Can the Vegetarian Diet Be Healthy?

By Meghan Anderson Thomas, MS

I constantly hear:

Omnivores: “Vegetarians just don’t look healthy.”
Vegetarians: “ Meat just isn’t good for you.” Or “I feel so much better when I’m not eating it”

So who has it right? Can they both be right and wrong at the same time? I think the answer lies in the motivations behind the eater. The omnivore may have a point because vegetarianism, like all other diets, has the capacity to be unhealthy.

Essentially, vegetarianism, pescetarianism, veganism, etc. are elimination diets. Like any elimination diet, they have the potential to lack vital nutrients including certain vitamins that are predominately found in animal products. According to Sabate, vegetarian diets when compared to meat-based diets are more likely to be deficient in vital nutrients(1). Similarly, when omnivores (typical American diet) obtain the abundance of their calories from meat and dairy they have less room for the fruit and vegetables that provide them with the other nutrients vegetarians so easily acquire. Moreover, studies show that the increased risk of cancer and heart disease in meat-based diets may be related to a deficiency in the phytochemicals and other compounds found in plant-based foods, not just the intake of saturated fats and excess calories(2).

Again, the problem lies in the motivation. Vegetarians and omnivores alike that eat for health are much more likely to eat properly. The choice of becoming a vegetarian for health reasons alone may lead the vegetarian in question to a more healthful diet in which they are cognizant of variety and balance. That being said, there are plenty of vegetarians that may be doing it for the wrong reasons or are, like most, uneducated in making the proper nutritional decisions.

The observation that vegetarians are unhealthy may actually be evident. Most will argue that they have been deficient in iron, zinc, calcium and B vitamins since they have eliminated animal products, leading to anemia(2). Not to mention that most vegetarians are women who are prone to anemia due to menstruation. The fatigue that follows leads to the snowball effect of fatigue, decreased exercise and depression. The point is, diet has a strong influence on health and well-being and it is dangerously easy to eat incorrectly, even if one’s intentions may be pure. This is seen in all “types” of eaters alike.

It is important to remember that as a vegetarian, the elimination of a steak may reduce your risk for heart disease, hypertension, atherosclerosis, hyperlipidemia, etc., but it is not a free pass to eat all the junk food you can to make up for it. The elimination of meat alone is not the ticket to health. Instead, it seems to be a correlation: the vegetarians motivated by health are also more likely to be cognizant enough to eat right all of the time. Furthermore, Sabate illustrates that the vegetarian diet is viewed as improving health and limiting disease when compared to the meat-based diet(1).

1. Sabate, J. (2003). The contribution of vegetarian diets to health and disease: a paradigm shift? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78 (3), 502S-507S.
2. Nieman, D. C. (1999). Physical fitness and vegetarian diets: is there a relation? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 70 (3), 570S-575S.

Protein Complementation

By: Laura S.

I am currently training for my second marathon in my adult life, and while the aches and pains feel the same as last year, and as the mileage starts to creep up it feels like deja vu- one minor detail has changed: this year I am running the marathon as a vegetarian.

Vegetarian endurance athletes have become quite a trend in the last couple of years. Some noteworthy endurance athletes include Brendon Brazier (vegan ironman), Rich Roll (vegan ultra ironman), Robert Cheeke (vegan body builder), and Michael Arnstein (fruitarian ultra runner); just to name a few.

Giving up meat during this marathon training means I will be missing out on complete proteins and key amino acids from my diet. These amino acids are also called limiting amino acids and they are: lysine, threonine, methionine, and tryptophan. Limiting amino acids are found in the shortest supply from incomplete proteins. Incomplete proteins are those found in plant food sources and geletin.

The most frequently asked question I get asked when becoming a vegetarian involved getting enough protein. While I do not eat meat, fish, or dairy (except for yogurt) I get plenty of protein in my diet by using protein complementation.

Protein complementation is the most efficient way to get all 9 amino acids into a vegetarian’s diet. Protein complementation is when you combine two vegetable proteins (legumes and grains for an example) to get all 9 amino acids that are essential for your body. The breakdown of protein complementation goes like this:


Food Limited Amino Acid Complement
Beans Methionie Grains, nuts, seeds
Grains Lysine, threonine Legumes
Nuts/seeds Lysine Legumes
Vegetables Methionine Grains, nuts, seeds
Corn Tryptophan, lysine Legumes

By combining vegetarian protein sources you can ensure that you are getting all 9 amino acids. Protein complementation does not have to be done at the same meal. If you ate beans for lunch and then had some raw almonds for a snack later, you would be adding the methionine that you had missed out on during lunch.

A vegetarian diet, if planned correctly, can provide you with all of the vitamins, minerals, and amino acids the body needs.