The Vegetarian Diet

Compelling Reasons to Go Meatless

Since the second half of the last century, the vegetarian diet has grown in popularity with 2.5 percent of Americans now holding to an animal free diet. The reasons for the recent increase in interest are many and varied. Some people decide to follow a plant based diet for religious or ethical reasons. For some it is a matter of economics. Others are compelled to cut meat and animal based products from their diet for health reasons, such as weight loss, or concerns over the safety of animal products.

What Exactly Is a Vegetarian Diet?

A vegetarian diet is one that is free of most or all animal products. There are several different types of diets which can be categorized into the following groups:

  • Vegan diets consist strictly plant based foods. Vegans do not eat any flesh foods or animal products such as milk, eggs, or honey. (They also avoid using animal products such as fur, leather, silk and wool.)
  • Lacto-vegetarian diets consist of plant based foods and milk products, avoiding meats, poultry, eggs and fish.
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians consume plant based foods, milk and milk products as well as eggs. They avoid flesh foods that include fish, poultry, and meats.
  • Semi-vegetarians consume primarily plant based foods but will occasionally eat meat fish or poultry in limited quantities.  Sometimes this diet is referred to as “flexitarian.”

What Are the Advantages of a Plant Based Diet?

  • A vegetarian diet is considerably lower in saturated fats, high in good, unsaturated fats and antioxidants. This eating pattern has been associated with lower cholesterol levels, lower prevalence of high blood pressure and lower risk of developing heart disease or Type 2 diabetes
  • Many studies support a plant based diet to reduce the risks of many types of cancers
  • People who follow vegetarian diets tend to have lower Body Mass Indexes (BMIs) than people eating mixed diets, indicating that this eating pattern may offer an advantage in maintaining a healthier weight

Are There Any Concerns?

A vegetarian diet is more than simply eating plant based foods. Vegetarians must be diligent in making sure their meal plans include foods rich in the vitamins and nutrients they would get from animal based products. While it may take a committed effort, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans it is very possible to meet all of the nutritional requirements for a healthy diet on a vegetarian diet.

What Nutrients Should a Vegetarian Take Extra Care to Include?

The Mayo Clinic provides a list of nutrients in which some vegetarian meal plans may be deficient. They include:

  • Protein, which can be found in eggs, milk products, legumes, nuts, whole grains, tofu, and meat substitutes
  • Calcium, which can be found in milk and dark green vegetables such as broccoli. Many vegetarian products, such as tofu or soymilk, also may be calcium enriched.
  • Vitamin B-12 can be consumed in sufficient amounts by eating B-12 enriched products such as cereals and fortified soy products.  Nutritional yeast is an excellent source of Vitamin B12 as well.
  • Iron rich foods such as spinach and beans should be eaten with foods high in vitamin C, such as strawberries, citrus, and tomatoes to assure proper absorption.
  • Zinc can be found in whole grains, nuts, seeds and wheat germ.

Transitioning to a Vegetarian Diet

For some, switching to a meat-free diet is simple. For others, it takes some time to develop a meal plan that works for them or their family. There are many exciting and delicious meals that do not include meat, many of which you are likely already familiar with. Pasta dishes are an easy place to start. Many recipes you may already use could likely be easily adapted by either omitting the meat or using some form of meat substitute. If you are unsure where to start, arm yourself, and your kitchen with some great vegetarian cookbooks and start experimenting!

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