What does it mean to be vegetarian?

Many of my patients ask me if they should follow a vegetarian diet. They will tell me that they have heard meat is “bad” for them and many say to me, “I want to become a vegetarian because I’ve seen a documentary and I am appalled at the way animals are treated.” Following a vegetarian diet may be a great way to improve my patient’s lifestyle. However, I always dig a little deeper to find out what exactly my patient is hoping to accomplish by adopting this lifestyle. My goal is to help them follow a balanced and well- rounded diet, whether vegetarian or otherwise.

According to the popular website veganbits.com, only 2% of Americans are vegetarian. This was based on a sampling of 11,000 adults, aged 17 and over. And of that 2%, one-in-four vegetarians — or 0.5% of the USA adult population — is vegan (which would amount to around 1.62 million Americans). There are several different types of “vegetarian” diets:

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.
Ovo-vegetarian diets exclude: meat, poultry, seafood and dairy products, but allow eggs.
Lacto-ovo vegetarian diets exclude: meat, fish and poultry, but allow dairy products and eggs.
Pescatarian diets exclude: meat and poultry, dairy, and eggs, but allow fish.
Pollotarian diets exclude: meat, dairy and fish, but allow poultry.
Vegan diets exclude: meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products — and foods that contain these products.

My patients hoping to follow a vegetarian diet will first need to decide what level of diet they would like to follow. Some tell me they would like to eat less meat but don’t have a problem with dairy (lacto-ovo) while others are totally against consuming any type of food or beverage that comes from an animal. It is important to note that ALL vegetarian diets can provide the essential nutrients that will keep you healthy. But it is important to note that adopting a vegetarian lifestyle may take research, planning and education to achieve an overall balanced diet.

There are various nutrients that are plentiful in animal products, so one following a vegetarian diet will need to make sure that they are consuming a variety of nutrients from non-meat sources. The first nutrient is protein. It is a macronutrient essential in building new cells and for the growth and repair of damaged tissues. Non-meat sources of protein include legumes, lentils, meat substitutes, soy products, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Those opting to restrict dairy products will need to get enough calcium and vitamin D from plant-based sources. Calcium and vitamin D are essential for building and maintaining strong teeth and bones. Sources of both include: dark green vegetables (such as broccoli, kale, and spinach), and enriched tofu, rice or soymilk, soy yogurt, and fruit juices. Vegetarians need to include non-animal sources of vitamin B12 to ensure proper production of red blood cells and prevent anemia. Especially those following a vegan diet will need to include: enriched cereals, fortified soy products or get adequate supplementation. Iron helps carry oxygen to cells and is a crucial component to red blood cells. A few sources of iron are dried beans, peas, lentils, enriched cereals, whole grain products, and green leafy vegetables. Zinc is another important nutrient and is involved in the wound healing process. It is also vital for many enzyme reactions. Good sources of zinc are nuts, wheat germ, soy and green leafy vegetables.

I often hear people adapting a vegetarian lifestyle to improve their health. As I mentioned, research and education will need to be a part of the process. Many people are quick to swear off meat and dairy products, but then fill up on “vegetarian chicken tenders” and “veggie chips” and consume “non-dairy ice cream” to sustain themselves. I encourage anyone hoping to reduce consumption of animal products to meet with a registered dietitian. He or she can help you create a healthy meal plan that will fulfill all of your nutrient needs!

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