A healthy, nutritious diet is essential for your physical and mental well-being.
Increasing evidence is showing the detrimental impact of a diet high in red meat, saturated fat, and refined foods on health and longevity, with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancers, diabetes, obesity, and mortality.
Recently, increasing interest is being shown in the adoption of a plant-based diet and the benefits this diet can have on your health, and the health of the planet.
In this article, we explain (in plain English!) the conclusions of scientific studies that have looked at the physical health benefits of vegetarianism.
Vegetarian diets consist of plant-based foods rich in whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables, while avoiding red meat, processed meat products, refined foods, and sweets.
There are several variations of a vegetarian diet:
Drawbacks of Vegetarianism
Restrictive, unbalanced vegetarian diets could lead to nutrient deficiencies such as vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D.
Physical Benefits of Vegetarianism
Despite the drawbacks of vegetarianism covered in the previous section, numerous studies have reported the many health benefits of vegetarianism.
In the sections that follow we highlight studies that have linked vegetarianism with physical health benefits such as:
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics “An appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes” (Melina et al., 2016).
Vegetarianism may aid in weight-loss and assist in maintaining a healthy body weight.
Scientists from the University of Bergen, investigated the influence of a plant-based diet on weight-loss “The results in this review propose that a shift to a plant-based diet may have beneficial health effects on body weight and BMI in individuals with overweight” (Tran et al., 2020).
According to a study performed by Huang et al. (2016), who investigating the link between vegetarian diets and weight loss “Vegetarian diets appeared to have significant benefits on weight reduction compared to non-vegetarian diets”.
A study published in the journal, Nutrition, investigated the effect of a plant-based diet on weight loss. Adherence to a vegan diet resulted in significantly higher weight loss “Vegan diets may result in greater weight loss than more modest recommendations” (Turner-McGrievy et al., 2015).
Lowered Blood Pressure
Vegetarianism may be effective against high blood pressure.
A study published in the journal, JAMA Internal Medicine, evaluated the effectiveness of a vegetarian diet on reducing blood pressure (BP), compared to an omnivorous diet. A vegetarian diet proved effective in reducing blood pressure “consumption of vegetarian diets was associated with a reduction in mean systolic BP and diastolic BP compared with the consumption of omnivorous diets” (Yokoyama et al., 2014).
Reduced Risk of Diabetes
A vegetarian diet may reduce your risk of developing diabetes.
A study published in the journal, JAMA Internal Medicine, assessed the link between a plant-based diet and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. A reduction in diabetes risk was observed with increased consumption of healthful plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, and nuts “Plant-based dietary patterns, especially when they are enriched with healthful plant-based foods, may be beneficial for the primary prevention of type 2 diabetes” (Qian et al., 2019).
A review published in the journal, Current Diabetes Reports, investigated the association between vegetarian diet and risk of diabetes. Adherence to a vegetarian diet was associated with a reduced risk of diabetes “A vegetarian diet characterized by whole plant foods is most beneficial for diabetes prevention and management” (Olfert & Wattick, 2018).
Skin Health: Anti-Aging and Treatment of Psoriasis
Vegetarianism may improve skin health and prevent skin aging.
A study published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, evaluated the effectiveness of a whole-food, plant-based diet (WFPB) on preventing and reversing skin aging. They found that the abundance of antioxidants in a WFPB diet prevented inflammation and oxidative stress which are both factors that promote skin aging “A WFPB diet maximizes the antioxidant potential within our cells by providing essential vitamins, including vitamins A, C, and E. It also helps to eliminate harmful carcinogens and gerontotoxins within our bloodstream and has been shown to lengthen telomeres, which prevents cellular damage” (Solway et al., 2020).
A vegetarian diet may treat the symptoms of psoriasis, a skin condition that leads to red, itchy scaly patches.
A study published in the journal, Alternative Medicine Review, analysed the effectiveness of a plant-based diet consisting of fresh fruit and vegetables, olive oil, small quantities of fish and poultry, while avoiding red meat, and refined carbohydrates to treat mild to severe psoriasis. They found that all cases improved over the 6-month period “These results suggest a dietary regimen based on Edgar Cayce’s readings may be an effective medical nutrition therapy for the complementary treatment of psoriasis” (Brown et al., 2004).
Vegetarianism may reduce your risk of developing cancer and other chronic diseases.
A study published in the journal, Nutrition Research and Practice, investigated the link between diet and cancer risk. They found that plant-based diets rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts are able to reduce inflammation and prevent disease “chronic inflammation contributes to the development of cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, consumption of a varied plant-based diet, as recommended by multiple public health agencies, could effectively reduce the incidence of cancer and other chronic diseases” (Hardman, 2014).
A study published in the journal, Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, investigated the relationship between diet and overall cancer incidence among 69 000 participants. Cancer incidence was lowest in participants who followed vegetarian diets “Vegetarian diets seem to confer protection against cancer” (Tantamango-Bartley et al., 2013).
Vegetarianism may even assist with disease management and slow cancer progression.
A study published in the journal, Integrative Cancer Therapies, evaluated the effectiveness of a plant-based diet and stress management on progression of prostate cancer. A plant-based diet slowed the progression of prostate cancer “adoption of a plant-based diet, in combination with stress reduction, may attenuate disease progression and have therapeutic potential for clinical management of recurrent prostate cancer” (Saxe et al., 2006).
Vegetarianism may provide a protective benefit to your heart health and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, investigated the association between plant-based diets and the incidence of cardiovascular disease (CVD), CVD mortality, and all-cause mortality. Participants who followed a healthful plant-based diet had a 19% reduced risk of CVD mortality “Diets higher in plant foods and lower in animal foods were associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality in a general population” (Kim et al., 2019).
A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, evaluated the effectiveness of a plant-based diet and incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD). A positive relationship was observed between the consumption of healthful plant-based foods and a reduced risk of CHD “Higher intake of a plant-based diet index rich in healthier plant foods is associated with substantially lower coronary heart disease risk” (Satija et al., 2017).
According to research conducted by Hu (2003) “plant-based diets including whole grains as the main form of carbohydrate, unsaturated fats as the predominate form of dietary fat, an abundance of fruit and vegetables, and adequate n−3 fatty acids can play an important role in preventing CVD”.
Reduced Symptoms of Osteoarthritis
Vegetarianism may reduce the symptoms of osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is one of the most common types of arthritis, and is characterised by degradation of cartilage and bone in joints.
A study conducted by scientists from the Department of Internal Medicine at Michigan University, investigated the effectiveness of a 6-week whole-food, plant-based diet (WFPB) on alleviating symptoms of osteoarthritis “WFPB diet was associated with a significant reduction in pain compared to an ordinary omnivorous diet, with statistically significant pain reduction seen as early as two weeks after initiation of the dietary modification” (Clinton et al., 2015).
Improved Gut Health
Vegetarianism may positively impact your gut health, by providing your gut fuel to stimulate the growth of “good” gut microbes that produce health promoting compounds.
A review published in the journal, Frontiers in Nutrition, investigated the effects of a vegetarian and vegan diet on the gut microbiota. A vegetarian diet conferred a positive impact on gut microbiota, with an increase in microbial diversity and production of beneficial compounds that support a healthy gut “diet is the essential factor for human gut microbiota composition; a plant-based diet may be an effective way to promote a diverse ecosystem of beneficial microbes that support overall health” (Tomova et al., 2019).
Memory and Cognition
Vegetarianism may improve cognitive function.
Scientists from the University of California, investigated the relationship between a plant-based diet and cognitive function. Participants who followed a plant-based diet had improved results on all cognitive tasks “Greater adherence to a dietary pattern consistent with a plant-based diet was related to better performance on all cognitive tasks” (Ramey et al., 2020).
Vegetarianism may protect your eye health and reduce the risk of developing cataracts.
A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, investigated the link between a vegetarian diet and the risk of cataracts. A 20% reduction in cataract risk was observed for participants who followed a vegetarian diet “A vegetarian diet was associated with a lower risk of cataracts” (Chiu et al., 2021).
Reduced Risk of All-Cause Mortality
Vegetarianism may lead to a reduced risk of all-cause mortality.
A review published in the journal, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, evaluated the relationship between adherence to a plant-based diet and the risk of mortality. Adherence to a healthful vegetarian diet was linked to a reduced risk of mortality for chronic disease “Our findings show the potential protective role of plant-based diets against chronic disease mortality” (Jafari et al., 2021).
A study published in The Journal of Nutrition, analysed the link between a plant-based diet and all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality risk. They found that adoption of a healthful plant-based foods was associated with a reduced risk of all-cause mortality “Healthy plant-based diet scores above the median were associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality in US adults” (Kim et al., 2018).
Scientists from Wageningen University, investigated the influence of a Mediterranean diet on all-cause mortality in an elderly European population. They found that adherence to a Mediterranean diet was linked to an incredible 50% reduction in all-cause mortality risk “Among individuals aged 70 to 90 years, adherence to a Mediterranean diet and healthful lifestyle is associated with a more than 50% lower rate of all-causes and cause-specific mortality” (Knoops et al., 2004).
Substantial evidence suggests that a well-planned, balanced and varied vegetarian diet abundant in healthful plant-based foods such as whole-grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and nuts, while monitoring for deficiencies is able to provide you with an abundance of health benefits, including:
Adopting a healthful rich plant-based diet, is beneficial for your physical and mental health, and may lead to a longer life-span with fewer visits to the doctor.
Physical Health Benefits Studies
Physical health benefits of vegetarianism (including impact on weight loss and the skin)