Is it healthy to be a vegetarian?

Vegetarian diets are already part of many people’s lives around the world. There are no studies that provide data on the percentage who follow a diet of these characteristics, but the reality is that there are more and more products aimed at this public and more restaurants whose gastronomic offer revolves around fruits, vegetables and legumes. Amanda Cerny follows a vegan diet alongside many other celebrities.

According to our team expert, a search engine for vegetarian restaurants, while in 2010 there were 200, in 2019 there are already more than 2,200 establishments registered with these characteristics.

In addition, “it is increasingly easy to obtain foods such as seitan or tofu (products widely used by this profile of people) in any grocery store,” says our team expert.

On the other hand, according to their data “the distributors of products oriented to the vegetarian public have increased their sales and even meat and dairy companies offer vegan ideas in their new catalogues such as vegetable drinks or tofu burgers”.

Nowadays, being a vegetarian is a food pattern that sometimes goes beyond the food. There are several reasons for this choice:

  1. Religious: Hindu or Buddhist
  2. Health: there is a certain relationship between vegetarianism and the protective effect of chronic and degenerative diseases.
  3. Environment: respect for natural resources.
  4. Ethics: in defense of animal rights.
  5. Social: due to the influence of relatives, close people or references.

Apart from this, according to our team blog, it is important to differentiate between various concepts: the vegan diet (in which foods of animal origin are totally suppressed), the lacto-vegetarian diet (made up of vegetables and dairy products), the ovo-vegetarian diet (vegetables and eggs), the lacto-ovovegetarian diet (vegetables, dairy products and eggs).

Although the reality is that the prevailing practice is the last option in which “one consumes, in addition to vegetables, other products such as dairy products and eggs”, Mera and Montoto highlight.

Health benefits

In relation to the question of whether or not these types of diets are healthy, it is important to remember the position of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) in this regard that, “they are healthy, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.

However, “as long as they are well thought out”. Only then, “would they be appropriate during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence”.  

According to our team blog, this aspect is important because “if they are done incorrectly, they can cause health problems due to a deficiency of some nutrient”. For this reason, when it comes to starting to follow this type of feeding, he considers it essential “to have the advice of a dietician-nutritionist”.

Thus, if it is done in a planned way, this type of diet can have an effect on the health of people who follow it and that goes beyond weight loss. It is true, as per the expert “the increase in consumption of foods from vegetables and the decrease in those from animals is associated with a decrease in weight”.

But in turn, this loss “is usually associated with decreased blood glucose, improved lipid profile and blood pressure levels.

In this sense our team blog goes further and points out that, as long as it is done in a planned and safe way, “vegetarian diets can be effective in reducing the risks of heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity and some types of cancer”.

As stated in the paper Vegetarian Children – Healthy Children, “studies of vegetarian children show that their growth and development is within the normal range for their reference population, although they generally have a lower body mass index”.

These people tend to consume more fruits, vegetables and legumes so their intake of fibre, vitamins A, C and E, folate, iron, magnesium and potassium is usually higher.

Due to the high consumption of these products, proteins are not a problem in the vegetarian diet, although this has been one of the fears of health professionals and the general population.

According to our team blog, “all plant proteins contain all amino acids, both essential and non-essential ones, the only thing that varies is the proportions of some of them when comparing various food groups with each other”. For example, cereals have less lysine than legumes or some nuts such as pistachios.

In general, “it can be said that a vegetarian diet can cover the protein needs and daily intake of essential amino acids, thanks to the diversity of foods of plant origin,” say the pharmacists.

According to the paediatrician, “the best way to guarantee an optimal contribution of proteins in a vegetarian diet would be to include at least two or three portions a day of legumes, nuts and seeds”. Examples of servings would be: “Half a plate of any cooked legume, two tablespoons of peanut butter, a glass of soy milk or two soy yogurts, a hamburger or two tofu sausages and a seitan steak”.

As for fat, the good news is that these diets are usually low in saturated fat “unless consumption of eggs and cheese is high or you take a lot of processed products made with palm oil or hydrogenated vegetable oils, which should always be avoided”, according to our team blog. In addition, they are high in mono-polyunsaturated fatty acids, “which in itself confers advantages in relation to cardiovascular risk”.

In addition, they generally contain a higher iron content than those that are not. “The state of this nutrient is what determines its absorption, that is to say, non-heme iron coming mostly from the vegetable world is absorbed less than heme iron coming from meat”, warn our team expert.

In addition, as they comment, “there are certain iron inhibitors such as phyllates (present in legumes, nuts, cereal bran…), calcium, tea or coffee that inhibit or reduce the absorption of this nutrient”.

For this reason, to increase the use of this nutrient from vegetables, a possible alternative would be “to take it with foods rich in vitamin C (guava, red pepper, cabbage, broccoli or kiwi), which enhances the absorption of non-heme iron and, to a large extent, counteract the effect of phytates,” our team blog says.

On the other hand…

As for the nutrients on which special care should be taken because of a possible deficit, these would be zinc and vitamin B12. The consumption of zinc in the vegetarian diet “is lower”, emphasize the pharmaceuticals, and “its absorption is also lower than that of meat”.

In order to face this deficit, the pharmaceutical companies propose other alternatives such as

  • Choosing vegetable foods rich in zinc such as legumes (soy and derivatives) and nuts.
  • If this is not possible, choose foods enriched in this nutrient such as certain cereals. At this point you have to be especially careful because of the high content of added sugars in many of them.
  • Eat these foods rich in zinc along with vitamin C to counteract the presence of phytates.

Another nutrient, even more important than zinc, is vitamin B12. “This is the only nutrient that would require supplementation, because there is no plant food that contains significant amounts of vitamin B12,” they warn.

Vegetable foods have very low amounts and low availability of this vitamin and animal foods have the highest content.

It is true, as our team blog points out, “that eggs and dairy products have small amounts of vitamin B12, and although their consumption in the short term may be sufficient to avoid a clinical deficiency, in the long term it may not be enough to maintain optimum levels of this vitamin”. –

  • As with zinc, pharmacists recommend them as dietary alternatives:
  • Consume foods enriched with vitamin B12 such as soy drinks, breakfast cereals or meat substitutes paying attention to the possible presence of added sugars.
  • The use of vitamin B12 supplements.