As a registered dietitian, I am asked almost daily about which diet is best. The truth is, there is no single best diet. Nutrition is very individualized and there are many healthful eating patterns that work for different people. There are definitely some dietary patterns that are healthier than others, though.
While I am definitely not a vegetarian (I need meat on a daily basis to feel full and satisfied), I recognize that there are health benefits to reducing consumption of meat and animal products and have recently started eating more vegetarian meals, primarily at breakfast and lunch. I’m not here to convince you to become a vegan or swear off meat by any means, but just in case you’re curious about the benefits of eating more vegetarian meals, I’ve outlined them here for you.
These benefits are derived from the simultaneous decrease in meat and increase in healthful foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. That translates to lower consumption of saturated and trans fats, increased fiber intake, and higher phytochemical and antioxidant consumption. Reducing your overall meat consumption could lead to:
A reduced risk of heart disease. The consumption of a vegetarian diet pattern is associated with a lower risk of heart disease due to its lowering effects on total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, blood pressure, and risk of diabetes, all risk factors for heart disease.
A healthier weight. Research shows that vegetarians and vegans have lower BMIs than non-vegetarians. Reducing meat intake just a little bit and replacing it with a healthy plant-based option could help you lose a few pounds!
Reduced risk of certain cancers. Vegetarian diets are associated with lower overall risk of cancer, and especially gastrointestinal cancers. A high intake pf processed red meat is associated with a higher risk of colorectal cancer, while the high fiber intake and large variety of phytonutrients in a vegetarian diet could be especially protective against colorectal and prostate cancers.
A smaller environmental footprint. Production of plant foods requires fewer resources than production of animal products for consumption, resulting in a gentler environmental impact. Plant-based diets are associated with lower use of land, natural resources, and pesticides and fertilizers than omnivorous diets. This is especially true when the majority of food is produced locally.
A lower grocery bill. Meat is one of the most expensive components of the American diet. Swapping meat for a plant-based protein source like beans or tofu in just one meal each day could cut your food bill each month. Just be sure you’re purchasing minimally processed foods for the most savings since more processed vegetarian foods can actually be more expensive.
Here are my top picks for affordable, healthy vegetarian options (besides all the fruit and veggies you can handle) that can be purchased at most grocery stores:
•Milk, eggs, and plain Greek yogurt are easy ways to get high quality protein. I love siggi’s yogurt.
•Canned beans and chickpeas are easy to throw into soups, salads, and other meatless recipes. Look for no-added-salt varieties.
•Dry lentils and quinoa can be purchased in bulk for even greater savings. They’re easy, versatile, and nutritious!
•Nuts and natural nut butters are a great source of protein and healthy fats. Look for natural nut butters made with just nuts and salt. Crazy Richard’s is one of my favorites – it’s just peanuts!
•Tofu, tempeh and edamame are great vegan meat substitutes. Sprouts and Trader Joe’s have great options!
Hopefully these healthy benefits of more plant-based food will help you cut down on meat consumption just a little bit. Just be aware that these are all contingent on mostly whole, minimally processed plant foods and not heavily-refined vegetarian junk foods. If you’re considering switching to a completely vegetarian or vegan diet, be sure to talk with a registered dietitian to help you plan for a nutritionally balanced diet with adequate nutrients!
Kaleigh McMordie is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Master of Nutrition based in Lubbock, Texas. She is passionate about nutrition and healthy living, so much so that she loves to create delicious, nourishing recipes for people trying to live a healthy, vibrant life. Kaliegh’s mission is to help people achieve a healthy, happy lifestyle filled with joy and memories without sacrificing all that is good in life. Follow her on Instagram: @livelytable