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Are Vegetarian Diets Healthier Than Diets With Meat?

By Natalie Stein

Vegetarian diets can be healthier than diets with meat as long as you are careful to select nutrient-dense foods. Base your diet on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts for the most health benefits. Whether you consume a vegetarian diet or one with meat, promote health and better weight control by limiting your consumption of added sugars, sodium, saturated and trans fats, and refined grains.

Types of Vegetarian Diet

A vegan diet excludes all animal products, while an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet includes milk and egg products. Some vegetarians selectively eat fish and poultry but no red meat. All types of vegetarian diets can include fruits, vegetables, grains, plant-based oils, nuts, seeds and legumes.

Dispelling Protein Myths

Vegetarian diets can be sufficient in protein as long as you consume a varied diet. Soy products, lentils, beans, peas, nuts and whole grains are vegetarian sources of protein. Meeting your protein needs by eating plant-based foods can be healthier than consuming animal products, which can be high in saturated fat. Saturated fat raises levels of cholesterol in your blood and increases your risk for heart disease, and full-fat cheese and other dairy products, chicken, beef and fatty meats are among the top sources of saturated fat in the typical American diet.

Micronutrient Concerns

A vegetarian diet that excludes all animal products can be low in vitamin B-12, which is only naturally present in animal-based foods. You can meet your vitamin B-12 needs on a plant-based diet by consuming fortified foods such as breakfast cereal, consuming nutritional yeast or taking a dietary supplement. A vegetarian diet is not necessarily healthier for women whose iron stores are low, since iron from animal products is highly absorbable. You can meet your calcium needs on a strict vegetarian diet by consuming leafy greens and fortified foods, such as orange juice and tofu. As long as you take care to meet your nutrient needs, a vegetarian diet can be healthier than a diet with meat.

Manage Your Weight

A vegetarian diet can be better for your heart than a diet with meat if it is high in dietary fiber. Fiber lowers your cholesterol levels and may help you control your weight, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It also helps lower your risk for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Dietary fiber is only found in plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. A meat-heavy diet can be low in dietary fiber and less healthy.

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