Is a vegetarian diet healthier? Five experts weigh in

Vegetarianism is on the rise, as many vegetarians will gladly tell you. While many people who eschew meat products do so for the sake of animals and the environment, we’re starting to learn more about the negative health effects of meat and the benefits from eating a plant-based diet.

We asked five experts in Australia if a vegetarian diet is healthier.

Here are their detailed responses:

Amelia Harray, Dietician

Yes, so long as the vegetarian foods are also healthy. Vegetarian eating patterns have been associated with lower risk of premature death, while red and processed meats increase the risk of colorectal cancer. Australian diets are typically high in meat and low in vegetables and legumes.

Plant-based alternatives to meat, such as legumes, nuts, seeds, and tofu, have similar distinguishing nutrients (iron, protein, zinc), while being naturally lower in saturated fat and higher in fiber. These meat-free options are widely available, affordable, and becoming more socially acceptable in this country.

A recent article strengthened the importance of people considering the impact of their food choices on the environment, not just health. In most climates and settings, the production of meat and dairy foods has more of a negative environmental impact than plant-based foods. Even without following a strict vegetarian diet, frequently replacing meat meals with plant-based alternatives can benefit our health and that of the environment.

Malcolm Forbes, Doctor

A balanced vegetarian diet is healthier than the current diet of most Australians. There is a large body of evidence that has consistently demonstrated vegetarians enjoy lower rates of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. A vegetarian Mediterranean diet may also be associated with lower rates of depression, however this relationship is less clear.

I regularly enquire about the diet of my patients and recommend an increase in plant-based foods. While a vegetarian diet is no panacea, it is one easy step to reduce a patient’s risk of lifestyle diseases.

Natalie Parletta, Nutritionist

Ample evidence suggests vegetarians live longer and have lower rates of chronic diseases—in part because of their diet and possibly also because people who choose vegetarian diets may be more health conscious anyway. Plant foods, including fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes, deliver abundant fiber, nutrients, and polyphenols that are essential for a healthy body and mind.

For vegetarians—and particularly vegans—it’s important to eat a varied and well-balanced diet, making sure to get enough of certain nutrients such as omega-3 and vitamin B12.

More recently, scientists are also promoting the benefits of plant-based diets to reduce our footprint on the planet: to improve environmental sustainability and feed our growing population. Then there’s the ethical concerns about animal welfare. Plant-based diets—whether totally vegetarian or dominated by plant foods—are a win-win-win for people, animals, and the planet.

Rosemary Stanton, Nutritionist

Yes—if you’re comparing a well-chosen vegetarian diet with a typical Australian junk-food diet. Any comparison depends on the whole diet. A well-chosen vegetarian diet has a good selection of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and wholegrains. Including eggs, milk, cheese, and yoghurt (or calcium-fortified plant alternatives) make it especially easy to meet nutrient needs. By contrast, the typical Australian diet, high in meat and junk foods, and low in wholegrains, vegetables, legumes, fruit, nuts, and seeds is much less healthy and plays a prime role in many diet-related health problems.

Claims a vegetarian diet lacks iron, protein, or zinc are unfounded. It’s true those who follow a vegetarian diet have lower levels of iron stored as ferritin, but the levels are in the normal range and do not equate to a deficiency. And with ferritin, more is not better. It must be said, however, that plant-based diet recommendations from the World Health Organization and others do not preclude including small amounts of appropriately-sourced seafood, poultry, or a small amount of red meat.

Katherine Livingstone, Population Nutrition

For most Australians, eating small amounts of lean meats and reduced-fat dairy products can be consistent with good health. The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommends 1-3 serves of lean meats, poultry, and fish, and alternatives such as beans and legumes, each day. Meats are a good source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. Processed meats should be limited as they are high in added salt and saturated fat, which can increase your risk of heart disease.

A plant-based diet is high in a variety of fruits, vegetables, and wholegrains and low in processed foods, but can still include small amounts of lean meats and reduced-fat dairy products. Plant-based diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, are linked with lower risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Eating a plant-based diet is good for us and the planet.

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