There seems to be a general assumption that a vegetarian or vegan style of eating is a healthy one.
But is it true?
It may be so, but not always. It is true that by eating vegetarian food, one avoids consuming certain unhealthy elements, such as the saturated fats which are present naturally in meat, chicken and fish. One also avoids antibiotics and hormones which are present in meat and chicken due to what the animals themselves are fed. In addition one avoids toxins such as mercury, present in fish due to the pollution of the sea.
By eating a vegan diet, where eggs and dairy are also not consumed, it is true that one removes additional sources of saturated fat, antibiotics and hormones from the diet.
However, both vegetarian and vegan food can still contain unhealthy items such as fried food, processed food, white flour, white rice, refined oils, and large amounts of salt and sugar. A person living on fries or potato chips and soda can legitimately claim to be vegetarian or vegan, but such a diet will not be beneficial to their health.
The terms “vegetarian” and “vegan” both focus preferentially on what one is not eating.
Personally I prefer to speak about a whole food plant based diet. This definition focuses on what one actually is eating. The whole food plant based diet is based on vegetables, pulses (beans, peas and lentils), whole grains, fruits, and some seeds or nuts, and would contain as little as possible (or none) of the following: processed foods, refined oils, sugar, salt and so on. Such a diet would be healthy due to what it includes and also due to what it leaves out.
I truly admire those who avoid animal products for ethical reasons, or due to compassion. As a doctor, I wish to encourage those who define themselves as vegetarians or vegans to take the next step and to eat in a way that will also benefit their health. By adopting a whole food plant based diet, this aim can be achieved.