Is a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet Healthy?
Nov 01, 2019 Cedars-Sinai Staff
While it's unclear exactly how many people in the US follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, it's likely that you know someone who calls themselves a vegan or vegetarian.
"I've noticed more people are not necessarily going full vegan or vegetarian but are making an effort to eat more plant-based foods," says dietitian Elena Fricke.
"The prevalence of people who are strictly vegetarian or vegan is usually pretty low. However, many people are trying to reduce their consumption of animal products for health, environmental, or ethical reasons."
"You can meet your protein needs on a vegetarian or vegan diet—you just have to make sure you're eating adequate protein, such as beans, nuts, or soy, at each meal."
What is a plant-based diet?
"Plant-based diet" can mean vegetarian or vegan, but it doesn't necessarily mean a person doesn't eat meat or dairy; someone might use the term to mean that they are choosing to consume more food made from whole plant sources.
Which Fricke says is usually a good idea.
"It's recommended that most people try to reduce their consumption of animal foods to reduce chronic disease risk. That doesn't mean they have to be vegetarian or vegan."
So should I stop eating meat?
Studies have shown that, over time, vegans and vegetarians have lower rates of chronic disease. However, vegan and vegetarian diets aren't automatically healthier, Fricke says.
"Many meat substitutes are highly processed foods," Fricke points out. "With a lot of meat substitutes, they'll say their food is vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based, but it's not necessarily healthy. "
"Refined sugar is plant-based. People automatically see 'plant-based' and view it as a better option, but it may not be. Just going plant-based isn't enough to improve your health."
Eating healthy on a vegan or vegetarian diet
If you choose to go vegetarian or vegan, it's important to follow a balanced diet by getting the right nutrients and supplementing appropriately.
"You can meet your protein needs on a vegetarian or vegan diet—you just have to make sure you're eating adequate protein, such as beans, nuts, or soy, at each meal," Fricke says.
Because there are so many different diet trends, it's common for people to feel confused about what's considered a "healthy" diet.
"We should always be hesitant to change our behavior based on results of one study," Fricke says, "especially if it contradicts recommendations supported by the overwhelming majority of scientific evidence."
What is a healthy diet?
To maintain a well-balanced diet, eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Avoid highly processed foods.
A healthy diet also includes foods high in fiber and low in refined oils and added sugar. And it can include meat, dairy, and other animal-based foods.
If you make the switch to a vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based diet, it is recommended to carefully review your eating habits to make sure you're getting adequate nutrients.
A registered dietitian can also help you plan an individualized diet that meets your nutritional needs and goals.
"It's important to go to your regular doctor checkups and get regular blood tests to make sure you're not deficient in any key nutrients not provided by your diet," Fricke says.