Author: Christin Sander, Health Writer
Vegetarian diets have become more popular in recent years due to the many health benefits associated with them. People are moving away from the more traditional “meat and potatoes” diets of the past and looking to build and maintain a healthy lifestyle through healthier food choices.
Vegetarian diets are usually higher in fiber, leading to a healthier digestive system. Doctors recommend a diet high in plant-based fibers to promote healthy body weight and improved digestive function. A diet high in fruit, vegetables and whole grains is a simple way to meet daily fiber recommendations and keep the digestive tract functioning optimally.
Greater consumption of phytonutrients, antioxidants and vitamins comes from eating a variety of plant-based foods, particularly fruits and vegetables. These nutrients play vital roles in the body from tissue repair to fighting free radicals that can cause chronic inflammation and other diseases. The body readily absorbs nutrients from natural foods. Vegetarian and vegan diets are also lower in fat and cholesterol than diets rich in meat and animal products.
Lower Cholesterol Levels and Heart Disease
Vegetarians find they have lower cholesterol levels without unhealthy meat and fat sources in their diet, putting themselves easily into a healthy range. A 2012 Oxford University study suggests vegetarians have a 32 percent reduced risk of hospitalization or death from heart disease compared to those who regularly consume fish and meat as part of their diet. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition came to similar conclusions, suggesting the reduced risk is due to the blood pressure and cholesterol lowering effects of a vegetarian diet.
Reduced Cancer Risk
The antioxidants from various fruits and vegetables neutralize free radicals in the body and prevent cancer. Antioxidants are contained in the pigments that give fruits and vegetables their wide array of colors; eating the rainbow assures a variety of these disease fighting compounds. Meat products lead to an inflammatory response in the body that can ultimately make you more susceptible to cancer. The American Cancer Society states vegetarians have lower rates of prostate and colon cancer, and that overall death rate from cancer is also reduced for those with strict vegetarian diets.
Reduced Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes Rates
Diets high in saturated fats lead to increased obesity rates and related health risks like stroke, heart disease and diabetes. Meat and animal products have more fat and calories than plant based foods. A study conducted by Serena Tonstad, MD, PhD at Loma Linda University tracked the eating habits of more than 50,000 men and women for four years. The purpose of the study was to compare the prevalence of type 2 diabetes in those who follow a plant based diet versus those who don't. The study found that BMI was highest in meat eaters and lowest in vegans – with a 5 unit BMI difference. The research concluded vegetarian diets had a substantial effect on obesity and type 2 diabetes reduction with stricter vegan diets being the best, but vegetarian diets also having moderate benefits.
Less Exposure to Antibiotics and Hormones
Most farm animals that are commercially raised are exposed to antibiotics and growth hormones to boost production. Excessive use of antibiotics has lead to the spread of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, including super germ strains of Salmonella that have been found in the human food supply. Traces of synthetic growth hormones like the rBGH routinely used in cattle are also found in meat and dairy products. Many countries have banned the use of this hormone due to concerns about animal and human welfare and safety.