Vegetarianism: The Basic Facts

Contributors: Sarah Klemm, RDN, CD, LDN
Vegetarianism The Basic Facts

bhofack2/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

There are several types of vegetarians. Some eat dairy foods, others may choose to include eggs, while others abstain entirely from any food product that comes from an animal. One thing they all have in common, though, is they rely primarily on plant-based foods for their nutritional needs.

The decision to adopt a meat-free diet can be a complex choice. People of all ages and backgrounds choose to be vegetarians and for a variety of reasons.

Types of Vegetarians

A lacto-ovo vegetarian consumes milk and other dairy products, eggs, grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds. Whereas a lacto-vegetarian follows a similar eating pattern but does not eat eggs. Meanwhile, a vegan avoids all animal-based products. In addition to meat, this includes eggs, milk and dairy products. Some vegans also do not eat honey.

Why Choose a Vegetarian Diet

People choose vegetarian diets for many reasons, including personal preference and health concerns.

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 also 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: animal waste from factory farms may pollute the land and water, and trees and forests are cut down to make room for grazing cattle.

Religious beliefs also can 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 certain vegetables, such as onions, potatoes and garlic. Hindus also believe in ahimsa and 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. A plant-based diet is potentially lower in calories and saturated fat than a standard American diet, while also providing more dietary fiber and higher amounts of some vitamins and minerals. These characteristics, in addition to other lifestyle factors, may contribute to the health benefits among vegetarians.

Note: When choosing a vegetarian diet, a well-planned eating pattern is essential in order to obtain all of the nutrients needed for good health. For personalized nutrition advice, consult a registered dietitian nutritionist. To find an RDN in your area, search the Academy's Find a Nutrition Expert database.

Find Nutrition Experts

Need serious help making a plan? The nutrition experts in our professional membership are ready to help you create the change to improve your life.

Find a Nutrition Expert