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Health

The Pros and Cons of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets

Kicking the meat habit can be good for your health, but there are some caveats to a vegetarian diet you should be aware of.

By Avery HurtMay 20, 2024 1:00 PM
bowl of greens for a vegetarian diet
(Credit: Foxys Forest Manufacture/Shutterstock)

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When it comes to animal welfare, there’s no debate. A vegetarian or vegan diet is, pretty much by definition, better for animals. When it comes to the environment, there’s a lot of evidence that giving up animal products can do a world of good. But what about health? Is going veggie good for your health? 

The reasons vegetarian diets are healthy are pretty clear, explains Heather Hodson, a clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone’s Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease. People who follow vegetarian or vegan diets tend to eat less cholesterol and saturated fat than do meat eaters, she says. 

Health Benefits of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets

The Adventist Health Study-1, conducted between 1974 and 1988, found that vegetarians had a lower risk of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. Since then, many more studies have found similar results. For example, a 2017 meta-analysis of almost 100 studies found that vegetarian diets were protective against ischemic heart disease and cancer. 

When it came to cancer, vegan diets were even more protective than vegetarian diets. A 2019 paper that reviewed 32 randomized clinical trials found that plant-based diets helped reduce the risk of obesity and diabetes.

And we all know we should be eating less of foods with high cholesterol and saturated fat. But it’s not all about what vegetarians don’t eat. Plant-based diets also provide more dietary fiber, vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, and phytochemicals.

Thanks to this, Hodson says, people who stick to plant-based diets tend to have lower blood pressure, lower BMI, and lower total and LDL cholesterol.


Read More: What Science Says About the Health Benefits of Plant-Based Diets


The Risks of Vegetarian Diets

Though plant-based diets are very nutritious, vegetarians, and especially vegans, need to take care that they don’t miss out on some crucial nutrients. For example, vitamin B-12, which is necessary for making red blood cells, keeping nerve cells functioning properly, and forming DNA, among other things, is found almost exclusively in animal products.

Hodson says that dietary supplements, as well as fortified cereals, soy products, and nutritional yeast, can help keep B-12 at healthy levels.

When you give up dairy, you also lose a great source of calcium. The good and somewhat surprising news is that calcium is available in many plant foods. Dark leafy greens such as collards and kale are high in calcium. Broccoli and okra are also good plant-based sources of calcium, as are almonds, sunflower seeds, and even white beans. And when calcium salt is used to coagulate it, tofu is very high in calcium.

Iron is another nutrient we think of as coming mostly from meat. But not to worry, beans, peas, lentils, tofu, nuts, and seeds, and even some greens like spinach and chard, are high in iron

Hodson points out that the iron in plants is not as easily absorbed as the iron from animals. However, you can maximize iron’s bioavailability by eating iron-rich foods along with foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus, strawberries, tomatoes, and bell peppers, she says.


Read More: Are Fake Meat Products Good for You?


Eating a Plant Based Diet

The best way to make sure your plant-based diet is as good as it can be is to eat a wide variety of whole foods, such as legumes, whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. Don’t rely on ultra-processed, high-sodium protein replacements.

While these foods might be a part of a healthy diet in moderation, says Hodson, they might not fit with your health goals, especially if you’re watching your blood pressure.

You can get health benefits — while simultaneously reducing the amount of animal suffering as well as the strain on the planet — without going fully vegan. Every little bit helps.

Hodson suggests starting with one or two plant-based meals per week, which will increase overall fiber consumption and reduce saturated fat intake.

“Dietary patterns like the Mediterranean eating pattern offer ample benefits for cardiovascular and brain health without completely eliminating animal-based products,” says Hodson.

But if you’re ready to give up all meat and animal products, know that with a little attention to detail, you can save the lives of animals, protect the planet, and improve your own health at the same time. 


Read More: Cooked Veggies Are Often More Nutritious Than Raw. Here's Why


Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:


Avery Hurt is a freelance science journalist. In addition to writing for Discover, she writes regularly for a variety of outlets, both print and online, including National Geographic, Science News Explores, Medscape, and WebMD. She’s the author of "Bullet With Your Name on It: What You Will Probably Die From and What You Can Do About It," Clerisy Press 2007, as well as several books for young readers. Avery got her start in journalism while attending university, writing for the school newspaper and editing the student non-fiction magazine. Though she writes about all areas of science, she is particularly interested in neuroscience, the science of consciousness, and AI–interests she developed while earning a degree in philosophy.

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