Vegetarianism is more popular now than ever before, and there are several different types of vegetarianism. Overall, 3.3% of US adults consider themselves vegetarians, of whom nearly half are vegan. Most vegetarians are young adults who have conformed to this lifestyle either for health reasons, personal beliefs, or a combination of the two.

First let’s define what is a vegetarian:

The term “vegetarian diet” may have a different meaning for different people. Broadly defined, it means avoiding foods from animal sources.

A flexitarian mostly follows a no-meat diet but occasionally includes red meat, poultry, or fish/seafood maybe 1-2 times per week.

A pescetarian follows a semi-vegetarian diet by not including red meat or poultry but does eat seafood (fish and/or shellfish).

A lacto-ovo vegetarian avoids red meat, poultry, and seafood but consumes eggs and dairy foods like milk, cheese, and yogurt. Most vegetarians in the United States fit into this category.

A lacto-vegetarian avoids meat, poultry, fish, and eggs but consumes dairy foods.

A vegan strictly avoids all animal-derived products, including red meat, poultry, fish, animal milk, and milk products. Many also avoid foods with animal components, like rennet for cheese-making; gelatin from collagen; marshmallows (gelatin); refried beans made with lard; fries cooked in beef tallow; baked goods made with cream, eggs, egg albumin, or butter; margarine made with whey or casein from milk; and foods flavored with meat extracts. Some avoid honey, also.

The latest in a long line of papers on the many health benefits of reducing meat intake concludes that a plant-based diet is great news for your heart.

Currently, in the United States, vegetarianism and veganism are steadily becoming more popular.

Touted as a more healthful option, many people are working to reduce their meat intake.

In the past few decades, numerous studies have demonstrated that restricting meat impacts the body in a number of positive ways.

For instance, a plant-based diet has been shown to reduce the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Vegetarianism and veganism may even protect against certain cancers.

A recent review, now published in the journal Progress in Cardiovascular Disease, focused on the benefits of a plant-based diet on cardiovascular health, specifically.

Plant-based diets and heart health

The researchers—from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington DC—scrutinized reams of recent, relevant studies. Heart disease is responsible for the deaths of more than 600,000 US individuals each year, and it remains the leading cause of death, globally. However, these findings show that if society could be gently nudged toward plant-based diets and away from excessive meat consumption, humanity’s heart health could be substantially improved.

Collating information from a host of clinical trials and observational studies, they found that a plant-based diet was consistently linked with improved measures of heart health.

They concluded, for individuals following a plant-based diet, that:

  • Risk of death from cardiovascular disease is reduced by 40%.
  • Coronary heart disease risk is reduced by 40%.
  • Blocked arteries are unblocked partially or fully in as many as 91% of patients.
  • Hypertension risk drops by 34%.

Also, total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein, or “bad,” cholesterol levels are much lower in vegetarians compared with non-vegetarians. Moreover, a plant-based diet was shown to be associated with weight loss.

Healthful diets and lifestyles lower the risk of heart attack by 81%–94%, while drugs can only lower this risk by 20%–30%.

How does vegetarianism protect the heart?

There seem to be many reasons why a plant-based diet is more healthful for the heart than a meat-heavy one. It seems that plants impart some benefits, while meat increases certain risks.

For instance, plants are rich in fiber and phytonutrients, which are known to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress. Also, animal products are often high in fat, cholesterol, heme iron, and environmental pollutants.

However, this is a complex interaction, and there may be many more factors involved that are, as yet, unknown.

My opinion is that being a vegetarian has both health and environmental advan­tages. You may shun meat for animal welfare or religious rea­sons, too. You need not be 100 percent vegetarian, though—eating a few meatless meals a week or just reducing the amount of meat on your plate is enough to reap some benefits.

The World Health Organization has published that cured and processed meats like bacon, sausage, hot dogs and ham cause cancer, adding the foods to a top-tier list of carcinogenic substances that includes alcohol, cigarettes, asbestos, and arsenic.

Processed meats can be bundled with these threatening carcinogens because of their link with bowel cancer, according to a report from WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, though their inclusion doesn’t mean that bacon causes cancer at the same rate as, say, smoking.

Vegetarian diets are associated with lower all-cause mortality and with some reductions in cause-specific mortality. Results appeared to be more robust in males. These favorable associations should be considered carefully.

Both omnivores and vegetarians can have healthy diets. The trick is in choosing more nutrient-rich foods and balancing how much you eat. Simply avoiding or limiting meat, dairy, and/or eggs doesn’t automatically equal a better diet. Poorly planned meals and snacks, with a lot of high-calorie foods, may still come up low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and calcium-rich foods—and, therefore, lack the fiber and nutrients that come with those foods.

In some studies, researchers have shown that vegetarianism may be associated with lower blood pressure, lower body weight, lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, improved blood glucose control, and lower risk of some cancers.

Whether you’re vegetarian or not, try these tips for better health:

  • Venture beyond potatoes and tomatoes. They can both be nutritious choices but mix it up and go beyond the most common veggies, for more vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (plus flavor!).
  • Vary your fruits and vegetables, choosing from dark green leafy vegetables to orange, dark yellow, purple, and red ones.
  • Build a meal around healthy grains like brown rice, quinoa, faro, amaranth, or barley.
  • Choose beans, peas and lentils more often—chili with beans, black beans on tacos, pasta primavera with beans, chickpeas on your salad, white bean and veggie soup, bean burritos, hummus with raw carrots, and so forth.
  • Include nuts and seeds in your diet. They supply protein and phytonutrients. They’re healthy fats, but the calories still add up. Enjoy the flavor but make a little go a long way by moderating your portion size. Try unsalted nuts and nut butters without salt, added sugar, or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

My opinion is that being a vegetarian has both health and environmental advan­tages. You may shun meat for animal welfare or religious rea­sons, too. You need not be 100 percent vegetarian, though—eating a few meatless meals a week or just reducing the amount of meat on your plate is enough to reap some benefits.

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