Salad lovers are probably better off in the good karma stakes, but are vegetarians healthier than their carnivorous counterparts? We investigate the hard facts on being a vegetarian so you can be well informed when it comes to your food and health.

What is a vegetarian? 

Stupid question? Quite possibly. But let’s persevere: the basic definition is someone who doesn’t eat meat, poultry or fish. However, there are many versions of the diet. This ranges from vegans – who exclude all foods of animal origin – to pescatarians, who don’t eat meat or poultry but do eat eggs, dairy foods and fish. Most fall somewhere in between, apart from fruitarians who live (somehow) on fruit, nuts, honey and olive oil. The less said about them the better. Although we would like to see how they’d go if they were alone in a room with only a sizzling bacon for company…

Isn’t it just for women and Sting?

Around five per cent of Aussies are vegetarians – most of them women. It seems most men regard vegetarians with the same kind of suspicion they used to have for girl germs when they were seven. And male vegetarians are often held in the worst contempt. We don’t think that way, of course. We respect anyone who cares about their diet. And there are many motives for being vegetarian, including religious, economic and animal-cruelty concerns. All good.  What we really want to know is – is it a healthier option?

Are Vegos Healthier?

According to Chris Olivant, the former Head of Information and Customer Services at the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom who now works independently as a food ethics consultant, they are. “Simply by following a sensible varied vegetarian diet you’re on the way to cutting out much of the unwanted saturated fat in your diet. And piling on the performance-boosting extra antioxidants, complex carbohydrates and fibre found in fruit, vegetables and other vegetarian foods,” he says. “Research has shown vegetarians generally suffer less from obesity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, certain diet-related cancers, diverticular diease, gallstones and even appendicitis.” A US study published in the British Medical Journal showed an average man who embarks on a vegetarian diet will become 10 per cent leaner and 40 per cent less likely to develop cancer. Researchers from the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in the US showed that turning vego reversed 80 per cent of patients’ artery blockages.

The Caveats

Before your fill your fridge with Quorn and Tofurkey, bear in mind that many GPs advise against dropping dairy from your diet. It’s a source of essential protein, bone-building calcium, sperm-boosting zinc and vitamin B12, which produces healthy red blood cells (and is obtained only from animal sources or supplements). Of course, some scientists question the research that trumpets the health benefits of vegetarianism. They say many vegetarians are also less likely to smoke or drink too much. This means the findings could be skewed by many factors other than diet. To reap the benefits of a vego diet you need to ensure it’s as varied as possible. It’s no good simply having your normal diet without the meat. You need to replace the meat with other proteins, like tofu, beans, pulses or even cheese. Research your diet before you start. You don’t want to end up with no energy, nutritional deficiencies or a decline in sexual function. Those are the hallmarks of a low protein diet. 

Can Athletes Be Vego?

Nine-time Olympic Gold medallist Carl Lewis was a vegan in what he terms his “best year of track competition”. Former Aussie Olympic swimming legend Murray Rose also opted for a vego diet. This earned him the nickname “the Seaweed Streak”.  Race-car champ Peter Brock also switched to a meat- and dairy-free diet a third of the way into his career. But beware: if you play a lot of sport and you don’t eat meat, you need to make sure you get enough protein and iron to repair muscles.  And vitamin B12 to avoid anaemia. Giving up meat isn’t for everyone. But even if you don’t go the whole, um, hog, you can still take away a few positive dietary tips. And eating less fat and loading up on fruit and veg is certainly a good place to start.