We probably all think we know what a vegetarian diet involves, but there are actually great variations and structures even within vegetarian diets.
For example most would choose what is known as a “lacto-ovo” approach turning their backs on meat, fish and poultry but still eating dairy based products and eggs. There are lacto-vegetarians who won’t eat eggs yet consume dairy and there are ovo-vegetarians who eat eggs but won’t eat any dairy!
There are many reasons why people chose a vegetarian diet including empathy for the welfare of animals, the belief that it’s ethically and morally wrong to kill other living beings and concerns about modern agriculture. These on their own are enough reason for many people to eat vegetarian, however it also seems very viable and possible for many people to live healthy long lives on a vegetarian diet. In fact the link below shows a paper which says
“Vegetarians have a lower prevalence of overweight and obesity and a lower risk of IHD compared with non-vegetarians from a similar background” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26707634
Furthermore the below link shows a large review which reported a significant protective effect of a vegertarian diet with relation to the incidence or mortality of ischemic heart disease. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26853923
There are many concerns about eating red meat in particular. In 2016, experienced researchers met at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), and came up with some strong conclusions on red meat.
Specifically, with regard to colorectal cancer, they classified processed red meat as a “Group 1” carcinogen (“carcinogenic to humans”). As for regular red meat, it was classified as a “Group 2A” carcinogen (“probably carcinogenic to humans”).
The paper this was based around is here http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045(15)00444-1/abstract
Sounds scary right? Red meat is carcinogenic according to the World Health Organisation, that alone is probably enough reason for many NOT to eat red meat.
Yet it’s important to realise on a population wide basis red meat is associated with cancer, but the relevance is quite weak, a possible 0.2 fold increase. Association also does not mean cause, if you simply ask “does red meat cause cancer” our current answer is we do not know. To dissect this further the team at examine.com do a great job of assessing the risk of red meat here https://examine.com/nutrition/does-red-meat-cause-cancer/
Another reason people switch to vegetarian is for the benefit of planet earth! There are question marks over the sustainability of modern food production and the emissions caused by meat production. Indeed vegetarian foods do seem to produce less of a carbon footprint. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652616303584
It’s important to understand there is quite a balance to this argument which goes beyond the scope of this blog, you can however read more here http://edition.cnn.com/2017/02/06/health/vegetarian-diet-conversation/index.html
Ultimately, it’s very difficult to say that eating a vegan, vegetarian or meat diet is any better for the environment.
Advantages – Weight loss is common when switching to a vegetarian diet. Research shows vegetarians tend to eat fewer calories, weigh less and have a lower body mass index than their meat-eating counterparts. If you're doing it right – eating lots of fruits, veggies and whole grains – you'll likely feel full on fewer calories each day. With that calorie deficit and a little physical activity, it will be for many people a useful diet to help lose weight.
Disadvantages – Some people really struggle to give up meat. How well you handle a life without eating meat is an individual process, some people have given up effortlessly whilst others find it impossible to resist the allure of meat.
Certain nutrient deficiencies are more common with vegetarian diets. This is not to say on a vegetarian diet you cannot be completely fine and one can live a long and healthy life, we’ve already posted research above to show this but certain minerals and nutrients like iron and vitamin B12 are more abundant and easier to access in meat sources.
It may be also more difficult to hit to a protein goal. Protein is an important part of the weight loss equation, with protein based foods often having a higher satiety levels, helping with a caloric deficit adherence.
To Sum It Up
At the higher tiers of research it seems quite clear it’s possible to live a long and healthy life as a vegetarian, but likewise it’s possible to live a long and healthy life as a meat eater. In fact in terms of which diet is healthier, meat or meat free there is not really any significant difference.
Vegetarians generally have better lifestyle habits, such as less smoking and more exercise, so in various research which shows improved benefits of a vegetarian diet, it was difficult to discount that these perceived health benefits were not as a results of simply other lifestyle practices which also affect longevity and chronic disease. The below meta-analysis was clever in that it only compared vegetarians with “health conscious” meat eaters.
“Meta-analysis of several prospective studies showed no significant differences in the mortality caused by colorectal, stomach, lung, prostate or breast cancers and stroke between vegetarians and "health-conscious" non vegetarians.”
So the real personal question comes down to morals and ethics . Whether you have strong feelings about animal agriculture, pollution emissions or just simply uneasy with eating another living being, then this diet may be a great option for you.