A panel of scientists and physicians from The American Council on Science and Health has concluded that the widely touted health benefits of vegetarianism are not necessarily due to the absence of meat. In a new report, ACSH health experts review scientific data on the possible health benefits of vegetarianism, explain how vegetarians can plan healthful diets, and discuss the suitability of vegetarian diets for people with special needs. Dr. Ruth Kava, ACSH Director of Nutrition, says: "The mere fact that a diet is meatless does not guarantee that it is healthful. And although eliminating meat is a way to reduce saturated fat and increase plant foods in the diet, it is not the only way. Balance, moderation, and variety are the keys to a healthy eating plan."
The essentials of reducing the risk of chronic diseases dietarily are: limiting quantities of high-fat foods; choosing lean red meats, skinless poultry, and low-fat or nonfat dairy products; and eating generous amounts of grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Vegetarians do not merely avoid eating meat; they also tend to make healthier lifestyle choices. Many are health conscious: They exercise regularly, maintain a desirable body weight, don't smoke, don't abuse illegal drugs and don't abuse alcohol.
Dr. Kava warns, "A vegetarian diet is not necessarily healthful and low in saturated fat." Vegetarian diets that include dairy products are usually nutritionally adequate, as long as good sources of bioavailable iron and zinc are included in the diet. But vegan diets (which don't include animal products) must be carefully planned to include vitamins B12 and D, and iron, zinc, and calcium. And people with increased nutritional needs such as children, adolescents, pregnant women, and people with medical problems should be very careful when following limited diets.
"Well-planned vegetarian diets can be healthful, but we cannot attribute any unique benefits to a meatless diet," says Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, ACSH President. "Lifestyle choices and dietary factors other than avoidance of meat are more relevant to good health."