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Making the switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet, from the May, 2014 Harvard Women's Health Watch

Several million Americans have abandoned red meat and poultry in favor of a predominantly plant-based diet. One reason some are making the switch is evidence of the health perks from going vegetarian or vegan, reports the May 2014 Harvard Women's Health Watch.

"There's certainly some research on the benefits of the vegetarian diet," says Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. It can help lower or control weight, reduce the chances of developing heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and possibly lead to a longer, healthier life.

There are a variety of plant-based diets, named largely for what they include or exclude:

  • Semi-vegetarians includes meat and other animal-based foods. Many semi-vegetarians eat chicken and fish but not red meat.
  • Pescatarians avoid meat and poultry but still eat fish and seafood.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians skip meat, fish, and poultry but include dairy and eggs in their diet.
  • Vegans eat only food from plants. They don't consume any animal-based foods—not even eggs or dairy products.

While vegetarian and vegan diets are generally healthy, they can lack certain nutrients. People who follow these diets may have to use a little creativity to make sure they get enough protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin B12.

Vegetarians can find many of these nutrients in eggs and dairy, and vegans can get them from plant sources. But some people may need an added boost. "Because vitamin B12 is found only in animal sources, if you're a vegan you might consider taking a vitamin supplement," McManus says. Some vegetarians also take omega-3 fatty acid supplements. These can be made from fish or plants like flaxseeds.

Read the full-length article: "Is a vegetarian or vegan diet for you?"

Also in this issue of the Harvard Women's Health Watch

  • Is a vegetarian or vegan diet for you?
  • Ask the doctor: What can I do about bladder infections?
  • Ask the doctor: How can I treat mild depression?
  • Managing your blood pressure: What the new guidelines mean for you
  • Preparing for the future: How to have that difficult conversation
  • Taking the first steps for planning end-of-life conversations
  • Before you consider a joint replacement-what you need to know
  • What's hiding in your medicines?
  • New advice to help women lower their stroke risk
  • High blood pressure drugs linked to falls
  • Taking a daily aspirin might reduce ovarian cancer risk

More Harvard Health News »

About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.