Everybody knows someone who claims to be an ultra-healthy vegetarian and constantly plays up the benefits of their meat-free existence. While there are some benefits to a vegetarian diet, if you’re considering going this direction, you should also have full knowledge of the potential dangers of a vegetarian lifestyle.
What is a vegetarian?
Most people think being a vegetarian is as simple as taking that chicken breast off your plate before you chow down, but the reality is not quite that simple. There are several different types of vegetarians out there. The simplest form is the garden-variety vegetarian, who doesn’t eat animal flesh. A common variation on this theme has become popular in Hollywood and in educated circles: the vegan diet. Vegans don’t eat any product that is animal derived, including eggs, milk or cheese. A less common type of vegetarian is the lacto-vegetarian, who consumes milk and milk-based products, but otherwise observes the same restrictions as a vegan. A new term that has come to represent the great majority of self-proclaimed vegetarians is flexitarian (or semi-vegetarian). As the name implies, flexitarians are somewhat flexible with their diet and will include small amounts of meat in their diet when they feel like it.
There is a lot of hype both for and against a vegetarian diet, so let’s take a few minutes to sort fact from fiction.
Benefits of vegetarianism
There are some definite benefits to following a vegetarian diet. Some studies have shown that vegetarians often have a lower occurrence of cancer, heart disease and osteoperosis. From a nutritional standpoint, a vegetarian diet will be lower in dietary cholesterol and saturated fat, as well as high in fiber, several different important minerals and Vitamins C and E. Vegetarians will commonly have a lower BMI (body mass index) than non-vegetarians and often have lower levels of cholesterol and lower blood pressure. One study found that a properly constructed vegetarian diet could even fulfill the necessary protein needs of some athletes. Studies on longevity differences between vegetarians and non-vegetarians have provided inconclusive results.
Disadvantages of vegetarianism
While the benefits presented above sound great, they are not without downsides. First and foremost, many vegetarians suffer from a potentially dangerous lack of protein in their diet. In addition, unlike animal proteins, no vegetable contains a complete amino acid profile. The only way for a vegetarian to get enough protein in their diet without supplementation is to eat large quantities of specific vegetables every day. The dangers of protein deficiency include impaired wound healing, fluid build-up in your extremities, decreased muscle mass and fatigue. For anyone following a strength training regimen, you should know by now that not getting adequate protein means that you’re just spinning your wheels every time you go to work out.
All vegetarians are deficient in Iron and Vitamin B12, but this can be countered by taking a multi-vitamin every day. Another commonly reported side effect of a vegetarian diet is constant cravings for food, which is a common occurrence whenever your body isn’t getting something it needs. Others have reported non-existent sex drive, poor sleep quality and even a non-specific loss of interest in their everyday activities.
One fact that most people find surprising is many of the benefits of vegetarianism (lower dietary cholesterol, lower saturated fat intake, high fiber, lower BMI and lower blood pressure) are features of ANY “healthy” diet, including the diets discussed on this website. This is not to say that the benefits of a vegetarian diet don’t exist; rather, they can be obtained in ways other than becoming a vegetarian.
Countering the hype
Any time you ask someone “in the know” about health and nutrition, odds are they will be polarized to one side or the other of the vegetarianism issue. Pro-vegetarians will often try to draw you into discussions about ethical dilemmas, agriculture practices, anecdotal reports or their feelings of “enlightenment.” Anti-vegetarians will talk about evolutionary diet practices, reliance on supplements, the great taste of meat and the general attitude of many vegetarians. It’s important to sort through these arguments and get to the facts as presented in this article. In the end, the single important truth you must realize is there is no “best diet” for everyone; you need to take a critical look at your health needs, fitness goals and even your own taste buds to determine which diet is right for you.
Like any diet worth considering, vegetarianism has both advantages and drawbacks. You should consider both before heading down the vegetarian path.
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