The age-old question of whether vegetarian diets are healthful is one I encounter regularly both personally and professionally. Opponents paint these dietary patterns as deficient and even unnatural – completely forgetting that something’s natural-ness often has little to nothing to do with it’s safety or efficacy – while proponents tout health benefits and potential risks of consuming animal foods. Luckily, the best evidence is summed up by the then-American Dietetic Association (now Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) position paper on the topic where North America’s leading expert nutrition association endorses the safety of well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets in all life stages. Much research recently suggests that vegetarian lifestyles can limit the progression or development of some chronic diseases, as well as assist in maintenance of healthy body weights. Perhaps if one is prone to distrust in the “establishment”, statements like the aforementioned may have little impact on one’s opinion. But for those who value well reviewed, evidence and science-based recommendations (which I hope is most of the human species) the answer to the question is yes, vegetarian diets are healthful.
Now that we have that out of the way, the more important discussion on this topic is the nature of the well-planned diet. The healthfulness of any given vegan or vegetarian diet has far less to do with what is excluded than which foods are included. So long as one is mindful of the protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin B12 content of a diet, those who abstain from animal products tend to fair just as well nutritionally as their meat-eating peers. Except for food allergies and a few medical conditions, removing whole categories of foods from one’s diet does not result in an automatic health improvement. Most often the positive outcomes seen when individuals remove meat and/or eggs and/or dairy from the diets is due to an increased intake of foods known to promote health including vegetables, fruits, whole unprocessed grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. These foods are high sources of fibres, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, while generally being low in calories. If these healthful foods are not included, a person is at risk of developing nutrient deficiencies. For instance, a vegetarian that eats primarily fries and orange juice is not likely to be a healthy person. Adding chicken nuggets to that diet may add some additional protein, but the overall healthfulness remains the same. And that’s the key: a poorly planned diet of ANY KIND can lead to nutritional deficiencies or higher chronic disease risk. An omnivorous diet simply provides more variety and opportunities to meet our needs, but does not guarantee balance or adequacy.
Vegetarian diets often take more time and effort to ensure they are well planned, two things we no longer value in food preparation. They are often seen as unfamiliar or foreign, thus they must be worse than the status quo. But of course, this is just our internal biases talking as many cultures have consumed largely vegetarians diets for centuries.
Still, I would not and do not recommend a vegetarian diet for everyone. If you know that you are not going to put in the extra effort to eat well without animal products, perhaps it is not your time for such a lifestyle change. If you already have dietary restrictions for medical reasons, it may not be possible to remove animal products without compromising your health. If your life circumstances are such that your choice in foods is limited (by climate, by scarcity, by safety, etc.) then nourishing yourself should be the primary concern. For many in North America, vegetarianism is a choice borne of privilege and should not be seen as the prescriptive method of eating for all.
The world, but mostly Western nations, could stand to eat less meat for the sakes of ourselves and the planet. The choice to simply reduce one’s intake or eliminate animal products all together belongs to the individual. Provided with a little knowledge (your local RD can help you there) and a little effort, whatever the individual chooses, they should be fine.