The short answer is a resounding yes; it has been conclusively proven through extensive worldwide studies by independent, highly respected international health advisory boards that a vegetarian diet is significantly healthier than one which includes meat and animal products. This is true for all ages, infant to adult, and includes pregnant and lactating women.
Studies have found a direct statistical correlation between decreased meat intake and increased health benefits. The chances of developing chronic diseases including high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary heart disease, obesity, kidney failure, osteoporosis and cancer, is markedly decreased among vegetarians and vegans by as much as forty percent. Along with this favorable news, chances for longevity might increase by some twenty percent. Owing to these benefits, health insurance companies commonly offer discount rates to vegetarians and vegans.
For decades, a common public misconception was that a vegetarian diet lacked protein. The meat industry began a series of promotional commercials with slogans such as “meat is real food,” implying a vegetarian diet was somehow lacking. As more information came to light about the benefits of being vegetarian, the public misconception changed. It then became, vegetarians can get enough protein, but it isn’t easy, which is equally untrue. Not only is it easy to eat a balanced diet, the idea that it requires special effort whether vegetarian or vegan is highly overstated.
The concern is when the entire diet is limited to a few foods, as is the case in many third world countries where rice, for example, might be the only staple. In industrialized nations, however, where people eat a variety of foods on a daily basis, eating too much protein is likelier than eating too little, even for vegetarians and vegans.
The British Medical Association (BMA) was first to shed light on the many benefits of a vegetarian diet in a 1986 report. Based on a large volume of research, it concluded that vegetarians not only tend to have lower cholesterol, but also significantly reduced instances of coronary heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, certain types of cancers, gall stones and large intestine disorders.
Beginning in 1983, the China study, looked at 6,500 participants over the course of several years, documenting their dietary habits, lifestyles and health. This comprehensive study was a combined effort of the Chinese, United Kingdom and United States. The first results were made public in 1989, and were unequivocal. The less meat consumed, the lower the risk of developing common chronic diseases as noted above. The study also debunked the Western myth of promoting meat as a necessary source of iron. Among the largely vegetarian-based diets of the Chinese, the average vegetarian had twice the iron intake of the average U.S. citizen.
The highly respected World Health Organization (WHO) offered their own findings on vegetarian and vegan diets in a 1991 report. WHO not only confirmed the results of the BMA and the China study, but also found that meat and dairy-rich diets promote other diseases as well, including osteoporosis or low bone density, and kidney failure. WHO went so far as to predict the cancer crisis the world now faces, based on the meat-rich dietary trends of Western nations. The report candidly faulted governments for public Dietary Guidelines that promote meat and dairy as necessary foods, urging more vegetarian-based policies where animal products are relegated to optional status.
Another organization to weigh in on the matter of vegetarian and vegan diets was the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). This group consists of some 5,000 U.S. doctors, including the editor for The American Journal of Cardiology, William Roberts. Criticized by some as biased for their humane ethics, the PCRM reviewed over 100 published studies from around the world. It confirmed that significantly lower disease rates are directly linked to vegetarian and vegan diets. In their 1995 report, the PCRM urged the U.S. government to update dietary policies to reflect these findings. In 1996, government policies addressed this for the first time, stating that a vegetarian diet is healthy, meets Recommended Daily Allowances, and does not lack protein.
About the same time as the previous studies were being conducted, The Oxford study was underway. Gathering data over a period that spanned an excess of 13 years and involved over 11,000 people, it not only confirmed lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other diseases among vegetarians, but also found a 20% decrease in premature mortality rates. Simply put, if you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, you have a 20% better chance of living longer than if you eat meat, according to the study.
The positive findings of vegetarian and vegan diets are also echoed by the American Dietetic Association (ADA), which ranks among the list of proponents. The ADA is one of the most highly respected advisory boards worldwide.
Criticisms have been leveled in some cases as to how data was interpreted, or the politics of those supporting it. However, until such criticisms are backed by redundant, solid, peer-reviewed research that causes organizations like the ADA, BMA, and WHO to reverse their positions, one might assign detractors' sour grapes. For over two decades the body of worldwide medical evidence supporting vegetarian and vegan diets has been growing, is overwhelming, and to date, is indisputable.
Supported by the most highly respected health organizations in the world, the average citizen with no bone to pick either way can assuredly take it to heart that a meat-free diet is not only healthier, but the benefits are statistically significant, if not profoundly beneficial. If interested in transitioning to a vegetarian or vegan diet, see What is the Easiest Way to Switch to a Vegetarian Diet?”