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Running Head: HEALTH ASPECTS OF A VEGETARIAN DIET

Health Aspects of a Vegetarian Diet


Adria Bucheli
Ohio University
December 6, 2013

HEALTH ASPECTS OF A VEGETARIAN DIET


Abstract
Vegetarianism has received a large amount of public attention over the last few years,
especially with health awareness on the rise. The reasons people choose to become vegetarian
vary significantly from one another; intentions may be to improve health, lose weight, protect
animals, reduce disease risk, avoid meat from unsafe sources, or even to adhere to religious
practices. This highly controversial subject seems to have people wondering whether or not
becoming vegetarian is recommended or discouraged by health professionals. Countless health
benefits have been linked to diets lacking foods from animal sources, considering the high
amount of saturated fat and cholesterol that is contained in animal products, both substances
linked to the development of chronic diseases. On the contrary, animal products are quite
nutrient dense, meaning these foods provide the most nutrients per amount of calories. Since
several health advocates seem to be butting heads on the subject, the question on everyones
mind seems to be, is it nutritionally beneficial to become a vegetarian?

HEALTH ASPECTS OF A VEGETARIAN DIET

Health Aspects of a Vegetarian Diet


The dietary patterns of vegetarians around the world vary greatly. Not every person that
decides to become vegetarian follows the same diet regimen, because just like non-vegetarians,
people all have different likes and dislikes when it comes to foods, as well as different concerns
regarding health. There are several different types of vegetarians. Starting from the strictest
form, classified as vegan, is the form in which all foods from animal origin are not included in
the diet. Ovo-vegetarians exclude all animal flesh and milk products from the diet but do still
consume eggs. A lacto-vegetarian excludes all animal flesh foods and eggs from the diet but
does however consume milk. A lacto-ovo vegetarian avoids all animal flesh foods but includes
eggs and milk in their diet. A pesco-vegetarian avoids red meat and poultry but consumes fish
and seafood. Foods from animal sources however provide a variety of nutrients for the body;
therefore it is essential for these nutrients to be derived from other food sources if not consumed
through foods from animal sources. Examples of foods typically consumed through a vegetarian
diet include tofu, fortified cereals, fruit salads, lentils and beans.
Vegetarians have to consume a large amount of fortified foods. Fortified foods, or
enriched foods are foods that through the refining process have nutrients added to them, those
that originally were not contained in them to add nutritive value. For example iron, vitamin D,
iodine, and folic acid are all nutrients added to foods. Fortified foods provide a significant
amount of energy that in non-vegetarians is provided by meats, without the extra amount of
calories animal products contain. Examples of fortified foods include cereal, bread, and soymilk.
According to Connie Diekman, a registered dietitian and director of university nutrition from
Washington University as well as the past president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics,
Whether naturally occurring or added to foods, the body will process vitamins and minerals in

HEALTH ASPECTS OF A VEGETARIAN DIET

the same way if overall nutrition is good. Consuming foods that are fortified, but that have
overall low nutritional value, may limit how individual nutrients are used. In order for fortified
foods to be nutritionally beneficial for the body, people consuming these foods must also make
sure their diet regimen also includes other foods that provide adequate nutrients.
A vegetarian food guide pyramid has been developed to provide a basic outline of
food choices in correct quantities that will result in a healthy nutritious diet, similar to food guide
pyramids developed for non-vegetarians. Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and
beans are all to be consumed at each meal of the day. Nuts and seeds, egg whites, soymilk/dairy,
and plant oils are all to be eaten daily. Eggs and sweets however are to be consumed on a
weekly basis. Vegetarians following this food guide pyramid are supposed to achieve the same
amount of nutrition as non-vegetarians who follow the standard food guide pyramid.

Health Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet


Several studies have been done to determine the specific health benefits of a vegetarian
diet. Epidemiological studies have found many correlations between a well-balanced vegetarian
diet and lower disease risks. Foods from animal sources contain large amounts of fats and
cholesterol, particularly saturated fats thus significantly contributing to cardiovascular disease
risk. Conversely, fats that are provided by vegetables are more concentrated with mono and
polyunsaturated fats, which do not raise serum cholesterol levels, and may have beneficial
effects on cardiovascular risk factors. Studies have consistently reported that vegetarians have
lower mean plasma total cholesterol concentrations than comparable non-vegetarians (Key,
Fraser, Thorogood, Appleby, Barel, Reeves, Burr & Chang-Claude, 1999).

HEALTH ASPECTS OF A VEGETARIAN DIET

Regarding obesity, many studies have shown that vegetarians contain a relatively lower BMI
(body mass index) than non-vegetarians. This may be due to lower fat intakes from animal
sources, and the consumption of lower energy-dense foods like fruits and vegetables. Energy
intake is a term that is used to describe how much a particular food item is calorie-dense based
on weight. Studies have consistently found that vegetarians have similar, or slightly lower,
energy intakes than meat-eaters in the same populations for both adults and children (Phillips,
2005). Meat products are foods that are highly energy dense, therefore reflecting why
vegetarians have lower energy intakes. A study compared vegetarians with omnivores and
reported that the average weight of the vegetarian subjects was significantly lower than that of
the omnivores (60.8 kg vs. 69.1 kg), but that the vegetarian diet supplied a significantly greater
amount of energy than the omnivores diet (3031 kilocalories/day vs. 2627 kilocalories/day)
(Phillips, 2005). The intake of dietary fiber has also been shown to be higher in vegetarians than
non-vegetarians, which can result in lesser body mass. Mean BMI was lowest in vegans (23.6
kg/m2) and incrementally higher in lacto-ovo vegetarians (25.7 kg/m2), pesco-vegetarians (26.3
kg/m2), semi-vegetarians (27.3 kg/m2), and nonvegetarians (28.8 kg/m2) (Tonstad, Butler, Yan
& Fraser, 2009). Lower body mass index results in lower risk of chronic diseases such as type 2
diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is linked to being overweight because of the added pressure being put
on the body, which causes the body to be unable to control blood glucose levels as efficiently.
Maintaining a healthy body weight will in turn allow the body to consistently manage blood
glucose levels.
Calcium is a nutrient vital for keeping strong healthy bones in the body. Insufficient
intake of this nutrient may result in severe complications such as osteoporosis, sarcopenia, or
osteopenia. Protein from animal products is much more likely to cause calcium loss than

HEALTH ASPECTS OF A VEGETARIAN DIET

protein from plant foods (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2004). During the digestion of meat
proteins, acids are released and must be neutralized by calcium or other alkaline minerals in the
body, thus stealing calcium from the body tissues. In addition, sulfur is contained in meat, and
has been shown to limit absorption of calcium in the small intestine. Dr. CM Weaver and
Associates at Purdue University also cited in their study that humans absorb as much or more of
the calcium in plant products than they do from milk (sourced from animals). The groups study
also revealed that although milk has high calcium content, 60 to 80 percent of it is not absorbed
through the human intestine.

Health Risks of a Vegetarian Diet


It is obvious that the inclusion of meat in the human diet has been around for centuries.
This is largely because meat products provide essential nutrients that plant products do not
contain. With the exception of soy protein, animal products are complete proteins while plantbased protein foods are incomplete proteins (Coleman, 2010). A complete protein is a protein
that contains all nine essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are amino acids that are not
produced by the body; therefore they must be ingested through the diet. The nine essential
amino acids are phenylalanine, valine, lysine, tryptophan, methionine, threonine, isoleucine,
leucine, and histidine. These amino acids must be consumed through the diet to allow the body
to perform a variety of functions specifically related to metabolism of nutrients. For example,
amino acids are the building blocks of proteins; therefore once amino acids are formed into
proteins through protein synthesis, these proteins allow the body to break down food, repair body
tissue, and grow, as well as a variety of other important functions. According to the US
department of Agriculture, the recommended dietary allowance for proteins in adults is 56 grams

HEALTH ASPECTS OF A VEGETARIAN DIET

for men, 46 grams for women, and 71 grams per day for pregnant or lactating women. By
consuming plant proteins alone, vegetarians must combine several different types of plant
proteins to consume all the essential amino acids. Consuming a variety of different plant sources
is necessary to account for deficiencies, thus a complete understanding of what amino acids are
found in various types of plant sources is essential in order to ensure the consumption of all the
essential amino acids to allow for proper nutrient metabolism to occur in the body. They as well
will be required to consume a large amount of these plant proteins to ensure they are meeting the
recommended dietary allowance. As a result, uneducated vegetarians in regards to nutrition will
most likely not consume adequate amounts of protein or the essential amino acids.
Meat products also provide other important nutrients such as vitamin B12 and iron that
are not found in plant products or not as efficiently absorbed in comparison to meat products.
Vitamin B12 is classified as a water-soluble vitamin, meaning that these substances dissolve in
water and are not stored in the body. Water-soluble vitamins as a result are required to be
consumed through the diet on a regular basis as opposed to fat-soluble vitamins which can be
stored in the body in excess, leaving reserves for times of deficiency. Functions of vitamin B12
in the body include the formation of blood and function of the brain. Excellent sources of
vitamin B12 are fish, eggs, and of course meat. A deficiency is widespread among vegans and
vegetarians, who avoid these foods. In one study, a whopping 92% of vegans and 47% of lactoovo vegetarians were deficient in this critical brain nutrient (Dong, 2008). Vegetarians,
especially vegans, run this risk of deficiency and may develop numerous adverse effects
effecting brain function as a result. Iron is also another nutrient contained in meat products.
Iron is vital for almost all living organisms by participating in a wide variety of metabolic
processes, including oxygen transport, DNA synthesis, and electron transport (Lieu, Heiskala,

HEALTH ASPECTS OF A VEGETARIAN DIET

Peterson, & Yang, 2001). Iron is also contained in plant products, however the form differs from
the form found in animal products. There are two different types of iron, heme iron is found in
animal foods and non-heme iron is found in plant products. Heme iron is derived from
hemoglobin from animal sources therefore is more efficiently absorbed by the body than nonheme iron. Vegetarians consequently do not absorb iron as efficiently than those who consume
iron from animal products.
Conclusion
After researching the health aspects related to practicing a vegetarian diet, it is clear that a
great deal of additional research can be done on this topic in the health and nutrition field. Many
studies have shown correlations between a vegetarian diet and reduced disease risk, however
other studies have shown nutrient deficiencies in subjects that are vegetarian. People who decide
to become vegetarians must engage in proper meal planning in order for them to consume
enough nutrients to obtain a healthy, balanced diet. This subject is highly controversial, and
hopefully further research in the future will provide more information about the risks or benefits
of a vegetarian diet.

HEALTH ASPECTS OF A VEGETARIAN DIET


References
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HEALTH ASPECTS OF A VEGETARIAN DIET


Tonstad, S., Butler, T., Yan, R., & Fraser, G. (2009). Type of vegetarian diet, body weight, and
prevalence of type 2 diabetes. American Diabetes Association, Retrieved from
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