When Gregory Stacey went vegetarian three years ago, his primary motives were moral and ethical.

“First I just stopped eating meat, then I eventually cut out eggs and dairy,” Stacey said. “This forced me to learn new recipes and try new dishes. Vegetarians and vegans tend to eat a wider variety of foods than meat eaters.”

As a registered dietitian at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital, Stacey also hopes to reap the long-term benefits of a vegetarian diet.

What makes it so healthy?

A vegetarian diet includes less saturated fat, cholesterol and animal protein than other eating plans. And it includes more complex carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, folic acid and vitamins C and E, according to the National Institutes of Health.

There’s scientific evidence that a vegetarian diet:

  1. Fights obesity and being overweight. A vegetarian diet can help you lose weight because plant-based foods are full of fiber, which means you’ll feel satisfied more quickly and get more nutrients in fewer calories. Vegetarian diets are usually low in fat, too, which helps you lose weight and keep it off. (Be sure to make smart choices: Pasta, bread and sweets may get the vegetarian green light, but they should be eaten in moderation.)
  2. Helps prevent cancer. People who don’t eat meat have dramatically lower cases of cancer of the colon, breast, ovaries and prostate. Vegetarian diets (and not smoking) may be why there are fewer cases of cancer among Seventh-Day Adventists. Adding lots of veggies to your diet increases fiber, vitamins and phytochemicals to help prevent cancer.
  3. Fights heart disease. High LDL (bad cholesterol) is directly linked to heart disease, and animal products like meat, eggs and dairy products are the main sources of saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet. The American Heart Association recommends eating a variety of foods and limiting red meat. In fact, a recent study shows you may reduce your risk of heart disease by 20 percent with a diet that’s mostly plant-based.
  4. Lowers blood pressure and helps prevent stroke. Cutting out meat and dairy products may lower your blood pressure—sometimes in just two weeks. The exact reason is unknown, but it seems that eliminating meat, dairy and other fats may make your blood move more freely through your veins. The potassium found in vegetables and fruits may also have a lowering effect on your blood pressure.
  5. Controls diabetes. A study published by the journal Diabetes Care noted that very few people with vegetarian diets have diabetes. In fact, researchers had people with type 2 diabetes try a low-fat, vegetarian diet for 12 weeks, and their serum glucose concentration dropped 28 percent. When combined with regular exercise, a low-fat, high-fiber diet with complex carbohydrates helps to regulate glucose levels.
  6. Prevents kidney stones and gallstones. There’s a link between high-protein diets and kidney stones and gallstones. By switching to a vegetarian diet, some people can reduce their likelihood of forming kidney stones and gallstones.
  7. Lowers risk of osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is less common in nations where diets consist primarily of vegetables. That may be because animal products leach calcium out of the body. Eating healthy is the key: You can get all the calcium you need from dry beans, tofu, soy milk and dark green vegetables like broccoli, kale, turnip greens and collards.
  8. Reduces asthma problems. A study published by the National Institutes of Health reported that asthma sufferers were able to reduce or eliminate their medications when following a vegan diet.
  9. Delays dementia. Eating a vegetarian diet may delay the onset of dementia, according to a study published by the National Institutes of Health.
  10. Reduces diverticular disease. People who have a vegetarian diet were 30 percent less likely to develop diverticulitis than those who eat meat. That’s because the extra fiber helps to clean the colon thoroughly.

Not all vegetarian diets are created equal

In general, a vegetarian is defined as a person who doesn’t eat meat, poultry or fish. Instead their diet includes mostly fruit and vegetables along with legumes, grains, seeds and nuts. There are several approaches:

  • Vegans, also called total vegetarians, exclude all animal products including eggs, milk, cheese, and perhaps even honey.
  • Lacto vegetarians will include dairy products in their diet.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians will eat dairy products and eggs.
  • Pescatarians will eat fish.
  • Flexitarians, also called semi-vegetarians, may eat meat once a week or less.

The key to success is adopting a healthy diet with nutrient-rich foods.

For example, you could eat 100 calories of broccoli or 100 calories of Oreos. Although both are vegetarian foods, the broccoli is the hands-down winner in nutrition. There are plenty of unhealthy, processed vegetarian foods to choose from including French fries, potato chips and Swedish fish.

“Becoming vegetarian doesn’t just mean eliminating meat from your diet,” Stacey said. “If you’re thinking about becoming a vegetarian, take time to learn about vegetarian nutrition so your diet is balanced and adequate. Then make the choice that’s right for you.”