What to know about the vegetarian diet
It is not necessary to eat meat to get all the nutrients needed for good health. A person who chooses not to eat meat may enjoy better health, because they will eat more plant-based foods, and because they may be more active in making healthy choices.
Around 5 percent of people in the United States describe themselves as vegetarian.
This article will focus on lacto-ovo-vegetarians, people who do not consume meat, fish and related products, but who do eat eggs, dairy products, and honey.
This is part of series of articles about the nine most popular diets today.
There are different types of vegetarian, but the common thread is a diet that focuses on plant-based food.
A vegetarian diet can provide a wide variety of healthful, nutritious foods.
Different types of vegetarian eat different things.
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarians avoid the flesh of all animals, both meat and fish
- Pescatarians eat fish but no meat
- Lacto-vegetarians consume dairy products but no eggs
- Ovo-vegetarians consume eggs but no dairy
- Vegans avoid all animal-based foods, including honey
Some people call themselves "semi-vegetarian," but most vegetarian and vegan societies do not accept this term.
A vegetarian needs to make careful choices about their diet, and to eat a wide variety of foods to ensure that they meet their nutritional requirements. Some vegans may need to take supplements.
Apart from health considerations, people become vegetarian for a range of reasons. Producing vegetarian food is more ecologically sustainable, and it reduces damage to the environment. Many people stop eating meat for ideological, ethical, or religious reasons.
But often, the focus is on health. Here are some ways in which avoiding meat products can enhance a person's health.
Healthier cholesterol levels: Scientists have shown that one specific vegetarian diet can lower cholesterol almost as well as treatment with medication. Levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), the "bad" cholesterol that causes clogging in coronary arteries, fell by almost 30 percent in participants who followed the diet. This was only slightly lower than those who used lovastatin alongside their usual diet.
The diet consisted of almonds, soy proteins, high-fiber foods such as oats and barley, and a special margarine with plant sterols, found in leafy green vegetables and vegetable oils.
Lower risk of developing cancer: Research shows that, overall, vegetarians have a lower risk of many different types of cancer, compared with meat eaters. However, the same study found a higher incidence of colon cancer among vegetarians.
Vegetarian food tends to be lower in fat, especially saturated fats, and higher in fiber, than animal-based foods.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics notes that a vegetarian diet can benefit people of all ages:
"Appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes."
However, these benefits will not immediately follow a decision to stop eating meat. Like any diet, a vegetarian diet should be part of an overall healthy lifestyle, which includes exercise and excludes unhealthy choices, such as smoking and drinking excess alcohol.
Becoming a vegetarian
The amount of people between the ages of 8 and 18 years in the U.S. that have chosen a vegetarian diet is around 3 percent.
Parents of vegetarian children should ensure their diet contains all of the key nutrients.
Those who choose to become vegetarian include children and teenagers. Figures suggest that 3 percent of Americans aged 8 to 18 years are vegetarian.
Anyone who is deciding to become a vegetarian needs to educate themselves to ensure they continue to get their key nutrients. Parents of vegetarian children must make sure their child is not just omitting the meat served with the family meal, but getting their nutrients in other ways.
It is possible to become a vegetarian at once, but a gradual change may work better for two reasons:
- A gradual change is more likely to become a lifestyle and a long-term move
- A sudden dietary change can affect some people's digestive system at first. Changes to the gut microbiome may lead to temporary bloating, for example. It may also take longer for muscles to repair, without animal protein.
Gradually replacing meat with more vegetables, fruits, legumes, such as beans and lentils, and whole grains, may reduce this impact. Another idea is to start with familiar meat-free foods, such as macaroni cheese and salad, before changing to new recipes and ingredients.
The American Dietetic Association has these tips for people who want to stop eating meat:
Choose whole-grain products, such as whole-wheat bread, wild or brown rice, and whole-grain cereals
- Follow a varied diet, with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and so on.
- Use eggs and dairy products in moderation, if at all.
- Have a regular source of vitamin B12.
- Ensure a sufficient intake of vitamin D, especially if exposure to sunlight is low.
They also suggest reducing the intake of high-sugar and high-fat foods, especially transfats.
It is important to source nutrients including iron on a vegetarian diet, as these may be in short supply without animal products in the diet.
A vegetarian diet that is heavy on snacks and junk food can still be high in calories.
People who do not eat meat or fish may lack certain nutrients, especially if they are not consuming eggs or dairy products.
Nutrients that can be lacking include:
Good sources of iron are sea vegetables, such as nori, fortified breakfast cereals, legumes, such as beans and lentils, dried fruit, such as figs, and broccoli, among others. Consuming these with foods high in vitamin C, for example, citrus fruits or tomatoes, will help the body absorb the iron.
Milk and yogurt are important sources of calcium. Vegetarians who are avoiding dairy products can get calcium from tofu, fortified soy milk, green leafy vegetables, and dried figs.
It is particularly important for vegetarian children and teens to plan their nutrient intake, as their bodies are still developing. Calcium intake, for example, can affect bone health for the long term.
Fortified soy milk and breakfast cereals can help in the synthesis of vitamin D, but exposure to sunlight is also necessary.
According to Kid's Health, it is no longer considered essential to combine proteins in a meal to make a complete protein, as long as a healthy, balanced diet is maintained throughout the day. Sources of protein include eggs, milk, soy milk, nuts, nut butters, seeds, pulses, and cereals.
Vegans and vegetarians have a higher risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency compared with people who consume animal-based products. The human body cannot use the plant-based form of the vitamin. Fortified foods are recommended for those who do not consume eggs or dairy products, and a supplement may be necessary.
Dairy produce normally provides zinc, but fortified cereals, dried beans, nuts and soy products can make up for this. Zinc is an essential nutrient that plays a role in cell metabolism and immune function.
Becoming a vegetarian will not guarantee good health or a healthy diet. Anyone is at risk of poor health if they consume too many calories, unhealthy snack foods, too many refined carbohydrates, whole milk dairy products, and junk foods, whether meat-based or not.
Following the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines can help vegetarians maintain a balanced diet. The guidelines offer assistance for people with different calorie-intake targets.
Many vegetarian products are available for those who are busy or do not feel confident in their cooking skills, including ready meals, vegetarian burgers, and sausages. Most restaurants now offer vegetarian options.
However, people who cook their own food can be sure of the contents, and becoming a vegetarian may encourage people to learn new cooking skills.
Here are some ideas for meals and snacks without meat, suggested by dietitians:
The American Diabetes Association offers a number of ideas for main meals and breakfast and some recipes.
The American Heart Association (AHA) offers tips for going meatless, especially for people who would like to lower their cholesterol levels and decrease their risk of heart disease.
The earliest records of vegetarianism come from the sixth century B.C.E., in India, Greece and the Greek civilization in Southern Italy, and it stemmed from a desire not to harm animals.
Early traces of vegetarianism in Europe disappeared with the introduction of Christianity to the Roman Empire. Many orders of monks in medieval Europe either banned or limited meat consumption as a gesture of personal sacrifice or abstinence, but they ate fish.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, vegetarianism reappeared in Western society. As research continues to support the benefits of a vegetarian diet, more people could become vegetarian in the future.