Well-planned vegetarian diets, including vegan diets, are healthy and can potentially prevent and treat certain diseases, according to the American Dietetic Association. Vegetarians tend to weigh less and have lower cholesterol and improved digestion than meat eaters, as well as a lower risk of heart disease. A poorly planned vegetarian diet can present health risks, however. Before you begin a vegetarian lifestyle, consult your doctor about how to make sure your nutritional bases are covered.
People who eat plant-based diets may be at risk of deficiencies in several nutrients, including high-quality protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, calcium and vitamins B-12 and D. Most plant-based proteins, except soy and quinoa, are low in or missing one or more of the essential amino acids your body needs to make and maintain tissues. Deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in fatty fish in addition to in nuts and seeds, can cause dry skin, memory problems, mood swings and depression, heart problems and circulation issues. Vitamin B-12 isn't found naturally in any plant foods; deficiency symptoms include cognitive problems, fatigue and weakness. Vegans are more at risk of deficiencies, given the strictness of their diets.
Eating Too Many Processed Foods
If you don't plan carefully, your vegetarian diet may be unhealthy. Even vegans, who eat no animal products, can still binge on sugary foods and refined grains. Lacto-ovo vegetarians, who eat eggs and dairy, have access to even more processed foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt. Vegan foods such as mock meat and cheese and veggie burgers can be high in sodium and fat. Eating too much sugar, fat and sodium can lead to numerous health problems, including weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and heart failure, whether you're a vegetarian or a meat eater.
Not Eating Enough
Plant foods tend to contain more water and fiber and fewer calories per gram than animal foods. If you cut out some or all animal foods from your diet, you may find yourself feeling hungry all the time because the energy density of your new diet is lower. Not eating enough calories can also cause fatigue because calories are energy for your body. If you're not getting enough calories, it's also likely you're not getting adequate amounts of the essential nutrients.
Doing It Right
Work with your doctor or a nutritionist to develop a nutritionally complete vegetarian or vegan diet. Gather healthy recipes that are easy to make so that you always have a nutritious meal option at the ready and don't have to resort to eating processed foods. Eat enough calories to support your activity level, and choose from a variety of plant foods to make sure you get adequate amounts of the essential nutrients. If you're a vegan, ask your doctor about any supplements, such as vitamin B-12, that might be necessary.