by Leah Frankel, MS, RD
Have you ever looked at your recently-turned-vegetarian friend and wondered what the heck they are thinking? With more and more people now considering themselves vegetarians it makes us wonder, “How do they do it?” You’re probably wondering why someone would ever want to give up meat. Additionally, aren’t vegetarians missing some key life-sustaining nutrients. We are omnivores for a reason. We’ll learn about the different varieties of vegetarians, why people chose a vegetarian lifestyle and what nutrients vegetarians need to be sure they include in their meals to have a well-rounded diet.
Types of Vegetarians
By definition, a vegetarian is someone who doesn’t consume meat, poultry or fish. The spectrum of vegetarians is vast and we’re here to help you decipher the differences. Even within each classification of vegetarian, there are variations depending on the individual’s needs or reasons for becoming a vegetarian.
Pescatarian: A pescatarian is someone who eliminates all poultry and meat but consumes fish and seafood. This has become increasingly popular due to health advantages of fish consumption or as a first step in becoming a vegetarian.
Semi-Vegetarian: Someone that follows a semi-vegetarian diet follows a vegetarian diet the majority of the time but occasionally eats meat, fish or poultry.
Lacto-ovo Vegetarian: People who follow a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet avoid meat, poultry and fish; however they do eat dairy (lacto) and eggs (ovo). In addition, some people are either lacto vegetarians (consuming dairy, but not eggs) or ovo vegetarians (consuming eggs, but not dairy).
Vegan: A vegan is a person that, in addition to not consuming meat, poultry or fish, does not eat any foods that are of animal origin including eggs, dairy, gelatin and honey. In addition, many vegans refrain from wearing leather or other products made from animals, as well as products that are tested on animals.
Reasons to “Go Veggie”
Religious reasons: A variety of religions promote vegetarian or vegan diets including Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Seventh day Adventists. Each religion encourages a vegetarian diet for a variety of reasons including health benefits (in the case of the Seventh day Adventists) and respect for living creatures (as seen with Buddhism).
Health reasons: There are a number of health benefits associated with following a vegetarian diet including:
Lower rates of obesity
Decreased risk of chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer
Reduced risk of food-borne diseases
Nutrient intakes that are closer to current nutrition recommendations
Ethical reasons: Some people choose to eliminate meat from their diet due to the treatment that animals receive, including how they are raised, transportation to slaughter houses, processes used to slaughter animals and believing that animals have rights, similar to those of people.
Environmental reasons: There are a number of benefits for following a vegetarian diet in terms of protecting the environment including: preserving water resources, preventing water pollution, preserving the earth’s ecosystems, and reducing the consumption of the earth’s resources.
Getting Your Vitamins from A to Zinc
In order to plan a well-rounded vegetarian diet there are a few nutrients that vegetarians and vegans need to be cognizant of and be sure to incorporate into their diet:
Protein: Most people assume it will be difficult to meet their protein requirements as a vegetarian, however most American’s consume twice as much protein as they need; most vegetarians are able to meet their protein requirements with a little planning. Daily requirements for protein depend on gender and body weight. Symptoms of protein deficiency include edema (swelling, usually on the extremities), weight loss, thinning or loss of hair, general weakness, slowness in healing of wounds and bruises, headache, and difficulty sleeping. Vegetarian sources of protein include: beans, lentils, tofu, chickpeas, dairy (for lacto- or lacto-ovo vegetarian) and eggs (for ovo- or lacto-ovo vegetarian).
Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is only naturally found in foods derived from animals. A lacto-ovo vegetarian likely will have an adequate intake but a vegan may not. Options for meeting your vitamin B12 requirements include taking a B12 supplement (pill form), eating foods fortified with vitamin B12, or receiving regular vitamin B12 injections from your physician (usually monthly). Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include anemia (particularly one subtype called megaloblastic anemia), fatigue, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite, weight loss, numbness or tingling in hands and feet, depression, confusion, and dementia. Daily requirements for vitamin B12 vary by age and gender. egetarian sources of vitamin B12: fortified cereals, nutritional yeast, soymilk, and soy products.
Iron: There are two types of iron: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is the iron found in hemoglobin (which carries oxygen in a red blood cell). This form of iron is only found in animal products and is more readily absorbed than non-heme iron. However, non-heme iron’s absorption is improved when consumed with vitamin C (so be sure to include vitamin C in your iron-enriched meal). Daily iron requirements vary by age and gender. Symptoms of iron deficiency include anemia, fatigue, pale skin, weakness, shortness of breath, headache, dizziness, cold hands/feet, and brittle nails. Vegetarian sources of non-heme iron: pistachios, cashews, chickpeas, sesame seeds, dried fruits, and spinach.
Calcium: Since vegans and ovo-vegetarians don’t consume dairy, it’s important to ensure adequate calcium intake. Symptoms of calcium deficiency include twitching, seizures, and tetany (extreme stiffness and rigidity in your muscles). Vegetarian sources of calcium: kale, collard greens, broccoli, legumes, figs, almonds, tofu, and fortified soymilk.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: The primary source of omega-3 fatty acids is fish, so unless you’re a pescatarian it can be difficult to have an adequate intake. Vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids do not contain the active form of the nutrient that your body needs so supplements with flax seed oil may be necessary. Daily omega-3 fatty acid requirements vary by age. Symptoms of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency include fatigue, dry/itchy skin, brittle hair, weak nails, constipation, depression, and poor concentration. Vegetarian sources: soy, walnuts, canola oil, flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds.
Will following a vegetarian diet make you healthier? Not necessarily. As people often forget, vegetarian diets can include plenty of unhealthy foods including french fries, donuts, pizza and ice cream. However, most vegetarians consume more fruits and vegetables, and eat less unhealthy fats (trans and unsaturated) than their meat-eating counterparts. Not ready to completely change your diet? Try going veggie once a week and discover fun new vegetarian dishes!