Whether we are talking about veganism or vegetarianism, both of these lifestyles are and have been on a major rise for quite some time now. As our society becomes more and more sensitive to the inhumane treatment of all animals and the environmental impacts of an animal product-based diet, we see more people choosing this way of life.
Numerous sites, organizations, and societies continue to educate people on not only the animal and environmental benefits of choosing these lifestyles, but perhaps most importantly on the health benefits, one incurs from abstaining from meat, if not all animal products. This website, Evolving Wellness is one of those sources, as well.
Given this, there are many people out there with a lot of questions when it comes to changing to being a vegetarian or a vegan. Many of us have been heavily conditioned that meat and dairy are part of a “healthy” diet. It is for this reason that I feel we need to continue to provide high-quality information for people who are thinking of making this change and knowing what benefits lay ahead.
Although both vegetarianism and veganism have their benefits, many people may not realize that there are many more benefits to being a vegan. Hence in this article, I want to provide you with an important foundation of facts, from all angles, of the benefits of veganism over vegetarianism.
Vegetarian vs Vegan
Just before we go any further, I want to define what I mean by vegetarian and vegan, so that we are all on the same page.
A vegan is someone who does not eat any animal products—meat, seafood, dairy, eggs. I am not going to address here other vegan lifestyle choices. We will only focus on the diet.
A vegetarian does not eat any meat or seafood—anything that needs to be killed, but typically eats dairy and/or eggs. This is the most general definition of vegetarian; personal choices may lead to all sorts of exceptions.
Eating vegan has major cholesterol benefits. As cholesterol is a compound that is only found in animal products, vegans do not consume any cholesterol.
This significantly decreases their chances of having high cholesterol to the point that most normally never have to worry about having high cholesterol. Granted one may become prone to low levels of healthy cholesterol. This will depend on what healthy fats are incorporated as part of the daily diet and the amount of regular physical activity.
For vegetarians, both dairy and eggs are a source of bad cholesterol (LDL). A single egg contains over 200mg of cholesterol and the recommended daily allowance for cholesterol stands at 300mg per day.
However, it is important to know that high, bad cholesterol (LDL) is not only inherited from foods high in cholesterol, but rather comes more significantly from the amount of saturated and trans fat in our diet, which brings us to our next section.
Decreased Saturated and Trans Fat Benefits
Eating vegan can result in many benefits when it comes to the amount of saturated and trans fats that is in one’s diet. Most saturated fats come from animal products, with dairy fat being about 65% saturated fat, specifically cheese.
Trans fats come from hydrogenated vegetable oils. Some trans fats are naturally found in animal products, like dairy. So the next time you eat something that most consider healthy, like a yogurt, be sure to check the nutrition label and see if it agrees with your standards of what healthy means.
Most of us are by now well aware that both trans and saturated fats are strongly related to risk of heart disease. It isn’t that they are all inherently “bad”. There just seems to be some reaction that science is still unable to properly explain in how saturated, trans fats and cholesterol from animal products all work together to increase artery clogging and heart disease. On top of this, these fats have also been linked to increased risk for some cancers, gallstones, kidney disease and possibly even type 2 diabetes.
What else is important to know is that saturated and trans fats have a stronger influence on increasing our bad cholesterol, than eating cholesterol from food products itself. Hence, if you have high cholesterol the culprit may not necessarily be whether you eat eggs or not, but how much meat and dairy you consume.
Therefore, as long as vegans do not overdo the consumption of tropical oils (ex. palm oil) or processed vegan food, they have significantly lower intakes of saturated and trans fats in comparison to vegetarians. In fact, seriously health conscious vegans may have an intake of 0g trans fats in their diet. What is interesting to note as well is that saturated fat from coconut oil has been proven to be metabolized quite differently in the body than animal sources of saturated fat, adding more health benefits than risks.
For vegetarians on the other hand, especially those who rely heavily on dairy or are not health conscious as to how much and what kind of processed food they eat, their intake of saturated and trans fats can actually be very high. In fact, it can sometimes be worse than very health conscious people who occasionally consume meat.
The richest sources of iron are found in meat and plant foods, like beans and leafy greens. Given this, many studies show that vegetarians and vegans have higher iron intakes than non-vegetarians. However, there is a big advantage to being vegan over vegetarian when it comes to proper iron levels.
Dairy and eggs are poor sources of iron. Not only this, dairy products actually inhibit iron absorption. This is something vegetarians, not vegans have to consider, especially women who have not yet hit menopause, for whom maintaining proper iron levels may be a challenge. If one is having problems with their iron levels, regardless of being a vegan or vegetarian the amount and type of grains in one’s diet should be considered. Some plant foods like grains can contain oxalic acid which can also inhibit iron absorption. Fermented or sprouted grains are therefore optimal for best nutrition and digestion, and the more processed the grain is, the more problematic it is for many reasons, not just iron.
This is a tough, and at the same time interesting topic when it comes to vitamin B12 benefits. One would think that vegetarians are at an advantage when it comes to B12 over vegans due to B12 coming predominantly from animal sources. This however may not be quite so. On the one hand we are taught that all animal foods are reliable sources of vitamin B12, but on the other hand research tends to overlook that even people who consume animal foods, can still be deficient in this vitamin. Let’s take a closer look at why.
The metabolism and absorption of B12 is actually quite a complex process. One must have proper secretions of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, and production of pepsin and intrinsic factor to fully digest and use B12. For some people who eat animal products, any of these three not working properly can be a limiting factor in their ability to absorb the B12.
This is why vegetarians who eat dairy or egg products cannot automatically assume that they are safe where B12 is concerned, as studies prove that B12 is easier to absorb from supplements or fortified foods, when it is not bound to a protein, like in most animal product sources. As we age too, our stomach lining gets increasingly worse at producing the pepsin and hydrochloric acid. This is especially critical for those over the age of 50, where even animal product eaters are recommended to consume a B12 supplement.
So, since all vegans either take a supplement of B12 or consume fortified food products containing it, they may actually have an easier time absorbing this crucial vitamin.
One more note on vitamin B12, the supplement form should be of the methylcobalamin form, not cyanocobalamin form, and preferably in a sublingual form for most efficient absorption and use in the body.
It is of course no surprise that most of us still equate healthy bones with dairy intake. This is actually one of the main reasons that prevents most vegetarians from moving to a vegan lifestyle. When it comes to correlating healthy bones with high dairy consumption, nothing can be further from the truth. We have to really start coming around and understanding that strong bones are not a by product of how much dairy one consumes. For more information on this please read the following article: “You Can Thank High Protein and High Sodium Diets For Your Bone Loss.”
In fact, the richest and most absorbable forms of calcium are in plant sources, mainly leafy greens like Kale or Collard Greens. Thus vegetarians, who solely rely on dairy for their calcium and don’t eat enough greens or other plant food varieties, can actually have a false positive on the calcium and strong bone front.
This puts healthy vegans at a huge advantage, as they are known to eat large amounts of greens, which are an excellent source of calcium. For example, consider this: there are 1,055mg of highly absorbable calcium in 100 calories of bok choy and only 194mg of it in the same amount of calories in milk.
Aside from the calcium issue, dairy products have other problems associated with them in that they can actually contribute to the leaching of calcium from our bones. This will be discussed in the next section.
Our blood pH is normally between 7.35 and 7.45. This measure means slightly alkaline and our blood has to stay within this range in order for us to be alive. Just a slight shift of pH out of this region, can result in a life or death situation. Therefore our bodies do everything they can to keep this delicate balance.
Ingested food comes in with its own specific pH value. However, when we are interested in eating for an optimal acid/alkaline balance, we are not interested at all in how the substances come into our bodies, namely whether they are acidic, neutral or alkaline. What we are interested in, is what the food’s digested components turn out to be. This is normally called the “ash”, for we “burn” food energy just as logs are burned in a fire for energy, with leftover ash. It is that leftover ash or products of digestion that we are interested in being in an acid-alkaline balance.
Typically, plant foods, especially leafy greens are highly alkaline. Animal foods, sugar, grains, alcohol, coffee and processed foods are highly acidic.
Now since your body is going to do everything it can to maintain your blood to be in that delicate alkaline range, it will use precious minerals, like calcium from your bones to combat excess acidity. Therefore eating high amounts of acidic foods can result in one’s body being very prone to many illnesses and infections—these thrive in acidic conditions, as well as with weak bones.
Vegetarians who eat large amounts of dairy, eggs, sugar, grains and other processed foods tend to be much more acidic, than vegans who eat large amounts of plants, specifically leafy greens and few processed foods. In fact, our goal at any time, whether vegan or vegetarian should be to maintain a proper acid-alkaline balance in our body. This means eating at least 60-80% of our daily food from alkaline sources, with the remaining 20-40% from acidic sources.
Most vegetarians can obtain a large quantity of their calories from dairy and eggs. These products are completely devoid of fiber. Thus if one is eating a lot of these foods, they most likely do not have the capability to include as many fiber-rich plant foods, like they would if they were not eating these products.
Since vegans do not eat any animal products, their diets are significantly higher in fiber.
High fiber diets have numerous health benefits including: better, more regular elimination and detoxification; decreased risk of colon and rectal cancers; lower cholesterol; easier weight maintenance and prevention of other diseases like heart, diabetes and kidney disease.
Decreased Food Poisoning Benefits
Unless there is some odd and unforseen contamination, plant foods are not typical carriers of disease causing microorganisms.
Animal foods on the other hand naturally have numerous types of bacteria, including many disease causing microorganisms, and are the main sources of food poisoning.
Therefore by avoiding dairy and eggs, and consuming properly handled plant foods, one’s chances of food poisoning sharply decrease. (This does not take into account contaminated water).
Weight Maintenance Benefits
Vegan foods are typically low and can be completely devoid of unhealthy fats, making them be lower in calories as well. This is one of the reasons which allows vegans to have a much easier time maintaining a healthy weight. Plant foods in general are very low in calories compared to animal foods and with the added benefits of being high fiber, this can all help one lose weight and then maintain a natural, healthy weight.
Vegetarians who normally eat high amounts of dairy, eggs and processed food, may have no benefit at all when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight compared with typical meat eaters. They may in fact have more problems losing weight too, depending one one’s overall health and acid-alkaline balance.
More Variety Filled and Diversified Eating Benefits
As soon as you take out meat, dairy and eggs out of your diet, generally speaking by default your diet expands greatly. There are so many fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, fungi, sea vegetables, nuts and seeds, not to mention an almost infinite amount of combinations or things that one can do with them!
Thus, vegetarians who have only taken out meat out of their diet, may still be relying heavily on the same “old” foods, with a heavy emphasis on dairy and eggs in most of their meals.
For vegan eaters the variety of food has the potential to increase tremendously if done so consciously, which also opens them up to obtaining high amounts of all nutrients on a regular basis.
If you decide to or have already decided to be vegetarian for humane reasons—for the sake of the animals—then I strongly urge you to obtain more information on how milk cows and chickens are raised and treated. In some cases because they do not get slaughtered like meat animals, they live a life of constant pain and torture. Good books to read on this topic are the Skinny Bitch or Skinny Bastard if you want the short story, or Thanking the Monkey, if you want the long story.
While vegetarianism definitely saves the lives of numerous animals from being slaughtered, if you want to help all animals even further, then veganism is definitely the way to go.
Like the above section, one cannot dismiss the fact that a vegetarian lifestyle definitely helps out the planet in terms of environmental degradation and greenhouse gas emissions, among other things.
Land for dairy cows and chicken farms has to be cleared. The huge amounts of waste that they produce still has to be dealt with. And perhaps most notably the amount of food used to feed them is tremendous, food which could be going to people from 3rd world countries instead.
Thus, if you decided to be vegetarian for the planet and to help out the environment, then yes that is a wonderful step to take, but to make an even bigger impact, a vegan way of life provides even more benefits for all.
According to the China Study – the most comprehensive study on nutrition ever conducted, the lower the percentage of animal-based foods that are consumed, the greater the health benefits. In fact people who consume 10% of their calories from animal products daily slightly increase their health benefits, where as people who consume 4% of animal product calories or less, have been shown to have the most significant health benefits.
In conclusion, whether you are considering changing your lifestyle to a vegetarian or vegan way of life, there are indeed a lot of things to consider.
Based on all the research and my own personal experience, the way I see it is that a vegetarian way of life is an amazing transition period from a regular animal-product diet to an animal-product-free diet. How long this transition takes is entirely up to you. For some people it will take days, for other weeks, while for others yet even years.
Also whatever you decide—whether meat eater, vegetarian or vegan—understand that any lifestyle is at a huge disadvantage if it is based on a foundation of processed foods. Thus as much as vegan diets tend to be the healthiest diets of all, if one fills them with processed foods, they will not be much better, if at all, compared to a health conscious person who occasionally eats meat.
Bottom line, whatever you choose, learn as much as you can on the subject and be comfortable with your choice. Ultimately no one can tell you what is right or wrong for you, but we cannot hide our heads in the sand and stay ignorant to the facts out there today either. With an educated mind and heart, you have to decide for yourself and live with your own decision.
References and Further Reading
The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted And the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, And Long-term Health
The New Becoming Vegetarian: The Essential Guide To A Healthy Vegetarian Diet
Becoming Vegan: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant-Based Diet
Eat to Live: The Revolutionary Formula for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss