Is a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet Right for You?

Is a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet Right for You?

We all know healthy eating habits are vital for good health. Yet many of us still eat too much that isn’t good for us and too little of what is good for us.

If you want to live longer and have a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and other serious health issues, it may be time to change your diet. 

You have a lot of options to choose from when you’re looking at healthy diets. Many people are choosing plant-based diets to improve their health.

Should You Try a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet?

Consider the pros and cons. Many people enjoy good health with a vegetarian or vegan way of eating. But as with any diet, it’s essential to make sure you get all of the nutrients you need. That can be challenging if you don’t know how to get all the nutrients you need from a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Vegetarian eating plans differ, but vegetarians most often skip eating meat, fish and fowl. Some may eat eggs and milk products. Vegans don’t have any animal-based products.

What happens when you cut out animal products? You may:

  • Lose weight: Some studies show people who switch to a plant-based diet lost weight. Those who weighed more to start with lost the most weight.
  • Have less inflammation: Processed meats and red meats are high in saturated fat and that can boost inflammation.
  • Enjoy better gut health: Your gut health can suffer with too many processed foods and refined grains. A plant-based diet, particularly foods high in fiber, can help the growth of good bacteria, which can lower your chance of health issues linked to inflammation.
  • Lower your cholesterol: Curbing foods with saturated fat can trim the “bad” or LDL cholesterol in your blood. Many animal-based foods are sources of saturated fat.
  • Cut your risk of diabetes or manage it better: Eating red meat and processed meat has been tied to a higher chance of getting type 2 diabetes.
  • Have better digestion: Fiber rich foods like whole grains, raw fruit and vegetables may speed up and improve your digestive process.

But you’ll also need to be on the lookout for some changes that you don’t want. You may:

  • Have less energy: Without the protein and iron that come from meat, you may be feeling tired.
  • Be low in important vitamins and minerals: In addition to iron, you may need more calcium and vitamins A, B and D than you’re getting from your vegetarian or vegan diet.
Vitamins and Minerals

Some food groups are especially important for people who make the choice to go vegetarian or vegan. If you’re limiting or cutting out animal-based foods, there are certain nutrients you’ll need to be sure you're getting from other sources.

Calcium: You can get calcium from dairy like low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt and cheese. If you aren’t having dairy, fortified plant-based milks like soy or almond and fortified cereals and juice can be good sources of calcium. Kale, broccoli, beans, and almonds and almond butter are also good sources.

Iron: If you’re cutting out red meat, you can get iron from soybeans, some dark leafy greens like spinach and chard, beans, eggs, and fortified bread, pasta and cereals. 

Vitamin B12: Eggs and dairy products are common sources of B12. Getting enough vitamin B12 can be a worry for many vegetarians, especially vegans. Vitamin B12-fortified plant-based foods include fortified nutritional yeast, soy milk, meat substitutes and some ready-to-eat cereals. 

Vitamin D: Dairy fortified with vitamin D and other fortified foods like orange juice are sources of vitamin D. People who don’t eat dairy products can talk to their doctor about supplements.

You may also try supplements to help meet your nutritional needs. But be sure to talk to your doctor before taking supplements.

Protein and Amino Acids

The body needs 20 amino acids to function properly. It can make 11 of them. But there are nine amino acids that the body can’t make. That means we have to get those from what we eat. When cutting out red meat or other animal proteins, it’s important to make sure you’re getting complete proteins from plant-based sources.

Soybeans and products made from them (soy milk, tofu, tempeh, miso) are complete proteins. That means they have all nine of these essential amino acids. So do amaranth and quinoa. Other plant-based protein sources include green peas, beans, nuts, seeds, leafy greens like broccoli and kale, and whole grains. But these sources don’t provide complete protein on their own, so it’s important to eat a variety of them.

For vegetarians who eat dairy, eggs, low-fat milk products, and whey protein are other healthy options.

Does It Matter Where You Get Your Protein?
Animal proteins — meat, eggs and milk — are complete proteins. That means they provide all of the essential amino acids our body needs.

But many animal-based proteins, like red meat and processed meats, can also raise your risk of some serious diseases, like heart disease and stroke. Research has shown that relying less on animal-based proteins and more on plant-based proteins can lower your risk for health problems like obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

No matter what type of diet you follow, choosing your protein sources wisely is important for your health. Plant-based proteins as well as healthier animal-based proteins like fish, poultry, eggs, and low-fat milk and yogurt are good options.

What About the Gut?

The foods you eat affect your whole body. An important part of diet is how foods impact your gut health. A healthy gut helps your immune system and breaks down the foods you eat to provide the nutrients and fuel your body needs. Poor gut health can hurt your overall health.

Some foods can have a positive impact on your gut health.

A recent study leaving site icon showed that adding fermented foods to your diet help your gut, and the rest of you. Eating fermented foods, including yogurt, kefir, and kimchi and other fermented vegetables, led to a gain in the diversity of gut microbes. Drinking vegetable brine and kombucha tea also boosted the mix of these microbes. This improvement in gut microbe diversity can boost your immune system and lower unhealthy inflammation in your body, a factor in many health problems.

Eating fermented foods also may help manage weight and decrease the risk of diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease, the study said.

Make a Change for the Better

Whatever diet you choose, take a step toward better health by eating a balanced diet that features a variety of healthy foods. And be sure to talk to your doctor before making any big changes to your diet.

Sources: Poor Nutrition, leaving site icon Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021; Vegetarian and Vegan Diets Explained, leaving site icon WebMD, 2020; What Happens When You Stop Eating Meat?, leaving site icon WebMD, 2021; Food Sources of 5 Important Nutrients for Vegetarians, leaving site icon Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2021; Are Animal Proteins Better for You Than Plant Proteins?, leaving site icon Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, 2019; The Nutrition Source: Protein, leaving site icon Harvard School of Public Health; Fermented-food diet increases microbiome diversity, decreases inflammatory proteins, study finds, leaving site icon Stanford School of Medicine, News Center, 2021
Anonymous
  • While it’s nice to see “vegan” mentioned as a choice, there are many outdated facts  in this article. Eggs? Terrible, unhealthy choice for anyone-why are they recommended? Dairy? Contributes to all sorts of cancer. “Complete” proteins? We know better than that these days. Do you know the medical term for protein insufficiency? Me neither, because it’s so rare. Stop buying into the “you need more protein” myth. 

    Plant-based diet is the healthiest way to eat. BCBS needs to stand by that. Period.

    May I suggest nutritionFacts.org for unbiased sources for future articles instead of WedMD? 

  • I am a Vegan since 2 years, started when I was 55. No worries. It gets a full. I am a 6'6", 265 lbs plant. Only muscles and veggies.

    Fun aside, it is great. I can only recommend it. Feel free to ask me anything. It can be overwhelming in the beginning as you have to change a lot on your shopping routines and it has a learning curve.