The Main Event: Vegan vs. Vegetarian

In this corner, at five feet, four inches, weighing 130 pounds and eating only fruit, vegetables, eggs, dairy products, and grains we have our challenger, Veggie Betty. In the opposite corner, at five feet five inches, eating only grains, fruit and vegetables and tipping the scales at 125 is our current champion, the queen of clean, Vegan Vicky. We’re looking for an apples-to-apples fight over the advantages and benefits of not ingesting meat and fish, and the differences between these two philosophies. Now, at the bell, come out arguing, and may the healthiest eater win!

Eating healthfully is a battle, no doubt. But both of these contestants are winners – people following vegetarian and vegan diets tend to live longer, have fewer health issues and generate less negative impact on the environment. The real battle is about staying healthy, but the debate over established and faddy diets and the advantages of veganism over vegetarianism rages on.

The term vegetarian generally means a person who does not consume animal products; this includes land and sea animals. Most vegetarians generally do consume eggs and dairy products (milk products). Vegetarian diets are considered excellent dietary methods for controlling weight, are heart-healthy, and excellent for controlling and preventing diabetes.

On the other hand, vegans eliminate all animal and dairy products (including eggs and honey) from their diet, as well as anything made with gelatin, which comes from animal bones and hooves. Vegans load up on fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Research has found a low-carb vegan diet reduces cholesterol levels, plus risk for developing heart disease.

But since animal products are the most convenient sources of protein and iron, vegans have a harder time getting an equal fix and have to work harder at balancing their diet through protein-packed alternatives such as lentils, black beans and soy products, and by increasing iron absorption by pairing foods rich in iron with foods rich in vitamin C, such as leafy vegetables and citrus. As a warning, vegans often suffer from Vitamin B12 deficiencies, so should consult their physician or nutritionist to ensure a healthy balance and determine if supplements are needed.

Vegetarians eliminate most animal products from their diet, too, but typically eat dairy and eggs. Like vegans, vegetarians consume a lot of fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. But unlike vegans, According to the American Heart Association, there is no single vegetarian eating pattern.

For example, a lactovegetarian eats plant-based foods, cheese, and dairy, while a lacto-ovovegetarian (lacto-ovo) eats all of the above and eggs. There are also semi-vegetarians, or people who don’t eat red meat but eat chicken and fish with their plant-based foods, dairy, and eggs. Most vegetarians are lacto-ovo.

Vegetarians have long been hailed as the healthiest eaters. A study published by the American Heart Association found people who mostly adhere to a pro-vegetarian diet (70 percent of food intake is derived from plants) were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease. And research  associates this particular diet with reduced risk for certain types of cancer, high blood pressure, and early death.

And again, like vegans, maintaining a mostly plant-based diet is beneficial to the environment. One cow’s annual output of the greenhouse gas methane is equivalent to the emissions generated by a car burning 235 gallons of gasoline. And the amount of feed necessary to raise beef, chicken and pork requires an enormous amount of energy and resources, including fossil fuels, medicine and water.

Until recently, the benefits of vegetarianism and veganism were more anecdotal than clinically proven. However, over the past couple of decades numerous studies have indicated that a person who adopts a vegan or vegetarian diet will:

  • Have a lower body weightOne study found that those who continue eating meat will put on more weight over a five year period, compared to those who switched over to vegetarianism. The same study found that vegans put on even less weight as they get older, compared to vegetarians and meat eaters. The study looked at 22,000 meat eaters, fish eaters, vegetarians, and vegans.
  • Have better cholesterol levels– Scientists have demonstrated that a vegetarian diet made up of specific plant foods can lower cholesterol as effectively as a drug treatment. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, compared a diet of known cholesterol-lowering, vegetarian foods to a standard cholesterol-reducing drug called lovastatin.
    The diet reduced levels of LDL the ‘bad’ cholesterol known to cause clogging in coronary arteries — in participants by almost 29 percent, compared to a 30.9 percent decrease in the lovastatin participants. The diet consisted of a combination of nuts (almonds), soy proteins, viscous fiber (high-fiber) foods such as oats and barley and a special margarine with plant sterols (found in leafy green vegetables and vegetable oils).
  • Live longer– Several studies have shown that vegans and vegetarians have a much lower risk of becoming obese, developing diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases. All these conditions and diseases reduce one´s life expectancy.
  • Have a lower risk of developing cancer– Several studies have shown a reduced risk of developing many different types of cancer among vegans and vegetarians, compared to meat eaters. The study also found, however, that vegetarians have a higher risk of developing cancer of the colon.
  • Have a lower risk of developing several diseases– A 2012 article published in Food Technology documented that plant-based diets either reduce or completely eliminate people’s genetic propensity to developing long-term diseases including diabetes type 2, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Additionally, plant-based diets have shown to be effective in treating diseases like Multiple Sclerosis.

Vegetarian food is generally lower in fat, especially saturated fats, and much higher in fiber, than animal based foods. However, a vegetarian, like a meat eater, has to watch his or her intake of calories, snack foods, refined carbohydrates, whole milk dairy products, and non-meat junk foods.

So whichever path you are contemplating, a gradual change into vegetarianism or veganism works better as a general lifestyle change and longer-term strategy. Some people find that sudden changes to their eating patterns may have unpleasant consequences for their digestive systems, such as irritable bowel and other GI-related maladies. A healthful, gradual change includes increasing your intake of vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans, lentils), and whole grains, while cutting down on your intake of meats and fish.

Additionally, the American Dietetic Association offers these tips for people who want to convert to vegetarianism or veganism:

  • Select whole-grain products, including whole wheat bread, wild/brown rice, and whole-grain cereals
  • Make sure your diet is varied
  • Choose low- or non-fat dairy products (if you wish to continue consuming dairy)
  • Do not eat more than three or four egg yolks per week
  • Plan ahead when you go shopping
  • Read the food labels carefully when you are out shopping
  • Find out where specialty stores that cater to healthy eating are located, and try shopping there.

Fortunately, there is much information available on these diets. And anyone contemplating a significant dietary change should touch base with their physician and get their baseline numbers to help chart progress. Ultimately, though, everyone who participates is a winner!

For more information on plant-based diets, visit Ornish Lifestyle Medicine and Dr. McDougall’s Health & Medical Center.

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