   Vegetarianism itself, however, encompasses a very broad spectrum of diets, ranging from excluding only red meat to excluding all animal products.  Those who exclude only certain meats and eat, for example, fish or chicken, are known as semi-vegetarians.  Those who eat no meat but who consume eggs and dairy products are known as ovolactovegetarians.  Those who consume only plants and plant products are known as vegans.  The health benefits and risks vary with the type of vegetarian diet.

The health benefits of vegetarian diets result primarily from the high fiber and abundant phytochemicals involved with high intake of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.  High fiber helps decrease transit time in the large intestine, which minimizes the exposure of the gut to wastes and their associated toxins.  The high fiber also contributes to the feeling of being full, which helps vegetarians maintain a lean body weight.  Lower body weight, in turn, can decrease the risk of developing high blood pressure and type II diabetes. Vegetarians also generally have low cholesterol, due to the decreased intake of cholesterol-containing foods and the higher fiber.  Colon cancer rates are low in vegetarians, not only due to the effects of fiber but also to the decreased load of carcinogens that are found in charred or cured meats.  Phytochemicals are compounds produced by plants, often in the brightly colored parts, that have health benefits for humans.   We are just beginning to identify and understand some of the hundreds of these phytochemicals, many of which decrease our risk of developing chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, cataracts, and cancer.  Interestingly, there are health benefits independent of diet for those who are vegetarians that accrue from a holistic philosophy that often includes regular exercise, abstinence from smoking and alcohol, and cultivation of a connection to the Divine (God).

There are health risks associated with vegetarian diets, however, and these risks vary with the degree of restriction of meat and animal products.  Some important nutrients can be either inadequate or absent in vegetarian diets, and three of these include protein, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.  Proteins are made of building blocks called amino acids.  There are 9 amino acids that our body cannot make and which must be eaten in order for us to make all our proteins.  Animal products contain all 9 of these amino acids but plants usually do not.  Exceptions are soy and amaranth seeds.  Therefore, vegetarians who do not eat any meat or animal products must eat soy or amaranth seeds and combinations of plants that provide all these essential nutrients.  Another important nutrient is vitamin D, which helps us absorb calcium from our food.  Vitamin D is made by our skin, liver, and kidneys when we are exposed to sunlight, but most people do not get adequate sun exposure to make this a viable source. Natural dietary sources include fish, liver, and egg yolk.  Vegetarians who do not eat fish or eggs would, therefore, be at risk for vitamin D deficiency if they do not get regular sun exposure or take supplements.  Perhaps the most important nutrient that vegetarians, particularly vegans, need to take into consideration is vitamin B12.  Vitamin B12 is required for production of red blood cells, synthesis of DNA, and for proper nerve function.  The only reliable natural sources are meat, dairy products, and eggs.  Vitamin B12 deficiency can have serious consequences.

It is important for vegetarians to understand which nutrients are required for health and to obtain them in philosophically acceptable ways, such as by taking supplements or eating fortified foods.  It is absolutely essential that vegetarian parents, including nursing mothers, pay attention to the special needs of infants and growing children to ensure proper physical and mental growth. Of all the vegetarian diets, veganism, improperly implemented, puts children most at risk for nutritional deficiencies that could lead to rickets, anemia, emaciation, and poor growth.

Some practical nutritional tips for vegetarians include eating foods like whole grain breads and nut spreads that have sufficient calories and are nutrient-rich.  Vitamin C increases iron absorption by making the iron more soluble.  Yeast-leavened whole grain breads increase the bioavailability of zinc by inactivating zinc inhibitors.  For ovolactovegetarians, milk and eggs increase the bioavailability of iron from plant foods eaten at the meal.

Overall, done correctly, vegetarianism offers some excellent health benefits.  Those who are not vegetarians can benefit from meatless meals on a regular basis as well.  However, it is essential that those who are strict vegetarians become educated about the potential risks of the diet they choose and to be proactive to avoid problems.  Consultation with a dietician, your physician, and/or a knowledgeable practitioner from the Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association can help you reap rich dividends from a meatless lifestyle.

The Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association makes no medical claims or recommendations.  Check with your doctor about your specific health care needs.  For more information on the Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association contact Jennifer Micija, president, at 814-667-2097 or