Food from plants only
A vegetarian is, in simplest terms, someone who eats only food that comes from plants, abstaining from the consumption of meat and animal byproducts. A vegetarian diet will include fruits and vegetables as well as grains and nuts. There are a number of reasons why people choose to become vegetarians. Some follow vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diets for health reasons. For instance, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and grains tends to be low in fat and cholesterol, which is good for your heart. It’s also likely to be high in fiber and can be lower in calories. Concern for animals and environmental reasons are also cited by vegetarians when they explain why they don’t eat meat. In addition, some cultures and religions have vegetarian diets. According to a 2016 national poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group, three percent of Americans maintain a vegetarian lifestyle while 37 percent will eat a vegetarian meal at least once a week.
There are different levels of vegetarian diets. An ovo vegetarian is one that eats egg products but doesn’t eat meat, fish, fowl or dairy products. Vegetarians who eat both dairy and eggs are called lacto-ovo vegetarians. Lacto-vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish, poultry and eggs, as well as foods that contain them. Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, yogurt and butter, are included. Pollotarians are vegetarians whose diet excludes meat, dairy and fish but includes poultry. Some people follow a semi-vegetarian diet, also called a flexitarian diet, which is primarily a plant-based diet but includes meat, dairy, eggs, poultry and fish on occasion or in small quantities. And then there are some vegetarians who eat fish but not meat or poultry. They’re called pescatarians, pesce is Italian for fish. Vegans are the strictest of vegetarians. Not only do they not eat meat or any animal products, like eggs or honey, they don’t use products like leather or wool.
All the nutrients
Diet experts generally agree that vegetarians can get all of the nutrients the human body needs from a wide variety of foods. For example, dark green vegetables like turnip and collard greens, kale and broccoli are good sources of calcium. Iron and zinc are crucial to your body’s health. Dried beans and peas, lentils, enriched cereals, whole-grain products, dark leafy green vegetables and dried fruit are good sources of iron. Eating these foods along with a food high in vitamin C, like citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, and broccoli, will help you to absorb the iron better. Like iron, zinc is not as easily absorbed from plant sources as it is from animal products. Plant sources of zinc include whole grains, soy products, legumes, nuts and wheat germ. Some vegetarians take dietary supplements to make sure they’re getting everything they need. It’s a good idea to talk to a registered dietitian or other health professional if you’re a vegetarian or thinking of becoming one.
The answer is “maybe”
Can becoming a vegetarian protect you against major diseases? The answer is “maybe.” Research has shown that eating lots of fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of developing certain cancers. Cutting out red meat is one way to reduce the risk factor for getting colon cancer. But it’s not clear whether avoiding all animal products reduces the risk further. Compared with meat eaters, vegetarians tend to consume less saturated fat and cholesterol and more vitamins and dietary fiber. As a result, they have lower blood pressure and a lower body mass index, reducing their risk for many chronic diseases. Research studies involving Seventh-Day Adventists, a religious group of which about 40 percent are vegetarians, found that vegetarians’ risk of developing diabetes was half that of non-vegetarians. There’s also some evidence that vegetarians have a lower risk for cardiac events, such as a heart attack, and death from cardiac causes.
A slow transition
If you’re considering adopting a vegetarian lifestyle but not sure that you want to give up meat altogether, maybe a slow transition is the solution. First, start by increasing the number of meatless meals that you already enjoy, such as spaghetti with tomato sauce or vegetable stir fry. Look for ways to include greens, such as spinach, kale and collards, in your daily meals. Next, take some of your favorite recipes and try them without meat. For example, make vegetarian chili by leaving out the ground beef and adding an extra can of black beans. Or make fajitas using extra-firm tofu rather than chicken. You may be surprised to find that many dishes require only simple substitutions. And then scan the Internet for vegetarian menus. Buy or borrow vegetarian cookbooks. Check out ethnic restaurants to sample new vegetarian cuisines. The more variety you bring to your vegetarian diet, the more likely you’ll be to meet all your nutritional needs.
Trusted by thousands of listeners every week, T. Glenn Pait, M.D., began offering expert advice as the host of UAMS’ “Here’s to Your Health” program in 1996. Dr. Pait began working at UAMS in 1994 and has been practicing medicine for over 20 years.