There are two basic types of vegetarian diets: lacto-ovo and vegan. Most vegetarians fall into the lacto-ovo category: they eat only non-animal products (fruits, vegetables, cereals, nuts, soy, etc.), but eat animal by-products, such as yogurt and eggs. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a factual review has shown that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians appear to have lower lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and higher rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than meat eaters. Vegetarians also tend to have a lower body mass index, lower overall cancer rates and a lower risk of chronic disease.

Monitor your nutrition

Vegetarian and vegan diets can be healthy, but they may lack some nutrients. You may need to be creative to make sure you get enough protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin B12. You can find many of these nutrients in eggs and dairy products if you are a vegetarian and of plant origin if you are a vegan. But you might need an extra boost. “Because vitamin B12 is only found in animal sources, if you’re vegan, you might consider taking a supplement,” says McManus. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in both fish and flaxseed, but your body does not absorb the plant form as easily as seafood omega-3s. Plants are available if your diet needs more of these heart-healthy fats. Keep in mind that becoming a vegetarian does not give you carte blanche to eat what you want, especially if you are trying to control your weight. Go for fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but limit foods high in saturated fat, such as ice cream, whole milk and cheese. And watch how much you eat at each meal. “People who are trying to lose weight can certainly do it on a vegetarian diet, but they have to limit the portions,” says McManus.

Potential health benefits

If planned well, vegetarian diets are characterised by a relatively higher consumption of fruit, vegetables, legumes and nuts. Compared to omnivore diets, they tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol but higher in fibre, vitamins C and E, magnesium, potassium and phytochemicals, such as flavonoids and carotenoids. Such diets are thought to confer a protective effect against a number of chronic diseases and may contribute to the lower body mass index values that are seen in vegetarians, particularly vegans. It should be noted though that body weight or BMI alone are not suitable indicators of good health. Given the somewhat restrictive nature of vegan diets in particular, a lower body weight may be brought about merely from reduced and/or monotonous food intake.
The cardiovascular benefits of low meat consumption may be due, in part, to improved blood lipid profiles and lower blood pressure levels that are typically seen in vegetarians, as well as the beneficial effects of certain phytochemicals on cardiovascular function. Vegetarians are at lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than meat eaters. This is partly due to the lower BMI of vegetarians, but there is an additional risk associated with eating meat, particularly processed meat. Diets rich in whole grain foods, nuts and legumes can substantially reduce the risk of developing the condition and improve blood sugar control in those already affected. A recent study has also shown a benefit of a vegetarian diet for metabolic syndrome.

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