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The Health Benefits of a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet

Thinking about going vegan or vegetarian? A plant-based diet could be the healthiest decision you ever make.

Savory veggie chili, a colorful salad made with strawberries and greens, flavorful roasted zucchini. A vegan or vegetarian diet doesn’t just look good. It also can be healthy and delicious.

If you’ve been thinking about making changes to your diet and eating healthier, a vegan or vegetarian diet could be a way forward. In fact, you’d be joining a lot of others: Millions of American adults now consider themselves either vegan or vegetarian, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group.

You’re probably wondering what the difference is between a vegan and a vegetarian. A big part of it comes down to what you choose to eat. To consider yourself one or the other, you have to stop eating meat—beef, poultry, and fish—for good. (Though someone who eats mostly a plant-based diet and fish is called a pescatarian.)

Both diets embrace fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds, nuts, and legumes. But unlike vegetarians, vegans avoid eggs and dairy products as well. Vegans also don’t eat products that make use of animal byproducts such as honey or milk. Some even take that a step further, not using leather, fur, silk, wool, cosmetics, and soaps derived from animal products.

“People may become vegan because of the positive effects on the environment or for animal rights support,” says Gigi Rubin, a registered dietitian in New York City. “Many people do it for the health benefits.”

Below, find some reasons that a vegan or vegetarian diet might be a big step toward living a healthier life.

Choosing a health insurance plan that works for you can be another important component of a healthy lifestyle.

1. Both vegan and vegetarian diets help you fight and prevent chronic disease.

What’s so healthy about a vegan or vegetarian diet? You can help fight or prevent the development of chronic disease. One study concluded that such a diet could help lower your risk of developing:

  • Heart disease. Vegans and vegetarians tend to have lower levels of obesity and high blood pressure, two risk factors for heart problems.
  • Type 2 diabetes. Plant-based diets, which are high in whole grains and nuts and include no red meat, can help you lose weight and lower your bad cholesterol, both risk factors for type 2 diabetes. A vegan diet is also high in fiber, which helps regulate the body’s use of sugar and keeps hunger and blood sugar in check.
  • Certain cancers, including ovarian, bladder, and stomach. Diets rich in fruits and vegetables, with zero animal products involved, have been associated with decreased risk of cancer.

By its very nature, a vegan diet may help prevent some chronic disease, says Mary Zupke, a registered dietitian with Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva, Illinois. It’s rich in antioxidants, which occur naturally in fruit and vegetables and help prevent cell damage.

2. A vegan or vegetarian diet can turn you into a meal-planning machine.

While vegan and vegetarian diets are incredibly healthy, they don’t come without their challenges. You’ll need to work a little harder to ensure that you’ll be getting all the vitamins and nutrients you need for a balanced diet.

“I would say both diets do need to be planned well to ensure that there are no vitamin or other nutrient deficiencies,” says Rubin.

So how do you best manage your new plant-based diet? You’ll need to select foods that will give you the most nutrition, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N. She’s the creator of BetterThanDieting.com and the author of Read It Before You Eat It — Taking You from Label to Table.

“It isn’t just about eating vegetables and no animal protein,” says Taub-Dix. “You need to learn which sources of protein you can eat instead of animal protein.”

Here are some of the nutrients you’ll need (and where you can get them from):

  • Protein helps keep your skin, bones, muscles, and organs healthy. Several of the best plant-based protein sources include beans, lentils, nuts, grains, and tofu (which is made from soybeans).
  • Iron is needed to produce red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout your body. Beans, broccoli, raisins, wheat, and tofu are all great sources.
  • Calcium helps build your bones and protects you from osteoporosis, a disease that makes your bones brittle and weak. Leafy green veggies like broccoli, bok choy, and kale are all great sources of calcium.

You’ll also need to make sure you’re getting the right vitamins too.

Vegan and vegetarian diets are good sources of folic acid, a type of vitamin found in leafy green veggies and fruits, that helps your body make new cells. It can also be particularly important if you’re pregnant.

Zupke cautions that vegan and vegetarian diets tend to be low in vitamin B-12, which is found in meat and plays an essential role in red blood cell formation, how your body breaks down foods (your metabolism), and other important things.9 But you can find it in foods such as soymilk and some cereals.

Zupke also notes that vegan diets tend to be low vitamin D, which help build healthy bones,10 as well as zinc, which helps strengthen your immune system and metabolism.11 But you can find alternative sources of vitamin D in soymilk, rice milk, and some cereals; and zinc in beans, nuts, and soy products.

Of course, you should consult your doctor or a dietitian-nutritionist before making any drastic changes to your eating habits.

3. You can enjoy vegan and vegetarian options at more restaurants.

More restaurants have been adding vegan and vegetarian options to their menus—including fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell.

But eating out can still be a challenge if you’re a vegan or vegetarian. “Check the menu ahead of time and look for protein alternatives,” Zupke advises. “You don’t want to just order vegetables or you may not be getting enough protein.”

Also, don’t hesitate to ask how a dish is prepared. For example, perhaps the kitchen can substitute oil for butter in a particular dish (if necessary), Rubin says. “You will feel more confident about ordering,” she says.

You can also try out types of foods you might not otherwise choose, Zupke says. Indian restaurants, for instance, typically offer many vegan and vegetarian main courses.

4. You can also eat well at home on a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Whether you search for vegan or vegetarian recipes online or buy a cookbook specifically made for this type of diet, you won’t go hungry eating vegan or vegetarian food.

You don’t need meat to have a filling meal. Beans and legumes, some grains, nuts, and seeds all contain protein. There are also protein powders, such as pea protein powder, that you can add to foods, Rubin says.

But it’s helpful to learn about combining beans and grains to maximize their nutritional value, says Taub-Dix. “By doing this, you will get all the valuable nutrients that live inside fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,” she says. Rice and beans is a classic example of combining two powerful plant foods. “Pasta with pine nuts is another dish that can provide you complete protein,” Zupke says.

There are many surprising sources of protein that don’t come from animal sources, Rubin says. “The food industry is keeping up with food trends, and non-dairy yogurts, cheeses, and other ‘dairy mimicking’ products are becoming more and more available,” she says.

One of the most challenging parts of going vegan used to be finding a substitute for eggs. “But now egg substitutes are readily available,” Rubin says. “You can use ground flax or chia seeds instead of eggs. Tofu is another excellent alternative. And in baking, it’s common to use mashed banana or applesauce as an egg substitute.”

5. Vegan and vegetarian diets pair well with regular exercise.

Once you’ve made up your mind and are going vegan or vegetarian, it’ll be important to add regular exercise to that equation. Weight-bearing activities such as yoga, running, strength training, and brisk walking are all essential for increasing your bone strength.

“If you’re going vegan, consider modifying your workouts until your body is well-adjusted to cutting out food groups and you find a balanced meal plan that works well for you,” says Rubin.

For example, if you cut meat out of your diet, which is a source of vitamin B-12, it may cause you to feel tired. Until you find a worthy replacement, take it easier on the treadmill.

Just as with your diet, you should always consult your doctor before making any changes to your exercise routine.

6. Bonus reason to go vegan or vegetarian: It may help you save money.

If you’re eating vegan or vegetarian, not only are you at a reduced risk for various health conditions, but you may also save money on food, Taub-Dix says. “That’s because you might spend less money by not buying meat,” she says.

If you’re thinking about changing your diet, you’ll want to consult a doctor. Don’t have a primary care physician? Choose from available health insurance plans and pick a physician from a network of choices.

This advertisement contains information compiled by UnitedHealthcare. UnitedHealthcare does not represent that these are statements of fact. Please consult directly with your primary care physician if you need medical advice.

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