Are vegetarians really healthier?

Maya Driver

A recent study by the British Journal of Cancer, involving more than 60,000 people, has thrown more light onto the benefits of vegetarianism. There may now be real evidence that eating less meat is good for you.

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The study followed a mixture of vegetarians and fish eaters, for over 12 years. The conclusion was that vegetarians were 45 per cent less likely to develop cancer of the blood than meat eaters and 12 per cent less likely to develop cancer overall.

Findings also showed that vegetarians were a third less likely to develop stomach cancer than meat eaters. Those who included fish but not meat found similar reductions in risk but not in all areas. For those who ate fish there was less of a reduction when it came to myeloma, a type of bone cancer but still a reduction overall.

So should we all switch? Researchers have found it difficult to pinpoint the exact reason why the effects are so dramatic and are reluctant to recommend wholesale changes in eating patterns. Some think that the high levels of carcinogens found in processed meats may be a factor. Any poorly planned diet is of no benefit and the recommendation for eating 'five a day' remains sound advice.

A well balanced vegetarian diet including nuts, fruit and vegetables, pulses and grains should supply more omega-3 and omega-6 which promotes good heart health by reducing cholesterol and unblocking arteries.

Larger quantities of fruit and vegetables also contain plenty of fibre which helps to rid the body of toxins. A diet high in these food stuffs is also rich in antioxidants which have been linked to many health benefits, including cancer and heart disease.

What about Veganism? Vegans eat no animal products at all. It is often assumed this may lead to poorer health due to the lack of certain foodstuffs. It is recommended that vegans supplement their diet with vitamins B12 and D because good sources of these nutrients tend to come from dairy products and meat. You also need to think about zinc and iron, because although plentiful in a vegan diet the plant based sources tend to be less well absorbed by the body than those from animal products. Other than this, with some careful planning, the health benefits enjoyed by vegetarians should apply.

It is worth noting that while there are clear health benefits to following a vegetarian diet it is easy to fall into the trap of consuming too much fat. Many recipes contain high levels of cream, cheese and butter. These are high in calcium and vitamin D but will drastically increase your saturated fat intake. Try swapping for lower fat versions or yoghurt.

Are you thinking about becoming a veggie and have questions or concerns? Are you already a confirmed vegetarian or vegan and have some advice to give? Leave a comment here.