Health Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet

A healthy vegetarian diet will provide all the dietary nutrients required by the human body. It can also offer a number of health benefits over a standard meat-inclusive diet. The main benefits are outlined below.

Reduced Risk of Bowel Cancer and Stomach Cancer

The consumption of red meat and processed meat can increase your risk of bowel cancer and stomach cancer. Also cooking meat at high temperatures until it chars can produce cancer-causing chemicals. According to the Diet and Cancer Report (produced by the World Cancer Research Fund and The American Institute for Cancer Research in 2007):

The evidence that red meats and processed meats are a cause of colorectal cancer is convincing… There is [also] limited evidence suggesting that red meat is a cause of cancers of the oesophagus, lung, pancreas and endometrium; that processed meat is a cause of cancers of the oesophagus, lung, stomach and prostate; and that foods containing iron are a cause of colorectal cancer. There is also limited evidence that animal foods that are grilled (broiled), barbecued (charbroiled), or smoked, are a cause of stomach cancer.

For more information about processed meat and bowel cancer, go to Processed Meat and Bowel Cancer.

Reduced Risk of Obesity and Associated Health Problems

Vegetarians tend to consume less fat and more fibre than non-vegetarians, and studies have found that vegetarians are less likely to be overweight or obese. Excess body fat is a cause of a number of serious diseases and reduces life expectancy. Vegetable foods are richer in healthier monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, while meat is higher in saturated fats. There is convincing evidence that high body weight can cause a number of cancers including oesophagus, pancreatic, breast and kidney. Having excess body fat will also put you at risk from many other serious conditions including heart disease, type II diabetes and high blood pressure. Obesity causes about 18 million sick days and 30,000 deaths a year in England alone (source: National Audit Office).

The Benefits of Eating 5-A-Day

Vegetarians benefit from a high consumption of fruit and vegetables. These are a good source of many important nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium and folate. They are also an excellent source of fibre, which helps maintain a healthy gut and prevent constipation and other digestion problems. The 5-A-DAY advice is based on recommendations from the World Health Organization, which suggests eating a minimum of 400g of fruit and vegetables a day to lower the risk of serious health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes and obesity. Fruit and vegetables also appear to reduce the risk of many cancers including mouth, foodpipe and stomach cancers.

Reduced Risk of Food Poisoning

Food poisoning can occur after eating food contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses or toxins. More than 95% of food poisoning is thought to be derived from meat and poultry products. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) estimates that there are around 850,000 cases of food poisoning each year in the UK. Although food poisoning does not usually cause long-term harm, it can be dangerous for certain groups of people such as those who are elderly, pregnant or who have weakened immune systems. It is estimated that food poisoning causes 500 deaths per year in the UK.

Campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning in England. Campylobacter bacteria are usually found in raw meat and poultry, and can cause illness when these products are not cooked properly, or when ready-to-eat foods come into contact with the raw meat juices or with surfaces that have touched the raw meat. E.coli 0157 are bacteria that can cause serious illness in otherwise healthy people. Most cases of E.coli posioning occur after the consumption of undercooked beef, or unpasteurised milk.

Toxins found within foods can also be harmful. Oily fish can be contaminated with toxins called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These toxins could potentially cause harm to unborn babies, which is why pregnant women and women who might have a baby one day are advised not to eat more than two portions of oily fish a week. In addition, some fish contain a high level of mercury, which can also damage an unborn baby’s nervous system.


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2 replies »

  1. This is an interesting post, and it is correct that the WCRF/AICR Report does find convincing evidence that both red and processed meat increases risk of bowel cancer.

    But it is also important to emphasise that while we do recommend eating a plant-based diet for cancer prevention – and avoiding processed meat – we do not recommend a vegetarian diet.

    One of the things we do as a charity is try to raise awareness of our Report’s findings. But awareness on the link between processed meat and cancer is still too low, as we have blogged about today: http://blog.wcrf-uk.org/2010/07/processed-meat-and-cancer-awareness/

    • Thanks for your comment. Your article about the lack of awareness was very interesting. Since this is an important topic that more people should be aware of, I intend to publish a further article about the specific link between processed meat and cancer. I understand that the WCRF are not specifically recommending a vegetarian diet and will make this clear in my next article.

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