Vegetarianism: The Basic Facts

Reviewed by Sharon Denny, MS, RDN
vegetables on forks - Vegetarianism: The Basic Facts

While some meat-eaters stereotype the motivations of vegetarians, the truth is the decision to adopt a meat-free diet is a complex, multi-faceted dietary choice.

People of all ages and backgrounds are vegetarians. People who follow a vegetarian diet never, or rarely, eat meat, fish or poultry. Instead, they rely on a variety of plant-based foods for good health and eating enjoyment.

Types of Vegetarians

There are many types of vegetarians. Some eat fish. Some eat dairy foods, such as cheese and/or eggs. Others abstain entirely from any food product that comes from an animal.

A lacto-ovo vegetarian, for example, consumes milk and dairy foods, eggs, grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, but abstains from meat, fish and poultry. A lacto-vegetarian follows a similar diet, but does not eat eggs. Meanwhile, a vegan stays away from animal-based products entirely, which, in addition to meat, also includes milk and dairy products, lard, gelatin and foods with ingredients from animal sources. Some vegans also do not eat honey.

Why Choose a Vegetarian Diet

People choose vegetarian diets for many reasons, including personal preference, health concerns, dislike for meat or other food from animals, or they believe a plant-based diet is healthier.

Some adopt a vegetarian lifestyle for ethical reasons. Many vegetarians, for example, avoid meat because they do not want animals killed or harmed. These individuals may object to the treatment of animals raised on industrial farms.

The environment is an additional concern for some vegetarians. Issues have been cited concerning all aspects of the environment, such as animal waste from factory farms polluting the land and water or forests that are cut down to make room for grazing cattle.

Religious beliefs can also play an important role in vegetarianism. For instance, followers of Jainism practice nonviolence (also called ahimsa, meaning "do no harm"), and do not eat meat or dived plants, such as onions, potatoes and garlic. Hindus also believe in ahimsa and are the world's largest vegetarian population. They believe in the dietary customs of self-control and purity of mind and spirit. Seventh-day Adventists practice a vegetarian lifestyle, while Buddhists also support the concept of ahimsa (although some eat fish or meat).

Health Benefits

Many people make the switch to a vegetarian diet because of the potential health benefits. Vegetarian eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes including lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of heart disease and lower blood pressure. Also, vegetarians tend to consume a lower proportion of calories from fat and fewer overall calories, and more fiber, potassium and vitamin C than non-vegetarians. These characteristics, plus lifestyle factors, may contribute to the health benefits among vegetarians.

Learn more about the vegetarian lifestyle.

Note: A healthy eating pattern is essential in order to obtain the health benefits of becoming a vegetarian. The Dietary Guidelines and MyPlate provide guidance for planning a well-balanced vegetarian or vegan diet.

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