As someone that used to be a vegetarian and sees countless vegetarians in clinical practice, it’s health benefits aren’t clear-cut.
We’ve all heard that animal products contain saturated fat, which is bad for us. The simple answer seems that if we all stopped eating animal products we’d all be healthier. Unfortunately that’s not always the case.
Let’s say you decide to be a ‘real’ vegetarian and cut out eating all animal products – meat, poultry, fish, dairy products and eggs. Think for a moment – what is left in your diet? – vegetables; fruit; wholegrains; lentils, soy products and other pulses; nuts; seeds and not much else. For the average person that doesn’t have 4 hours a day to cook and prepare meals, eating well on this restricted diet becomes unhealthy. If you add some dairy products and eggs back into your diet you immediately have more protein and the potential for a more balanced diet.
Protein is a curious macronutrient that gets broken into amino acids in the body. Animal products provide all of the essential amino acids in the diet. Comparatively, vegetarian sources of protein do not contain all of the amino acids. For example grains, nuts, seeds and corn are all low in the amino acid Lysine whilst some of the legumes are high in Lysine thus complimenting each other. (an exception is soy which contains all amino acids). For this reason vegetarians need to combine many different vegetarian protein sources to ensure that they obtain all of the essential amino acids from their diets.
Whilst there are countless studies supporting that a diet high in animal foods plays a role in heart disease, some cancers, osteoporosis, obesity and kidney disease; this more accurately reflects an issue of quantity rather than food choice. It is best to go back to a cave-man style of diet where we only ate animal foods infrequently. The healthiest choice is ultimately to include animal foods in the diet in moderation – enough to provide the essential nutrients.