There are hard-core vegetarians, of course, but many of the folks I know who call themselves vegetarians eat chicken, fish, dairy and eggs. They tend to eschew red meat, and are more correctly diagnosed, even if they don’t know the term, as pro-vegetarians. A pro-vegetarian diet doesn’t make recommendations about eating or avoiding specific items, but generally increases the proportion of plant-based foods relative to animal-based foods.
It may not satisfy the purist, but pro-vegetarianism, which nods in the direction of the Mediterranean diet, is good enough to offer health benefits over and above the awful diet currently consumed by most Western people, and it has been shown to offer significant protection against heart disease and stroke.
In a paper that was presented at the American Heart Association EPI/Lifestyle 2015 meeting in Baltimore (Lassale ’15), a team out of Imperial College London presented their analysis of the eating habits and health of 451,256 Europeans, part of an even larger study called the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study which started in 1992.
The subjects, who were free of chronic diseases at the start of the study, 35 to 70 years, were monitored for an average of 12 years. People who ate the most pro-vegetarian style diets (more than 70 percent of food coming from plant sources) had a 20% lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and stroke than those who were the least pro-vegetarian (less than 45 percent of food from plant sources). This is in line with previous studies; the pro-vegetarian diet had previously been shown to reduce the risk of developing metabolic syndrome, the precursor to Type 2 diabetes, by a similar amount (Pimenta et al ‘14).
The pro-vegetarian diet is not as protective as a full-on traditional Mediterannean diet, which reduces risk by about 50% (Georgousopoulou et al ‘15), and it is not nearly as protective as the mid-Victorian diet, which reduces risk by approximately 90% (Clayton & Rowbotham ‘08), but it is more easily achievable. Simply substituting vegetables for meat a few times each week is an easy step to take, and it could be a stepping-stone to even better eating habits.
Clayton P, Rowbotham J. How the mid-Victorians worked, ate and died. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2009 Mar;6(3):1235-53.
Georgousopoulou E, et al. Adherence to Mediterranean is the Most Important Protector Against the Development of Fatal and Non-Fatal Cardiovascular Event: 10-Year Follow-up (2002-12) Of the Attica Study. Presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 64th Annual Scientific Session, San Diego, March 2105
Lassale C. American Heart Association EPI/Lifestyle 2015, Session MP24
Pimenta AM, Toledo E, Rodriguez-Diez MC, Gea A, Lopez-Iracheta R, Shivappa N, Hébert JR, Martinez-Gonzalez MA. Dietary indexes, food patterns and incidence of metabolic syndrome in a Mediterranean cohort: The SUN project. Clin Nutr. 2014 Jun 16. pii: S0261-5614(14)00166-6.