In recent years, vegetarianism and veganism, especially its stricter form, have been gaining popularity around the world. Some people adhere to a vegetarian diet for ideological reasons, whereas others feel its effectiveness and are exceptionally healthy. This is due in part to the possible benefits of this diet and growing concerns about the environment and animal life. The reasonable points of vegetarianism have been discussed by physicians, biochemists, and various scientists.
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Even though controversy still exists, their results are increasingly providing a positive effect. This literature review focuses on evaluating health benefits and issues of this type of nutrition, taking into account preventing cardio-metabolic diseases, the probability of prolonging people’s lifespan. There are numerous causes to switch from meat consumption to plant-based meals. Besides, two main negative points should be considered, which are the outcomes of vegetarianism among children and eating disorders questions.
Several articles explain the vegetarian diet’s impact on preventing some non-communicable diseases concerning different social groups. The survey conducted by Kahleova et al. (2017) reveals the effects of a plant-based diet on the cardio-metabolic system. It determines the health benefits of such nutrition for various elements of the human body. For instance, the paper identifies that arterial hypertension today is one of the most common diseases in industrialized countries (Kahleova et al., 2017). It is the most critical risk factor for developing disorders of the cardiovascular system. It also shortens life and contributes to heart disease, kidney failure, and many other health problems, and plant-based foods can lower blood pressure.
Another article also concerns the problem of non-communicable diseases and the controversy of a vegetarian diet. According to Jaacks et al. (2016), there are significant differences between plant-based foods depending on the region and states where it is wide-spread. The study also emphasizes that the reduced level of cholesterol explains the reduced level of cardiovascular disease among vegetarians. However, there is so-called “South Asian Paradox,” which means that despite the popularity of plant-based nutrition in this region, there remains a high number of cardiometabolic diseases, including diabetes and coronary heart disease. For example, “whereas South Asian 253 vegetarians had higher intakes of desserts and fried foods compared to non-vegetarians, US vegetarians 254 had lower intakes of these food groups” (Jaacks et al., 2016, p. 979). While the South Asia population used to avoid meat products, the United States vegetarianism food group intakes are healthier as adherents to a plant-based diet are conscious about the meals impact on health.
Currently, the studies prove that data on mortality rates in vegans are limited. According to German scientists, Norman and Klaus (2020), analysis of any cause of death did not reveal statistically significant differences between vegans and people who regularly eat meat. Meanwhile, among vegetarians, the risk of illness and death from coronary heart disease is significantly lower than among non-vegetarians. Besides, vegetarianism improves insulin resistance and helps in diabetes treatment (Norman & Klaus, 2020). A severe problem of II type diabetes is high blood pressure resulting from the metabolism of sugar in the body, regulated by the hormone insulin. A vegan diet helps the body reduce the amount of fat in cells, control blood sugar, lower cholesterol, and reduce weight without cutting back on portions, prevents kidney damage, and helps lower blood pressure.
Vegetarianism for children has many disadvantages that should be carefully studied by those wishing to introduce a child to this lifestyle. Cofnas (2019) discusses the subject of adverse health consequences of maintaining an appropriate plant-based diet among the most vulnerable social groups like children, pregnant women. The child’s body has its own needs, which are different from those of an adult. It is difficult to tolerate a lack of essential nutrients, which can lead to serious health problems. For example, those who do not eat meat are deficient in zinc, which is necessary for growth, healthy immune function, normal puberty (Cofnas, 2019). There is also iron deficiency, leading to anemia; furthermore, the problem of vitamin B12 lack arises even during intrauterine development (Cofnas, 2019). Vitamin B12 inadequacy during fetal development and in the first years of children impairs their mental abilities. B12 contains mainly in meat, dairy products, and eggs; at the same time, children of vegans – adherents of the strict form of vegetarianism, entirely excluding the consumption of animal products – are at risk.
Most vegans are not obese or overweight, which attracts people with nutritional problems. The study established by a group of American scientists, Heiss et al. (2017), examines the link between vegetarianism and various types of eating disorders. About half of patients who see psychotherapists for anorexia nervosa say they follow a vegetarian diet (Heiss et al., 2017). Vegetarianism is psychologically suspicious because, for some people with nutritional problems, it is a disguising attempt to lose weight or avoid certain foods.
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This is not because plant food helps reduce body fat, but because vegans consciously approach the issue of nutrition and monitor what enters their bodies and how it affects them. According to Heiss et al. (2017), about 25% of people who switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet admit that they changed their diet to lose weight. “In contrast, vegans and vegetarians typically endorse significantly lower levels of restraint and external eating, and greater levels of food acceptance, in comparison to semi vegetarians” (Heiss et al., 2017, p. 69). There is a lack of research that has answered the question of whether the reason for switching to a plant-based diet is a problem with food addictions. If a person is in an active phase of an eating disorder or just beginning to recover, he or she should be conscientious about vegetarianism.
Vegetarianism or veganism is a conscious choice, to which everyone comes in their way. Someone is influenced by events, facts, examples of other people. Someone independently feels the inner need for a new way of life. The report created by Belgian researchers – Mullee et al. (2017) – estimates that choosing vegetarianism as a lifestyle varies, depending on the awareness of the benefits of meat avoidance. It is a cross-sectional study involving approximately 2,5 thousand people. As a rule, the transition from the food of animal origin to a new way of feeding does not occur immediately. According to Mullee et al. (2017), previous studies showed that people think about their diet, being ready to change their eating habits to preserve nature. The shift occurs gradually; often, it takes years; during this time, the way of life, outlook on things, attitude towards oneself, and the environment change. Less commonly, a person makes this decision and ultimately changes his or her usual diet to a vegetable one.
A proper vegetarian or vegan diet is healthy and can provide health, prevention, and treatment benefits for specific conditions. Vegetarians and vegans obtain a low risk of certain diseases, including coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity (Kahleova et al., 2017). In Western countries, veganism is more common; there has also been an increase in the number of vegetarians and vegans in recent decades. It has been criticized for various reasons: with a lack of awareness of vegan nutrition, trying to live a vegan lifestyle can lead to adverse health consequences.
Nowadays, supporters and opponents of such a nutritional system discuss the benefits and harms of vegetarianism. Annually new publications are appearing, which often contradict the generally accepted ones. It follows that topics related to health, nutrition, and people’s well-being need to be considered from different perspectives and supported by appropriate scientific evidence. It should be noted that veganism has restrictions and limitations; such a diet also has its advantages and disadvantages.
These days, there is insufficient data to support a vegetarian diet’s clear benefits in reducing the risk of chronic disease compared to a balanced and varied mixed diet. Thus, from health, it cannot be unequivocally stated that plant-based food is better than the full food group intake. However, when comparing vegetarians to omnivores whose dietary habits do not meet nutritional guidelines, the latter tend to have high blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and diabetes, and more overweight and obese people are among them. This topic should be investigated in a long-term perspective as health effects and the possible impact can be evaluated in terms of the long period depending on the social group, area, state, and age.
Cofnas, N. (2019). Is vegetarianism healthy for children? Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 59(13), 2052-2060. Web.
Heiss, S., Hormes, J. M., & Timko, C. A. (2017). Vegetarianism and eating disorders. In Vegetarian and plant-based diets in health and disease prevention (pp. 51-69). Academic Press. Web.
Jaacks, L. M., Kapoor, D., Singh, K., Narayan, K. V., Ali, M. K., Kadir, M. M., & Prabhakaran, D. (2016). Vegetarianism and cardiometabolic disease risk factors: differences between South Asian and US adults. Nutrition, 32(9), 975-984. Web.
Kahleova, H., Levin, S., & Barnard, N. (2017). Cardio-metabolic benefits of plant-based diets. Nutrients, 9(8), 848-861. Web.
Mullee, A., Vermeire, L., Vanaelst, B., Mullie, P., Deriemaeker, P., Leenaert, T., De Henauw, S., Dunne, A., Gunter, M. J., Clarys, P., & Huybrechts, I. (2017). Vegetarianism and meat consumption: A comparison of attitudes and beliefs between vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, and omnivorous subjects in Belgium. Appetite, 114, 299-305. Web.
Norman, K., & Klaus, S. (2020). Veganism, aging, and longevity: new insight into old concepts. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 23(2), 145-150. Web.