Look at all the meat alternatives on restaurant menus and the array of plant-based products at grocery stores, and it’s clear that the number of people choosing to eat less meat is steadily increasing. While a vegetarian diet has historically been associated with plain salads, bland tofu, and the fear of malnutrition, this outdated perception is quickly changing.
So, why are more and more people choosing to eat less meat? There are many reasons why people are choosing to leave meat off of their plate. Learning more about the benefits of going vegetarian can help you identify which ones matter most to you.
1. It’s good for your health
Vegetarian diets can be a great way to prevent or manage many common chronic health conditions. Compared to meat eaters, vegetarians have a lower risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, and obesity.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the world, so it’s pretty incredible to know that many lives could be saved simply by choosing not to eat meat. One risk factor for heart disease is high blood pressure, which also tends to be lower in vegetarians. Vegetarian diets are beneficial for heart health in part because they tend to be lower in saturated fat. By including more fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains into their meals, vegetarians end up eating more fiber and antioxidants, which help lower cholesterol levels and prevent plaque from forming in the arteries.
Vegetarians are also less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, as they are eating less saturated fat from red and processed meats and eating more fiber and anti-inflammatory compounds. Saturated fat is known to interfere with insulin signaling in the body, contributing to insulin resistance and its potential progression into a type 2 diabetes diagnosis. Vegetarian diets can also be used to help treat diabetes since fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains are helpful in managing blood sugar levels.
The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends eating a diet rich in plant-based foods to help prevent cancer. Limiting red and processed meat, for example, can help reduce your risk of colon cancer. They also recommend a predominately plant-based way of eating for people who have already had cancer and want to reduce their risk of getting it again.
Plant-based foods are thought to help prevent the development of cancerous cells thanks to their phytonutrients, the anti-inflammatory compounds specific to plants which help reverse cellular damage that can occur naturally or from exposure to environmental toxins. Plants are also high in dietary fiber, which supports intestinal health and encourages a diverse population of beneficial gut bacteria to flourish. In turn, this helps support a stronger immune system, which is incredibly important for preventing the development of cancerous cells and fighting cells which have already turned cancerous.
Part of the reduction in cancer risk may be due, in part, to other healthy lifestyle factors common among vegetarians, like exercising, not smoking, drinking less alcohol, and maintaining a healthy weight. Forty percent of meat eaters are overweight or obese, while only 25 percent of lactovegetarians are. Plant-based diets that include plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains are high in fiber, which helps keep you full throughout the day without excessive calories. This can help prevent mindless snacking or overindulging in sweets late at night.
Given all of these impressive health benefits, it’s not surprising that going vegetarian is associated with living longer—about four to six years longer than meat eaters. And with less chronic diseases, the quality of that life will be better too.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that vegetarian diets can vary in how healthy they are. After all, pizza, french fries, and soda are all vegetarian! While these foods are perfectly fine to indulge in every so often, vegetarians who base the bulk of their diets on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts will likely enjoy the greatest improvements in their health.
2. It’s good for your palate
If you take away the meat from a standard American meal of meat and potatoes, what else do you eat? This leads many vegetarians to branch out into trying new foods and cuisines from around the world. South Indian dosas and curries, Ethiopian stews and injera, Korean japchae and vegetarian bibimbap, and Greek falafel and tabbouleh are all delicious examples of vegetarian-friendly dishes. By expanding your horizons, you’ll likely find you like an array of foods that you’ve never even tried before!
3. It’s good for your wallet
One of the most exciting benefits of going vegetarian may be seeing your grocery bill go down. According to Oxford researchers, plant-based diets can slash your food bill by almost a third. Their studies show that vegan diets were more affordable than either pescatarian or flexitarian eating patterns. However, the savings aren’t so impressive if you purchase a lot of expensive specialty items or meat substitutes, so sticking to less-processed foods as much as possible will be the most economical.
Another financial incentive is the potential for saving on healthcare costs. While it’s impossible to know exactly how much money each person would save over the course of their lifetime, researchers in Taiwan found that vegetarians had 13 percent lower outpatient costs and 15 percent lower medical costs than omnivores. Less time spent at the doctor’s office also means less time missed at work and more time spent with loved ones or doing things that bring you joy.
4. It’s good for the animals
Livestock animals are commonly raised in crowded, unhygienic conditions at concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs for short. You may have also heard these referred to as “factory farms.” These are large farms that raise an unbelievably high number of animals, usually cows, pigs, and chickens, in confined areas. Because the demand for meat is so high, these kinds of operations are the only way to meet this demand while keeping prices low for consumers. Unfortunately, the cramped conditions cause many animals to develop physical problems. Chickens are bred to become so large that they are often unable to walk or support their own weight. Animals may also have little to no access to the outdoors, depending on the facility.
Some animal lovers choose to stop eating meat so that fewer animals are raised in these deprived conditions. Others simply don’t like the idea of an animal being killed to end up on their plate, especially when plant-based foods can provide more than enough protein to meet our needs.
In the end, it’s not just animals who suffer at factory farms—employees do too. Occupational risks for factory farm workers include inhaling noxious gases, bacterial infection, chronic pain and injuries from repetitive physical work, and mental health issues.
5. It’s good for the earth
Another disadvantage of factory farms is that they’re a source of pollution. Not surprisingly, factory farms must deal with a large amount of animal waste. Manure can be used in fields or stored in containers or lagoons for future use, but contamination of groundwater and lakes is common. Water sources close to CAFOs can be unintentionally contaminated with antibiotics, ammonia, viruses, and other pollutants.
The process of raising animals for meat contributes a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions to the environment, about the same amount as the entire transportation industry. Additionally, animal agriculture requires large amounts of land and water not just for raising animals, but also for growing crops, like corn and soy, to feed the animals.
Not only is a healthy plant-based diet—including plenty of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans—better for the environment than a meat-centered diet, it is also better for the earth than a “junk food” plant-based diet that is high in prepackaged foods, which go through additional processing before ending up on grocery store shelves.
If you’re contemplating the switch to a vegetarian diet, keep the benefits in mind. Remembering your motivation is incredibly valuable—your “why” can help you through a challenging transition and can make sticking with the change much easier.
Stephanie Wells, MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian working in cancer research. She has a passion for plant-based nutrition and has been published in numerous scientific journals.