The number of people following vegetarian or vegan diet has increased significantly within the last few years. Compared to a tiny one percent in 2009, about five percent of US population reported that they are following a vegetarian diet and half of those people are vegan in 2015. It is very interesting to see the numbers skyrocket quickly for a variety of reasons ranging from unethical animal practices, environmental concerns to health factors. No matter what diet or lifestyle one chooses to follow, it is very important to fully understand it’s pros and cons and if it’s the right lifestyle for you?
What is vegetarianism?
It is a dietary practice where one does not eat any meat products, fish, and poultry. Individuals who follow vegetarianism are called vegetarians and there are different types of vegetarians such as
- lacto-ovo vegetarian: do not eat meat, poultry, or fish, but eat eggs and dairy products (what most of us mean when we say “vegetarian”)
- lacto-vegetarian: do not eat meat, poultry, fish, or eggs, but eat dairy products
- ovo-vegetarian: do not eat meat, poultry, fish, or dairy products, but eat eggs
- Vegan: ONLY eat plant-derived foods and avoid animal by-products such as leather, wool, honey etc. Vegans typically also avoid cosmetics and other products that are tested on animals.
Recently, there is a new term called ‘flexitarian” or “semi-vegetarian” which is used to describe people who mostly eat a vegetarian diet but will occasionally eat meat.
So what are the health benefits of vegetarianism?
A vegetarian diet is associated with many health benefits because of its higher content of fiber, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium, and many phytochemicals and a fat content that is more unsaturated (good fats). Compared with other vegetarian diets, vegan diets tend to contain less saturated fat and cholesterol and more dietary fiber which may help prevent or decrease the risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
However, eliminating all animal products from the diet increases the risk of certain nutritional deficiencies such as vitamin B-12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids, especially among vegans. A big concern among vegetarians/vegans is the adequacy of protein in their diet; protein is found in both plant foods and animal foods but it is important to remember that many of these plant-based protein contains less protein per serving compared to animal foods. One should try to eat a wide variety of foods from different food groups and combine one or more protein sources at a meal to meet their needs. Some of the good sources of protein include lentils, beans, tofu, soybeans (edamame), soy products (veggie burgers, “chik’n” strips, etc), textured vegetable protein (TVP), low-fat dairy products, nuts, seeds, tempeh, and eggs.
Vegetarians and vegan should also focus on consuming foods fortified with nutrients that they are at risk of getting deficient on a daily basis. Otherwise, it is suggested for those individuals to take appropriate supplements to prevent deficiencies.
How do I get started on vegetarianism?
If you are interested in incorporating vegetarianism into your life, I suggest you make small, gradual changes and enjoy the process.
- Stock your pantry with vegetarian & vegan essentials.
- There is a global movement called “Meatless Monday” which encourages skipping meat one day a week because it’s good for your health as well as the planet.
- Make vegetarian versions of your favorite meals such as tofu tikka masala & roasted cauliflower & lentil tacos with creamy chipotle sauce.
- Try vegetarian-friendly restaurants in your area for a different experience.
- Get recipes from great vegetarian-friendly blogs such as vegkitchen, ohmyveggies, and cookie & kate.