In most studies over the years, vegetarians tend to have the lowest rates of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Recently, a study using the 7th Day Adventists (a religious group that has a high vegetarian population) found that the all-cause mortality rate for non-vegetarians was significantly higher than for vegetarians (spit up into semi-vegetarians [mostly vegetarian with some poultry & fish], pesco-vegetarian [fish], lacto-ovo-vegetarian [dairy + eggs], and vegan [no animal products]). The study found that only 5-6/1,000 vegetarians died over one year compared to 7/1,000 for non-vegetarians. Furthermore, men in the study who were vegetarian were significantly less likely to die of ischemic heart disease or CVD.
These findings, again, go along with the 2010 US Dietary Guidelines that recommend a “mostly plant based diet” for optimal health. People eating a mostly plant based diet tend to have much lower rates of heart disease, certain cancers, and diabetes compared to those that eat meat. This particular study followed over 70,000 individuals over the course of 5 years and those vegetarians that also include seafood in their diet (pesco-vegetarians) had the lowest mortality rates of any group. Being an extreme vegetarian or vegan didn’t seem to confer any additional benefits than being lacto-ovo or pesca-vegetarian.
My recommendations: There is no need to go completely vegetarian in order to get major health benefits. Eating a “mostly vegetarian” diet or a “flexitarian” diet (as people now like to label themselves) is a very healthy way of eating that allows for you to enjoy lean meats in small quantities. For those of you who do love meat, try to limit the amount of fatty and processed meats you eat, and try to keep your meat-based proteins to a minimum each day (no more than 6 oz for the day for most people). There is no need to eat an 8 oz steak for dinner- replace at least ½ of that with more vegetables or beans! Another benefit, aside from health, is that by cutting down on your meat portions you will cut down significantly on your food bill which is emphasized in my blog post on healthy eating on a budget.
I only advise going vegan if you are doing so for a valid moral or ethical reason. If you plan on going vegan, you must be willing to do the research and learn about ways you can get in all the necessary nutrients (like Vitamin B12)… and actually eat those foods! When one chooses to go vegetarian, they must be open to eating high quality plant-based proteins like soy, hemp, quinoa, and include lots of fruits and vegetables in their diets. A bread, pasta, and cheese based vegetarian diet is not a healthy one. As far as vegetarianism goes, I would recommend trying lacto-ovo-pesca vegetarian since that is the best way to get in all of your necessary nutrients and allows for more options when eating out. This type of diet will help to ensure that you can easily get in all your necessary nutrients and high quality sources of protein.