Vegetarian, Vegan Diet Benefits & Risks

 

Good heart health depends on many factors. It is important to exercise, get adequate sleep, limit stress, and eat a healthy diet.

A healthy diet may be vegetarian or vegan. To find out more about the potential health benefits and risks of these diets, we enlisted the help of Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., MPH, RD, chair of the American Heart Association’s nutrition committee and professor of nutrition and medicine at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

Vegetarianism

“A woman following a vegetarian diet eats plant-based foods and omits some or all foods of animal origin,” Johnson says. “Research has shown that people following vegetarian diets tend to be healthier than meat eaters.”

According to the American Heart Association, most vegetarian diets are lower in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than nonvegetarian diets. Studies have shown that vegetarians show lower risks of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and even some forms of cancer.

Vegetarian Diet Potential Health Benefits

Vegetarian diets can be healthful and nutritionally sound if they’re carefully planned to include essential nutrients. Specifically, Johnson lays out several potential benefits of a vegetarian diet:

  • Healthier weight. Vegetarians may be more likely to be at a healthy weight compared to meat eaters.
  • Lower incidence of heart disease. Vegetarians seem to have a lower incidence of heart disease than meat eaters. The unsaturated fats found in soybeans, seeds, avocados, nuts, olives and other foods of plant origin tend to reduce the risk of heart disease. Plant-based diets tend to be higher in fiber and are associated with healthy blood lipids.
  • Lower blood pressure and less hypertension. Vegetarians tend to have lower blood pressure and lower rates of hypertension than nonvegetarians. This may be related to vegetarians being at a healthy body weight, which helps maintain a healthy blood pressure.

Vegetarian Diet Potential Risks

  • Lack of nutrients. Johnson explains that there can be risks linked to vegetarian diets associated with a lack of nutrients. If a woman isn’t careful to get the nutrients she needs, she could experience a lack of “protein, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids,” she notes.
  • Unhealthy if contains too many calories. It is important to note a vegetarian diet can be unhealthy if it contains too many calories and/or saturated fat and not enough important nutrients.

“It would be helpful for a woman following a vegetarian diet to see a registered dietitian to assure that all her nutrient needs are being met.”

Veganism

“A woman following a vegan diet does not eat any foods of animal origin,” says Johnson. “The vegan diet includes only foods of plant origin including fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, seeds and nuts.”

While many see veganism as a healthy way to eat, Johnson sees some risks. “Because all foods of animal origin are omitted, nutrient deficiencies can develop,” she says. “For example, when milk and dairy foods are omitted, it can be difficult to achieve adequate intakes of calcium and vitamin D, which are essential for bone health.”

Learn more about vegan and vegetarian diets and heart health.