Why & How To Become Vegetarian
The main reasons for switching to a vegetarian diet (which is a way of life so to speak), are health and wellbeing, both of the humans and animals raised for food. Then comes the environmental challenges. Or vice versa.
The ongoing pandemic clearly shows that the best way to prevent deadly infectious diseases, which are often transmitted from animals to humans via the food chain, is by stop eating meats and dairy (right now).
To bring things under our own control is the most effective health management strategy. And has always been that way.
Other, less known reasons for denouncing meats, include all process in meats treatment such as chlorinating, hormone, and antibiotics-pumping (for the elimination of viruses and bacteria from meat and dairy), that can adversely affect our health.
That, in short, is the why we should go vegetarian.
It seems, that aren’t two sides to every question, at least not in this case.
And there is only one way to go about it – by embracing a vegetarian diet that is clearly the healthiest option that anyone could wish for. No starvation, nor elimination of delicious foods. On the contrary – an excellent way of losing weight and improving health – thanks to a dietary regimen that is exclusively based on whole, plant-based foods (seeds, legumes, fruit, and vegetables). Which has proved its important role in preventive care and as an effective way to treat many chronic diseases.
But before we go any further, we think it is equally important to address some nutrients of concern associated with this diet, such as that of vitamin B12, Omega 3-fatty acids, and D vitamin, which are common in vegans and vegetarians, but also in the general population.
Namely, lack of vitamin B12, Omega 3-fatty acids, and vitamin D can seriously compromise health, because these vitamins are indispensable for numerous physiological processes in the body, such as, for example, proper brain functioning and immune system, to begin with. Although seeds and nuts are natural sources of Omega-3 food, and regular sun exposure is usually enough for our body to produce vitamin D, this is not the case with vitamin B12 which needs to be taken through supplements. To find out more about this essential vitamin, read our website article The Game Changer-Vitamin B12.
Types of the vegetarian diet
There are several different variants of the vegetarian diet, but what all they have in common is the plant-based menu made up of cereals, legumes, root crops, oilseeds, fruit, vegetables, and nuts. Based on their dietary patterns, they are grouped as follows: (1)
- Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian: NO: meat, fish, and poultry. YES: dairy products and eggs.
- Lacto-Vegetarian: NO meat, fish, poultry, and eggs. YES: dairy products.
- Ovo-Vegetarian: NO other animal products, except eggs.
- Vegan: NO animal products! Only plant-based food.
The choice depends on the individual, but it is important to understand the different needs of the organism at a particular stage of life. For example, the Lacto-Ovo vegetarian diet usually provides more calories than a vegan diet and seems more adequate for maintaining optimal child growth and weight. On the other hand, the vegan diet is less associated with allergies and lactose intolerance due to the absence of milk and eggs.
In general, vegetarian diets tend to provide more dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid, vitamins C and E, and phytochemicals but are less likely to meet daily needs for long-chain n–3 (omega-3) fatty acids, vitamin B-12.
It may also be difficult to reach the recommended value for iron and zinc from plants alone due to their reduced bioavailability by the body. To satisfy the recommended doses we occasionally need to add trace minerals and vitamins through supplements.
Beneficial health effects of a vegetarian diet
Generally, vegetarians have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.
Because of less intake of saturated fat and cholesterol and higher intake of dietary fiber (coupled with higher physical activity and other lifestyle characteristics of this health-conscious group), vegetarians have lower serum cholesterol and lower blood pressure, further reducing their risk for developing cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer.
A large amount of fruit and vegetables that are consumed as basic food in those dietary regimes provide enough antioxidants like α-tocopherol, lycopene, β-carotene, and zeaxanthin. They inhibit oxidation of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and reduce total cholesterol concentrations in the circulation. All these findings explain why vegetarians and vegans have a lower incidence of stroke and a lower risk of mortality from stroke and ischemic heart disease in general.
Higher consumption of whole grains, soy, and nuts, were also found to provide significant cardioprotective effects. Moreover, a higher intake of potassium, magnesium, antioxidants, “good” dietary fats, and fiber results in lower blood pressure levels in general.
When we say “higher” we do not mean “large portions”. On the contrary, we always emphasize that moderation is the most important factor, whatever the diet. More frequent consumption of a variety of delicious fruits and vegetables, but in small portions, is an absolute winner, in terms of tastes and health benefits, over diets that favor animal products.
Type 2 diabetes and vegetarian diet
A large number of scientific publications described a protective effect of a vegetarian diet against some chronic disease in Westerners and also examined the impact within the Asian population.
One of the study followed a group of diabetics, both vegetarians and non-vegetarians that switched to a vegetarian diet, and noticed about 50% reduction in diabetes, but with better improvement in those with healthier metabolic status (with normal TG, without metabolic syndrome and body mass index, BMI less than 24, at the beginning of the study).
Evidently, various plant substances and elimination of meat (i.e., cholesterol, fats, and animal proteins) from a diet had a huge role in achieving the results. The positive association between animal protein and type 2 diabetes has been confirmed in several studies. Actually, saturated fats from meat and dairy have been shown to reduce the number of human β-cells (cells that make insulin), which leads to lower insulin secretion. Ultimately, the higher intake of plant foods resulted in encouraging findings for both overweight and healthier individuals. (2)
It can safely be concluded that a plant-based diet together with physical activity and reduction in BMI can significantly reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Nutrient concerns of the vegetarian diet
There are a number of issues that need to be properly addressed before we opt for any dietary regime. It is important to say those common nutritional deficiencies we mentioned earlier (vitamin B12 in the first place) associated with vegan and vegetarian diets, can be masked and go unnoticed for a long time. Up to the point that damages caused to the body, due to a shortage of essential chemicals, become irreversible (in rare cases though).
To prevent and successfully manage the deficiency, it is absolutely necessary to regularly get checked over by your doctor and perform laboratory tests to assess vitamin and other trace elements levels (MMA and homocysteine in the blood can accurately reflect vitB12 status).
Vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms
As we explained earlier in the human body doesn’t produce vitamin B12 and we usually get it from animal-based foods. Symptoms of untreated B12 deficiency include weakness, tiredness, heart palpitations and shortness of breath, constipation or diarrhea, loss of appetite, nerve problems like numbness or tingling, vision loss, mental problems like depression, memory loss, or behavioral changes.
A low level of vitamin B12 leads to an increased level of homocysteine, which further leads to an increased risk of cardiovascular morbidity, impairment in the blood level of sex hormones, and disruption of the menstrual cycle. Additionally, children may experience apathy and problem with growth.
For these reasons, it is of paramount importance for vegetarians to have an appropriate intake of vitamin B12 supplements, or trying to achieve the recommended values via fortified foods (foods that contain additional nutrients that are not naturally present in those foods).
The levels of folic acid (naturally occurring vitamin B) are usually within the recommended range, or even higher in those on a vegetarian diet, which can mask hematological symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency until neurological symptoms are manifested. Only levels of MMA and homocysteine in the blood can accurately reflect our B12 status.
Lack of Omega 3 fatty acids
The long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)) contribute to the normal functioning of the cardiovascular and nervous system. Vegetarians (and particularly vegans) usually have lower blood levels of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids than non-vegetarians, which puts them at the risk of developing insufficiency. DHA-fortified foods (some breakfast bars and soymilk) are recommended for pregnant and lactating women because of their increased needs.
Along with potential deficiencies mentioned above, lower calorie consumption and a smaller supply of these fatty acids may lead to hyperprolactinemia (raised level of prolactin in the blood). Hyperprolactinemia is manifested by the low blood levels of estradiol and progesterone, increasing the risk of the irregular menstrual cycle in women on a vegetarian diet. The length, regularity of the menstrual cycle, and the age at which menopause occurs can be changed due to a lack of Omega 3 fatty acids.
New diet, new skills
All those concerns listed above in connection with a vegetarian/vegan diet can be successfully managed by getting as much information on the topic as possible. Next comes the ability to meticulously organize new life around the new food menu and learn new skills (the most important being the art of cooking and choosing the best ingredients).
Although planning and growth will take time, it is worth every effort. Because, when we watch closely, we can’t miss the bigger picture – the benefits of a vegetarian diet that greatly outweigh relatively low downsides (given that we have all the necessary information in place on how to prevent and manage potential nutrient deficiency).
Eating meat endangers public health
Today as humanity faces new pandemics caused by zoonotic viral diseases and climate change as a consequence of intensive, cruel, industrial livestock production and breeding conditions, changing what we eat and eliminating meat from our diet, is more important than ever.
That is why switching to a vegetarian diet is not just a matter of altering food preferences.
It is a call to a completely new way of life. In its deep layers, it can be recognized as a revolutionary, a non-traditional, transformative, sustainable way of thinking and living, that serves and treats us humans and other species and natural resources with respect and humility. Because, we are not in a good place right now, and must use our inborn ability to bounce back as soon as possible. It is the necessity for immediate action, individual and global, to save lives, to save the planet.
P.S. Seeking advice from a healthcare professional before taking any supplements is always a good idea.
- Pilis W, Stec K, Zych M, Pilis A. Health benefits and risks associated with adopting a vegetarian diet. Rocz Panstw Zakl Hig(2014) 65(1):9–14
- Chiu THT, Pan W-H, Lin M-N, Lin C-L. Vegetarian diet, change in dietary patterns, and diabetes risk: a prospective study. Nutr Diabetes 2018;8:12
- Newby PK, Tucker KL, Wolk A. Risk of overweight and obesity among semivegetarian, lactovegetarian, and vegan women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;81(6):1267-1274. doi:10.1093/ajcn/81.6.1267
- Martínez-González MA, Sánchez-Tainta A, Corella D, et al. A provegetarian food pattern and reduction in total mortality in the Prevención con Dieta Mediterránea (PREDIMED) study [published correction appears in Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Dec;100(6):1605]. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100 Suppl 1:320S-8S. doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.071431
- Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, Rimm EB, et al. Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in US Men and Women: Results from Three Prospective Cohort Studies. PLoS Med. 2016;13(6):e1002039. Published 2016 Jun 14. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1002039
- GBD 2015 Risk Factors Collaborators. Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 79 behavioral, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks or clusters of risks, 1990-2015: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015 [published correction appears in Lancet. 2017 Jan 7;389(10064):e1]. Lancet. 2016;388(10053):1659-1724. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)31679-8