It is estimated that approximately 1.4 million people in the United States and 3% of Brits are vegetarian. Beyond being sensitive to animal rights issues, vegetarians may be drawn to plant-based or vegan diets for their health benefits, or as a way to lose weight.
What is a Vegetarian Diet?
A vegetarian diet is distinguished by the exclusion of meat, poultry, fish, and sometimes other animal products such as eggs and dairy. A vegetarian diet is often supplemented with complementary foods such as nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and grains. It is also known as a vegan diet.
The vegetarian diet can be formulated to be lower in fat than the vegan diet. A plant-based whole food nutrition approach including variety and inclusion of legumes and whole grains can help to achieve a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet.
Normal healthy adults may be able to adapt to a phytate-rich vegetarian diet. However, long-term studies of vegetarian populations show poor bone health, increased risk for chronic disease, and higher mortality rates than in the general population.
Veganism and Paleolithic Diets
A vegan diet restricts all animal products including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, and honey. Many vegans embrace a paleolithic hunter-gatherer style diet as an extension of their vegan philosophy.
Vegetarian diets define meat, poultry, and fish as permitted, while dairy products and eggs are omitted. Vegetarians may eat animal flesh such as meat and eggs, but they keep them to a minimum. A vegetarian diet may include plant proteins such as beans and nuts. Exclusions vary according to the dieter’s preferences.
The term vegetarian is sometimes used interchangeably with “health food.” This has led to confusion about what a vegetarian diet is. Correctly defined, a vegetarian diet is an eating style that concentrates on fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains and legumes, and nuts and seeds rather than meat.
Vegetarians are often told that their diets are deficient in protein. However, the human body requires 20 amino acids for normal cell function. Of these 20 amino acids, only 8 are essential (meaning the body cannot produce them).