A vegetarian diet promises health benefits a mile long, but do we put our health on the line by excluding animals from our diet? Here’s the bottom line when it comes to this increasingly popular approach to eating.

There are plenty of reasons people adopt a vegetarian diet - a diet that excludes meat, poultry, and seafood - whether it is to manage or lower the risk for chronic disease, better protect the environment, or practice compassion toward animals.

A quality vegetarian diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, foods that lessen inflammation and oxidative stress in the body and naturally contain much less saturated fat than nonvegetarian diets.  

So it is hardly a shock that adopting this way of eating promises a heap of health perks.

But still, concerns arise regarding whether we can get all the nutrition we need on a purely vegetarian diet.

Is not eating meat actually putting our health at risk?

The truth about a vegetarian lifestyle and nutritional deficiencies

Despite the common belief,  vegetarian does not always mean healthy.

Scores of processed junk foods stocking the grocery store shelves like cookies, ice cream, and chips are filled to the brim with toxic fat, sugar, and salt - and they are all vegetarian.

It is the type of foods on your plate that determines whether your vegetarian diet promotes your health or hinders it.

But even if we follow a wholesome vegetarian diet, what about those essential nutrients that meat provides?

Interestingly, the science suggests that even without eating meat, vegetarians are not remarkably deficient in important nutrients like iron, zinc, and calcium.

In fact, vegetarians generally exceed the recommended daily calcium, and even show similar or only slightly lower bone mineral density compared to those who eat meat.

Vegetarians should, however, make sure they are supplementing with enough vitamin B12, a critical vitamin that is naturally found in animal products, to prevent a dangerous deficiency.

Fruits and vegetables do not contain vitamin B12, and one cup of milk and an egg per day only supply 66% of your recommended daily amount. Simply taking a supplement should be enough to deliver all the vitamin B12 you need.

What about protein?

Possibly the biggest worry surrounding a diet that excludes meat involves the potential lack of protein.

Animal foods are made up of “complete proteins,” or proteins which have all nine essential amino acids that our body needs and cannot make on its own.

The proteins found in plant foods are incomplete because they are low in one or more essential amino acids.

A common idea is that to maximize nutrition on a vegetarian diet, it is best to combine different plant protein sources together in order to get complete proteins, like rice and beans or peanut butter on a whole grain cracker.

But this guidance appears to be outdated and misguided. The latest research shows that in reality, vegetarians actually meet or exceed recommended daily protein as long as they are eating enough food.

A vegetarian who eats a variety of high-protein plant foods like legumes, soy, nuts, seeds, and whole grains throughout the day will get all of the necessary proteins.

The many reasons to eat meat-free

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics endorses a vegetarian diet as part of a healthy lifestyle for any age, and recognizes the following ways this approach to eating promotes health and prevents disease:

Longevity. Simply put, vegetarians are more likely to live longer.  A famous study that followed the eating habits and death rates of 73,308 subjects over 5.7 years found that vegetarians were 12% less likely to suffer death by any cause compared to those who were not.

Weight loss. A vegetarian diet may be a more effective way to lose weight. Weight-loss study participants who were vegetarian over an average 18 weeks lost an average 4.45 lb more than those following a nonvegetarian eating plan.

Heart health. It is tough to beat a vegetarian diet when it comes to protecting the heart, thanks to the heart-healthy foods that fill a vegetarian’s plate. Eating meat-free makes you 32% less likely to develop ischemic heart disease and report an average 7 mm Hg lower systolic and 5 mm Hg lower diastolic blood pressure compared to those who eat meat.

Already at risk for heart disease with high cholesterol and a high BMI? There is great news: going vegetarian at any time can often improve these risk factors, even without the use of cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Diabetes. A vegetarian diet can also slash your risk for diabetes. A large study tracking the lifestyle patterns of 60,903 men and women across North America over four years revealed that vegetarians and vegans were half as likely to develop type 2 diabetes than nonvegetarians.

Embracing a vegetarian lifestyle - and giving up animal products entirely - can seem overwhelming at first to be sure. But rather than feeling deprived of what you no longer eat, discover the abundance the world of plant foods has opened up for you. When it comes to preparing delicious meals centered around colorful, nutrient-packed ingredients, the sky is truly the limit.