Over seven million Americans are considered vegetarian, consumers of only vegetables, fruit, nuts, grains, and legumes. For the most part, plant-based diets exclude any part of any animal and products derived from animal carcasses (such as lard, tallow, gelatin, and cochineal). People choose a plant-based diet for many reasons and may move among different kinds of vegetarian philosophies over the course of their lifetime.
The other branches of mainly plant-based or vegetarian diets are:
Lacto-vegetarian – Lacto vegetarians do not eat meat or eggs but do consume dairy products. Most vegetarians in India are lacto-vegetarian. Ovo-lacto or lacto-ovo vegetarians do not eat meat, but do consume dairy products and eggs. This is currently the most common variation in vegetarian diets in the Western world.
Ovo-vegetarian – Ovo-vegetarians do not eat meat or dairy products, but do eat eggs.
Pesco/pollo vegetarian (semi-vegetarian) – People considered semi-vegetarian will not eat "red meat" (mammal meat such as beef, lamb, pork, etc.), but will consume poultry and seafood. People who are transitioning from a traditional American diet to vegetable-based diets may also be considered semi-vegetarians.
Vegan – Those who avoid eating ALL animal products, including eggs, milk, cheese, and sometimes honey, are known specifically as vegans. In many cases, vegans also avoid using any items made from an animal, including leather and some cosmetics that contain animal-sourced ingredients.
Flexitarian (occasional vegetarianism) – People who are considered flexitarians follow a diet that is mostly vegetarian but occasionally consumes meat. For instance, some flexitarians may regard the suffering of animals in factory farm conditions unacceptable, and based on this view, avoid consuming meat or meat-based foods from such sources but will eat meat or meat products from animals raised in humane conditions including free-range and pasture-fed.
Why this matters:
Animal products provide the human body with some essential nutrients that are more difficult, but not impossible, to attain from a purely plant-based diet. Therefore, it is important for vegetarians, especially vegans, to consume a well-rounded plant diet and monitor their iron, B vitamin, and other nutrient levels.
Any diet choice can be healthy or unhealthy depending on individual food choices. The American Dietetic Association states that a well-planned vegetarian diet, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Evidence shows that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease, lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and lower rates of hypertension and Type 2 Diabetes than diets which include meat. Vegetarians also tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates.
However, vegetarian diets, particularly vegan diets, may require more attention to some nutrients in order to maintain an adequate intake. Dietary recommendations vary with the type of vegetarian diet. For children and adolescents, these diets require special planning since it may be difficult to obtain all the nutrients required for growth and development. Nutrients that may be lacking in a vegetarian's diet are protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D, riboflavin, calcium, zinc, and iron.
- Protein – Adequate protein intake is a topic of controversy for vegetarians and vegans. Diet for a Small Planet, written in 1970 by Frances Moore Lappe is one of the first books to spark an interest in vegetarian diets in this country. It supported the theory that combining plant-sourced amino acids required for proteins would deliver the same quality protein as animal sources, and cited diets around the world that use combinations of staples such as corn tortillas and beans, lentils and rice, and peanuts and millet to achieve complete protein.
- Iron – Plant sources of iron include leafy greens, beans, sea vegetables, and cooking foods in an iron skillet.
- Vitamin B12 – Plant sources are sea vegetables, nutritional yeast grown with vitamin B12, and products fortified with B12 such as soy milk and veggie burgers.
- Calcium – Plant sources include leafy greens, broccoli, tofu (made with calcium sulfate), cooked dry beans, almonds, and sesame seeds.