While still a minority taste, vegetarianism is growing in popularity. There are plenty of health benefits to giving up meat, but we sometimes hear that it leads to various nutritional deficiencies. Is this really a serious problem?
First, the benefits of giving up meat are substantial. Because red meat and most kinds of processed meat products are high in saturated fat, eating them in large quantities is a risk factor for heart disease. Studies have also found a correlation between high red-meat consumption and several forms of cancer.
Weight control is another benefit of cutting back or eliminating meat. Animal-derived foods almost always contain a lot more calories than plant-based foods of similar nutritional value. Being overweight, of course, puts you at increased risk for a wide range of health problems.
So what about those supposed nutritional deficiencies? One of the most common claims is that only meat can easily provide enough protein, but this is simply untrue. Nuts, beans, whole grains, and many vegetables have plenty of protein. Soy products such as tofu, popular with some vegetarians as a meat substitute, are especially protein-rich.
Iron, too, is often cited as a problem. It’s true that red meat is a good source of iron, but given all the health problems associated with it, vegetarians are wise to look elsewhere. Several kinds of beans, seeds, and fruits are iron-rich. So is tofu.
We associate calcium with dairy products, which some vegetarians do consume. For those who do not, there are many vegetarian calcium sources, and a vegetarian diet actually slows loss of calcium from the body. There are cultures in which people consume hardly any dairy products, and these cultures don’t have high rates of calcium deficiencies.
Vitamin B-12 can only be naturally obtained from animal products. A few fortified non-meat foods with added B-12 are available; supplements are another option. Vitamin D is a similar case. Some mushrooms contain it, but the main non-meat source is sun exposure. For those who prefer to avoid the sun, there are supplements available.
In reality, the supposed deficiency problems of vegetarianism can easily be overcome with a little knowledge. You can have all the benefits of a balanced diet without the health risks posed by meat.