Objective: To review the epidemiological evidence for vegetarian diets, low-meat dietary patterns and their association with health status in adults.
Design: Published literature review focusing primarily on prospective studies and meta-analyses examining the association between vegetarian diets and health outcomes.
Results: Both vegetarian diets and prudent diets allowing small amounts of red meat are associated with reduced risk of diseases, particularly CHD and type 2 diabetes. There is limited evidence of an association between vegetarian diets and cancer prevention. Evidence linking red meat intake, particularly processed meat, and increased risk of CHD, cancer and type 2 diabetes is convincing and provides indirect support for consumption of a plant-based diet.
Conclusions: The health benefits of vegetarian diets are not unique. Prudent plant-based dietary patterns which also allow small intakes of red meat, fish and dairy products have demonstrated significant improvements in health status as well. At this time an optimal dietary intake for health status is unknown. Plant-based diets contain a host of food and nutrients known to have independent health benefits. While vegetarian diets have not shown any adverse effects on health, restrictive and monotonous vegetarian diets may result in nutrient deficiencies with deleterious effects on health. For this reason, appropriate advice is important to ensure a vegetarian diet is nutritionally adequate especially for vulnerable groups.