Do Vegetarians eat Healthier?

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Sometimes vegetarians are criticized for not "eating healthier" than omnivores. Often the argument is made that just because one cuts out meat, that it does not mean they are eating healthier. But what does the scientific data suggest about the general eating patterns of vegetarians as compared to their meat-eating counterparts? Well, one study suggests that vegetarians, and particularly vegans, in many respects eat an overall healthier diet than others.  
 

Study citation: Orlich, M et al. Patterns of food consumption among vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Br J Nutr. 2014 November ; 112 (10): 1644 - 1653. doc: 10.1017/S0007114514002611X


Scientists analyzed data from the Adventist Health Study 2 cohort (AHS-2). The AHS-2 involved about 96000 Seventh-day Adventist men and women living in the USA and Canada between 2002 and 2007. They compared the eating patterns and nutritional profile of Adventist non-vegetarians, pescatarians, semi-vegetarians, lacto-ovo vegetarians and vegans. 

 

Were vegetarians eating healthier than non-vegetarians? 

The answer is a resounding "yes." Researchers found that vegetarians consumed significantly more healthier foods compared to non-vegetarians. These food categories include:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • avocados
  • non-fried potatoes
  • grains
  • legumes
  • soy foods
  • nuts/seeds
  • leafy greens
  • citrus fruits
  • berries
  • other fruits
  • cruciferous vegetables
  • onions
  • legumes
  • sweet potatoes
  • mixed grains
  • liquid fats
  • water

     

And vegetarians also consumed less amounts of foods generally associated with poor health, including: 

  • meat
  • dairy products
  • eggs
  • sweets
  • snack foods
  • fried potatoes
  • refined grains
  • processed red meat
  • cheeses
  • butter
  • solid fats
  • salad dressings
  • coffee
  • soda
  • meal replacement drinks
  • alcoholic beverages
  • hot cocoa

 

 

Were there differences amongst the different types of vegetarians? 

The answer is "yes." The study authors found that vegans consumed higher amounts of healthier foods and lower amounts of unhealthy foods compared to even their vegetarian counterparts. 

For example, below are percentage differences of the various vegetarian sub-types as compared to non-vegetarians. It is clear that vegans in this particular cohort generally eat healthier than other vegetarians:



Berries

  • Semi-vegetarians = 20% higher
  • pesco-vegetarians = 42% higher
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 36% higher
  • vegans = 75% higher

 

Other fruits: 

  • Semi-vegetarians = 12% higher
  • pesco-vegetarians = 32% higher
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 15% higher
  • vegans = 55% higher

 

Leafy greens:

  • Semi-vegetarians = 3% higher
  • pesco-vegetarians = 28% higher
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 6% higher
  • vegans = 39% higher

 

Cruciferous vegetables 

  • Semi-vegetarians = 2% higher
  • pesco-vegetarians = 24% higher
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 6% higher
  • vegans = 51% higher

 

Other vegetables: 

  • Semi-vegetarians = 2% higher
  • pesco-vegetarians = 28% higher
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 6% higher
  • vegans = 44% higher

 

Whole grains: 

  • Semi-vegetarians = 25% higher
  • pesco-vegetarians = 33% higher
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 36% higher
  • vegans = 85% higher

 

Legumes: 

  • Semi-vegetarians = 25% higher
  • pesco-vegetarians = 43% higher
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 40% higher
  • vegans = 61% higher

 

Tree nuts: 

  • Semi-vegetarians = 36% higher
  • pesco-vegetarians = 56% higher
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 71% higher
  • vegans = 152% higher

 

Fried potatoes: 

  • Semi-vegetarians = 21% lower
  • pesco-vegetarians = 40% lower
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 31% lower
  • vegans = 55% lower

 

Refined grains: 

  • Semi-vegetarians = 16% lower
  • pesco-vegetarians = 15% lower
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 21% lower
  • vegans = 40% lower

 

Cheese: 

  • Semi-vegetarians = 0% lower
  • pesco-vegetarians = 31% lower
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 17% lower
  • vegans = 95% lower

 

Eggs: 

  • Semi-vegetarians = 25% lower
  • pesco-vegetarians = 41% lower
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 46% lower
  • vegans = Do not consume

 

Butter: 

  • Semi-vegetarians = 25% lower
  • pesco-vegetarians = 41% lower
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 51% lower
  • vegans = 98% lower

 

Solid fats: 

  • Semi-vegetarians = 1% lower
  • pesco-vegetarians = 27% lower
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 9% lower
  • vegans = 62% lower

 

Salad dressings: 

  • Semi-vegetarians = 6% lower
  • pesco-vegetarians = 20% lower
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 11% lower
  • vegans = 60% lower

 

Snack foods: 

  • Semi-vegetarians = 1% higher
  • pesco-vegetarians = 21% lower
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 3% lower
  • vegans = 13% lower

 

Coffee: 

  • Semi-vegetarians = 26% lower
  • pesco-vegetarians = 62% lower
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 73% lower
  • vegans = 93% lower

 

Soda: 

  • Semi-vegetarians = 33% lower
  • pesco-vegetarians = 70% lower
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 63% lower
  • vegans = 93% lower

 

Alcoholic beverages: 

  • Semi-vegetarians = 60% lower
  • pesco-vegetarians = 73% lower
  • lacto-ovo vegetarians = 88% lower
  • vegans = 98% lower

 

 

Conclusion

The Adventist Health studies have demonstrated that the more plant-based one eats, the greater the health benefits one derives. This study demonstrates that likely, the health enhancing effect of a plant-based diet goes beyond merely giving up animal foods. It appears that the decision to eat more plant-based usually means higher consumption of healthier foods and lower consumption of unhealthy foods. 

 

To read the full paper, click here

George Cho