Today, six to eight million adults in the United States eat no meat, fish, or poultry, according to a Harris Interactive poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group. About two million have become vegan.
People are vegetarians for many reasons, including concern for personal health and environment economic and world hunger concerns, compassion for animals, belief in nonviolence, food preferences, or spiritual reasons.
What is a Vegan?
The American Dietetic Association (ADA) classifies vegetarians in the following ways:
- Vegans or total vegetarians exclude all animal products (e.g. meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, and other dairy products). Many vegans also do not eat honey.
- Lactovegetarians exclude meat, poultry, fish, and eggs but include dairy products.
- Lacto-ovovegetarians exclude meat, poultry, and fish but include dairy products and eggs. Most vegetarians in the US are lacto-ovovegetarians.
The majority of the vegetarian/vegan diet is fruit, vegetables, legumes, grains, seeds, and nuts. Many vegetarians eat eggs and/or dairy products but avoid hidden animal products such as beef or chicken stocks, lard, and gelatin.
What are the Health Benefits?
There are many researched health benefits to a vegetarian or vegan diet. A scholarly journal, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, found vegetarians to have a lower mean BMI, lower cholesterol, and a 25% reduction in heart disease. The increased fiber helps prevent other diseases like diverticulitis. According to the American Dietetic Association, vegetarians are at lower risk for developing colorectal, ovarian, and breast cancers, as well.
Do Vegetarians Get Proper Nutrition?
The key to any healthy diet is to choose a wide variety of foods, and to consume enough calories to meet your energy needs. Be especially aware of intakes of protein, calcium, vitamin D, iron, and vitamin B-12. Some vegans may have intakes of zinc and riboflavin that are lower than recommended. There are plenty of food choices to ensure the proper amounts of these vitamins and minerals, however supplements could be considered.
What is the Healthiest Way to Become a Vegetarian?
Whether you go “cold turkey” or take a more gradual approach to shifting your diet, the ADA suggests the following tips for following a vegetarian diet:
- Choose whole-grain products (e.g. whole wheat bread, brown rice, or whole-grain cereals instead of refined or white grains.
- Eat a wide variety of foods.
- If you eat dairy products, choose non-fat or low-fat varieties.
- Use eggs in moderation.
- Limit intake of sweets and high fat foods.
- Use a regular source of vitamin B-12, and if sunlight exposure is limited, of vitamin D..
- Many vegetarian foods can be found in any grocery store. Specialty food stores may carry some of the more uncommon items, as well as many vegetarian convenience foods.
Only you can decide what diet is right for you, and everyone can at least ensure plenty of fruit and vegetables eaten every day. Check out our recipe page for fun, creative ways to incorporate more vegetables in your diet!