Vegetarianism became lately quite a trend, fueled by sustainability concerns and by ethics reasons. Apparently more than 20% of Millennials are vegetarian, within above 8-10% of global population following same eating style. On top, while no more than 10-20 years ago there were concerns on the potential nutritional deficiencies, swarms of studies showed recently the opposite (“appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes[i] “ or “well-planned vegetarian diets that include a wide variety of plant foods, and a reliable source of vitamin B12, provide adequate nutrient intake[ii] “). Again, I would underline some important words: “appropriately planned” or “well planned”.
But what is vegetarianism? There are many variants: the most accepted term refers to elimination of red and white meat, including fish and seafood, and all the food combination containing them. There are then sub-groups: lacto-ovo- vegetarians are eating dairies and eggs, lacto-vegetarians are eating dairies but no eggs, vegans are rejecting any animal sourced food, while the most restrictive group are the raw vegans which are rejecting also the food (thermal) cooking.
The benefits of vegetarianism are many and important. If there is to name few, we cannot miss the lower risk of developing some nasty diseases (cancer, cardiovascular diseases[iii], type 2 diabetes[iv], obesity) – I would underline here the word “lower”. Another benefit would be the ethical and environmental impact, with more and more studies popping up on the lack of sustainability[v] of both livestock business and related activities, including livestock feed agriculture. A third benefit would be a diverse and healthier microbiota, fostered by the diversity and fiber richness of the vegetarian food. Reduced weight could be another one, due to improved metabolism and diversified microbiota, however there are enough obese vegetarians, so statistics could argue against this thesis. Finally, apparently vegetarians are living longer, not clear yet if this is because they are checking the boxes for the above-mentioned benefits or there are also other causes.
What about disadvantages: as I underlined in the beginning of this article, it is important for the diet of a vegetarian to be well planned, to insure all the needed nutrients. You might say, and you would be right, that also the diet of an omnivore should be well planned, to avoid nutritional deficiencies. There are some specific points of attention however, especially for vegans, and we’ll go through them later. Other disadvantages (much lower however these days due to boost in fresh products availability all year round) could be the lack of enough food choices in restaurants, shops. Possibly also some social differentiation as most of the people do not share this practice, at least for now.
Honestly, if you ask me, the balance goes clearly in favor of advantages. I was mentioning that for vegans there are some aspects to be looked at, and these are covering the proteins intake, some minerals absorption, essential fatty acids, and the vitamin D3 and B12.
To ensure an adequate protein intake, a vegan should have a diversified ingredients pool like beans, pulses, wholegrains, seeds, nuts.
The minerals absorption is lowered in case of a diet rich in fibers, as transit is faster and there is less time to absorb nutrients in the gut. On the other hand, a correct meal composition will ensure higher minerals levels, compensating for the faster transit and lower absorption. Iron and Zinc can be accommodated relatively easy by a vegetarian, and studies showed no differences or only small ones between a vegetarian and a carnivore.
Essential fatty acids, omega3, omega6, can be sourced from all kind of nuts and related oils.
D3 vitamin can be sourced by vegans from vegetal sources like algae and lichens, while B12 can be sourced from algae, yeast, and some mushrooms. These are obviously “hard to catch” options, so if not affordable, fortified food should be accepted by vegans.
How to ensure the right nutritional balance in a vegetarian diet is a long discussion, but after all not a very complicated one, so if you want to get on that path, it can be done safely if you follow also some specialized advice, at least in the beginning, especially if you want to go vegan. My advice would be to make the transition smoothly, so the body could adjust without major shocks and you could be able to observe changes and learn on them.