Vegetarian diets date back to classical times and have reportedly been around since as early as 700 B.C. However, ancient India’s Hindus and Jains were the first significant number of people to practice vegetarianism as a concept. People may become vegetarian for several reasons, including health, religious beliefs, ethical principles, and even environmental concerns. Today, becoming a vegetarian is almost buzzworthy, with plant-based diets being embraced across the globe.
In the past, research surrounding vegetarianism emphasized the nutritional deficiencies, but recently, the conversation surrounding vegetarian diets has done a complete 180, with studies confirming the health benefits of meat-free eating. Now, plant-based eating is seen as nutritionally sufficient and is even linked to decreased risk for many chronic illnesses. In fact, According to an observational study of more than 177,000 British adults, vegetarians have better indicators of health, called biomarkers, than meat-eaters.
Are you considering adopting a vegetarian diet? Here’s what you should know about going vegetarian.
What Exactly Is A Vegetarian?
Vegetarianism is the practice of abstaining from the consumption of meat. According to the Vegetarian Society, a vegetarian does not eat any meat, including game, poultry, fish, shellfish, or by-products of animal slaughter.
Types of Vegetarian Diets
Typically, when people think vegetarian, they think: “no meat”, but vegetarian diets vary in terms of the foods they include and exclude:
- Lacto-vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish, poultry, and eggs, as well as foods that contain them. Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter, are included.
- Ovo-vegetarian diets exclude meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products but allow eggs.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish, and poultry, but allow dairy products and eggs.
- Pescatarian diets exclude meat and poultry, dairy, and eggs, but allow fish.
Some people aren’t as strict and prefer to follow a semi-vegetarian diet — also called a flexitarian diet. This is mainly a plant-based diet but it includes meat, dairy, eggs, poultry, and fish on occasion or in small quantities.
What Is the Difference Between Vegetarianism and Veganism?
Veganism could be classified as the strictest form of vegetarianism. Defined by the Vegan Society as a way of living that attempts to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty as much as possible. Including exploitation for food and any other purpose.
So adopting a vegan diet means excluding animal meat, but also animal-derived ingredients like dairy, eggs, gelatin, honey, pepsin, shellac, whey, casein, and even some forms of vitamin D3. In addition, many vegans also avoid buying clothes that contain silk, wool, leather, or suede.
So essentially, the main difference between vegetarians and vegans is that vegetarians only avoid meat, while vegans avoid all animal-derived products.
Becoming a Vegetarian: What Are the Benefits?
It Boosts Heart Health
People who adopt a vegetarian diet are up to one-third less likely to suffer heart disease. Naturally, this comes down to dietary choices, whether or not you are vegetarian. Get more of these fiber sources in your diet to benefit from this:
- high-fiber whole grains
- vegetables and fruits
- other low-glycemic foods
Reduces Your Risk of Cancer
While not significantly lower, vegetarianism does give you a slight edge. One study found that in low-risk populations, vegetarian diets reduced the risk of cancer in general. In addition, the findings also revealed that certain types of plant-based diets reduced the risk of specific cancer types.
For instance, veganism was found to reduce cancer risks more than other diets and also offers the most protection against female-specific cancers. A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet is said to offer the most protection against gastrointestinal cancers. However, many studies claim that a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables might be the key – in essence, being a vegetarian makes it easier to get the daily recommended servings.
Lowers Blood Pressure
Researchers noticed some time ago that vegetarians have lower blood pressure. A study conducted by the University of Cambridge found that vegetarians and vegans, in particular, have lower blood pressures than meat-eaters. Since plants tend to be lower in fat, cholesterol, and sodium, which can have a positive influence on blood pressure.
Supports Bone Health
Plant-based diets promote bone health. Osteoporosis rates are lower in countries where populations are largely vegetarians since animal products may actually force calcium out of the body, causing decreased bone strength.
One study found that people who followed a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet for over 20 years only had 18% less bone mineral by the age of 80. While the omnivores or meat-eaters had 35% less bone mineral by the same age.
Is A Vegetarian Diet Safe?
The concerns surrounding vegetarianism are related to deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals, like vitamin B-12 and omega-3 fatty acids. But this all depends on the foods you choose. A vegetarian diet can be very healthy, as long as you eat a healthy, balanced diet and the daily recommended amount of fruit and vegetables.
But what about pregnant women and children?
The same thing applies. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children can receive all the nutrition they need from a vegetarian diet. It might be a good idea to take a supplement with additional vitamin B-12 and vitamin D though. It is always best to consult with a doctor to find out what your specific needs are.
How Do You Become A Vegetarian?
So if you’ve decided to cold turkey and cut out meat altogether, here are some tips on becoming a vegetarian and adopting a more plant-based diet.
1. Do what feels natural
You don’t really need to go cold turkey unless you want to! Start gradually – it’s really about what works for your lifestyle. You might want to set a date on the calendar for when you become a vegetarian. Or you might prefer to start practicing Meatless Mondays and slowly add more days of the week as you go along.
You could start by cutting out red meats first, and then poultry, and then fish. Or you could overhaul your entire pantry to vegetarian and start on a clean slate.
2. Know your protein sources
It’s important to brush up on your knowledge of meat-free protein sources. You might automatically think of meat when you think protein, but there are many plant-based sources of this important nutrient too.
Some examples include:
- Pulses like lentils, beans, and chickpeas
- Cereals and grains such as quinoa, and whole wheat pastas, and breads
- Nuts and seeds
- Swap ingredients
You can easily place a vegetarian or vegan twist on your favorite dishes by swapping out the main protein with a vegetarian source like tofu. And if the recipe has an animal-based stock you can just use vegetable broth instead. If you’re trying to avoid dairy, too, simply try a non-dairy milk alternative like almond or soy.
- Meat, poultry, or fish: Tofu, tempeh, seitan, lentils, textured vegetable protein, jackfruit, mushrooms.
- Cheese: Soy, cashew, other nut or aquafaba-based “cheeses”, nutritional yeast.
- Beef or chicken stock or broth: Vegetable stock or broth.
- Milk: Soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, hemp milk, rice milk, flax milk.
3. Plan Ahead
Don’t leave anything to chance. Often when we grocery shop without a list, we end up buying things we don’t need. So, make a list of all the ingredients for that vegetarian recipe you plan on trying out. In fact, why not set a full meal plan and stock up on all the vegetarian cooking staples that go along with this new lifestyle. Following a meal plan ensures you healthily embrace vegetarianism.
Going out to eat? Same thing. Find out what the vegetarian options are and make sure you are catered for and not just getting the same thing as everyone else – minus the meat.
Here are some great resources for vegetarians to support you with this new lifestyle choice:
For more information on plant-based diets and nutrition:
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