Mortality in vegetarians, according to a meta-study from 2012, was 9% lower than in nonvegetarians
. And according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a vegetarian diet lowers risks of heart disease, cancer and diabetes
But simply being a vegetarian or vegan doesn't guarantee these results, because it's possible to abstain from meat or dairy and still live an unhealthy lifestyle. In fact, it can be quite common.
I was one of those unhealthy vegetarians who eliminated meat but replaced vegetables with all varieties of potatoes: French fries, chips, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, sweet potatoes. My fruits were "fruit snacks." My meat became chemically processed veggie meat.
My "aha" moment came when I was driving through Georgia one fall day and saw cows grazing in a field. I laughed because the animals I ate were all vegetarians. One of the reasons we are able to get quality nutrients from cows, chickens and turkeys is because their diet consists of grass, grains, corn and fruits. I realized what my diet was missing.
"Many vegetarians and vegans make the mistake of eliminating but not correctly replacing," said Dr. Brandi Jouett-Patrickson, an internal medicine doctor with Piedmont Physicians Group.
Here are the most important ways to ensure that your vegetarian lifestyle doesn't start as poorly as mine did.
Eat the rainbow
The US Department of Agriculture recommends filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal. This can be even more crucial for a vegetarian, given that meat often provides nutrients, particularly iron and vitamin B12.
"Each meal should have an array of fresh colors," Jouett-Patrickson said.
Eating green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and kale can help head off iron deficiency. Vegetarians can avoid B12 deficiency by eating dairy, but Jouett-Patrickson suggests that vegans use a B12 vitamin or fortified foods such as plant milks, soy products and some breakfast cereals.
Beware of processed food
Beginner vegetarians often eat a lot of processed foods, such as veggie meat, French fries, frozen pizza, instant oatmeal, instant ramen noodles, pastries. A recent study in the British Medical Journey suggests a link between highly processed foods and cancer
One way to get a sense of how processed a particular food is to read the ingredients. If you see numerous preservatives, colorants and unfamiliar words, be wary. The general rule should be the simpler, the better.