Vegetarians adhere to plant-based diets, primarily avoiding meat and poultry in lieu of alternative protein sources. The World Animal Foundation reports there are approximately 1.5 billion vegetarians across the world, making up roughly 22 percent of the global population. The organization Cook Unity reports that, as of 2022, 5 to 8 percent of the United States population declares themselves as vegetarian.
People who are considering switching to vegetarian diets may not understand how to transition to a new way of eating. Experts say that a vegetarian diet can be very healthy if it is approached in a way that ensures individuals consume a nutritionally balanced diet.
Type of vegetarians
Vegetarianism breaks down into a few different categories.
• Lacto-ovo vegetarians: These vegetarians consume eggs and dairy products but do not eat any meat, poultry or fish.
• Lacto-vegetarians: These vegetarians consume dairy but avoid eggs, meat, fish, and poultry.
• Ovo-vegetarians: These vegetarians omit meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products but consume eggs.
• Pescatarians: These vegetarians eliminate meat and poultry from their diets but allow fish.
• Vegans: Individuals who are vegans eliminate all animal-based and animal-derived products.
Can vegetarians meet their nutritional needs?
Harvard Health Publishing says in recent years the pendulum into the study of vegetarianism has swung from the direction of pointing out potential nutritional deficiencies to confirming health benefits of meat-free eating. Today, plant-based eating is recognized as nutritionally sufficient and a way to reduce chronic illnesses.
The American Dietetic Association says a vegetarian diet should be “appropriately planned” and nutritionally diverse. While a diet of pizza and chips certainly can be billed as vegetarian, it is not a healthy way to gain nutrients. It is essential to make sure that a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains are consumed.
Pay attention to specific nutrients
Depending on which foods are eliminated, people adhering to vegetarian diets may experience nutrient deficiency. Therefore, attention should be placed on vitamin B-12, calcium, vitamin D, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, and iodine, which largely are found in animal-based products. Seaweed can be a vegetarian option for iodine; enriched cereals can provide iron and zinc; walnuts and olives can provide omega-3 fatty acids; and soy and legumes can fill in protein deficits. Individuals can work with doctors or dieticians to plan balanced, plant-based meals.
People considering vegetarian diets can educate themselves about the lifestyle and how to maintain optimal health.