According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.
But what exactly is a vegetarian diet? What about the benefits of becoming a vegetarian and any potential risks? Learn all about becoming a vegetarian, including tips for success!
What Is a Vegetarian Diet?
A vegetarian diet is essentially an eating pattern comprised of wholesome, plant-based foods such as whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and devoid of meat and seafood.
But a diet for vegetarians is not exactly linear, as there are various levels of vegetarianism. In fact, there are various types of vegetarian diets, including the following:
• Lacto Vegetarian: Does not eat red or white meat, fish, or eggs, but will consume dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt.
• Ovo Vegetarian: Does not eat red or white meat, fish, or dairy products, but consumes egg products.
• Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Does not eat red or white meat, fish and shellfish, insects or animal flesh of any kind, but does consume dairy and egg products.
• Flexitarian: Also known as semi-vegetarians, flexitarians primarily consume a plant-based diet though will enjoy meat on occasion.
• Pollotarian: Does not consume red meat, fish, and other animal meats but chooses to eat chicken and other poultry.
• Pescatarian: Does not consume red or white meats but does eat fish and shellfish.
• Vegan: Goes without all animal products, even in the forms of honey, gelatin, wool, leather, and other animal by-product ingredients or products. Vegans typically do not use animal products such as silk, leather, and wool.
The reasons to become a vegetarian are diverse and include, but not limited to, weight loss, cultural inclinations, and environmental factors. But despite the motive for adopting a vegetarian diet, understanding the benefits, disadvantages, and risks is important for successfully following it long-term.
Vegetarian Benefits and Disadvantages
Health Benefits of A Vegetarian Diet
The benefits of vegetarian practices include:
A Healthier Eating Pattern
In a modernized diet, fat and cholesterol are abundant and plant-based nutrients often fall short. That being said, one of the greatest benefits of becoming a vegetarian is ensuring adequate nutrients that tend to be scarce, including dietary fiber, potassium, vitamin C, magnesium, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, or the beneficial compounds sourced from plants.
Reduces Chronic Diseases
A plant-based diet bursting with nutrients helps lower the risk of a number of chronic disease states, including obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
Boosts Mental Health
In addition to physical benefits, consuming plant-based foods, fruits and veggies in particular, boosts mental health. A study published in the British Medical Journal Open and based on Sax’s 45 and Up Study found people who consumed 3 to 4 servings of veggies per day reduced their risk of stress by 12 percent compared to those who ate 0 to 1 serving, while 5 to 7 servings of fruits and veggies lowered stress risk by 14 percent compared to others consuming 0 to 4 servings. Ultimately, the higher the consumption of fruits and veggies, the lower the rates of psychological stress.
According to a meta-analysis published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, increasing intake of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, (and fish), decreases the risk of all-cause mortality (death) while higher intakes of red and processed meats increases the likelihood of premature death.
Disadvantages and Risks of Following a Vegetarian Diet
Though the benefits of vegetarianism are undoubted and credited, there are risks deserving of recognition:
It is not too uncommon for individuals to gravitate towards a vegetarian diet with intent to lose weight. But what is often unrecognized is a plant-based diet can still inherit products laden of refined flour, sugar, and oil, including a bag of chips or sleeve of cookies. Regularly consuming such “vegetarian-friendly” foods can increase the risk of weight gain and negate the benefits of following a plant-based diet.
Whereas vegetarian diets source valuable nutrients from plants, cutting out meat, chicken, dairy, eggs, and fish can compromise other valuable nutrients. Without a well-planned, plant-based diets, there are worries of nutritional deficiency risks, including iron, vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Tips for (Successfully) Following A Vegetarian Diet
For whatever sparked the reason to become a vegetarian, it is important to properly educate oneself to ensure key nutrients are incorporated into a plant-based diet. A Registered Dietitian can likewise help guarantee nutritional needs are being met and recommend a multivitamin or supplement if warranted.
Nutrition experts also advise prospective followers of vegetarianism to start slow and gradually omit meat. Doing so prospers long-term success on a vegetarian diet while lowering the risk of gastrointestinal distress that may occur when abruptly changing dietary intake patterns.
Even if not going full vegetarian, the general population can benefit from reducing animal products and eating more plants. The tips below naturally incorporate plant-based sources:
• Rather than preparing scrambled eggs, give this tofu scramble a try to start your morning.
• Explore the produce aisle and select a fruit or veggie you have never tried.
• Swap out dairy milk with plant-based milks, including almond, soy, and cashew varieties.
• Use avocado in place of butter, including to top these avocado toast recipes.
• Determine how many servings of veggies you currently eat daily and aim to double it.
• Experiment with various plant-based proteins, including beans, chickpeas, tofu, peas, and lentils.
• Instead of topping salads with cheese and meat, add unsalted nuts for crunch and flavor.
• Pack vegetarian lunches a couple times a week, including hummus wraps, tofu and broccoli salad, vegetarian chili, barley lentil soup, and Mexican-style stuffed peppers.