Many people follow a vegetarian diet in an effort to improve their health. The health-related benefits of vegetarian diets are well-documented. But there are downsides to this type of eating style, too. If you are thinking about following some type of vegetarian diet, consider these pros and cons to make sure it’s the right fit for you.
Pro: Vegetarian diets may lower your risk for disease.
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds are the core of a healthy, well-balanced vegetarian diet. These foods provide an abundance of health-protective vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber that may lower the risk for common chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and obesity.
Cons: Just because it’s vegetarian doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
On the flip side, if your vegetarian diet includes a lot of highly processed foods instead of whole plant-based foods, the risk for some chronic diseases may actually increase. There are many junk foods that fit into a vegetarian diet but are not good for you—think soda, chips and cookies, among others. Packaged vegetarian meals and snacks may contain high amounts of added sugar, sodium and fat and offer little to no nutritional value. Keep in mind that just as with any diet, there are ways to make a vegetarian diet healthy and ways to turn it into a diet disaster.
Pro: You have options when it comes to going vegetarian.
You can determine the type of vegetarian eating plan that’s right for you. Some people eliminate meat, fish, and poultry from their diets but eat eggs and dairy. Others allow only eggs or only dairy. Some include seafood on occasion. A vegan diet eliminates all foods derived from animals, even things like honey.
Con: You may have possible nutrient deficiencies.
Some essential nutrients, such as vitamins B12 and D, calcium and iron, aren’t available in many plant-based foods. Vegetarian diets may provide these nutrients as long as food intake is planned properly, but supplementation is sometimes necessary. Top sources of these nutrients for vegetarians include:
- Vitamin B12: Found in animal products like eggs and milk (as well as meat, fish and poultry). Also found in some fortified cereals, nutritional yeast, meat substitutes and soymilk.
- Vitamin D: In addition to eggs and fish, also found in fortified plant milks and mushrooms. Vitamin D is also gained through sun exposure.
- Calcium: Aside from dairy products, calcium can be found in fortified plant-based milks, cereal, juice, tofu, collard greens, kale, broccoli, beans and almonds.
- Iron: You can get iron from eggs and also fortified cereal, soy, spinach, chard and beans. Pair iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods like citrus, peppers or tomatoes to increase absorption.
Starting a vegetarian diet can be tricky when grocery shopping, dining out and eating in social settings. Over time this becomes easier, but it does require some work. Read labels on products and become familiar with common ingredients derived from animals, such as casein, whey and gelatin. At restaurants, keep in mind that meatless meals may be prepared with dairy or other animal products, like beef or chicken broth, so ask questions to make a selection that’s right for you. When dining at someone’s home, the best thing to do is to bring along a vegetarian dish that everyone can enjoy.
If you are committed to starting a vegetarian lifestyle, a registered dietitian can give you helpful tips that better ensure that your nutrition needs are being met.