There seems to be a new food or diet movement every 10 seconds, with each touting its benefits over all the others. But one food philosophy has been practiced across the globe since ancient times and still endures: vegetarianism.
From the works of Homer to the Bible, through Asia and Europe, references to vegetarian cultures reach far and wide.
October 1st is World Vegetarian Day, the kickoff of Vegetarian Awareness Month, so here’s our breakdown of everything you might want to know about going vegetarian.
What is Vegetarianism?
“Vegetarian” is a broad term applied to people who do not eat meat, poultry, and fish. Thus, vegetarian diets consist primarily of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts.
People who adopt this lifestyle cite a number of reasons for doing so. Reasons may include religious practices, a desire to improve one’s health, compassion for animals, practicing more environmentally sustainable eating habits, making a statement about hunger, or simply personal preference, and for many, more than one of these reasons apply.
Variations on Vegetarianism
With so many different reasons for why people practice vegetarianism, it’s no surprise that there are many variations practiced, including some nontraditional forms that include animal-derived products.
Vegetarian. When most people think of vegetarians, they think of lacto-ovo-vegetarians (“lacto” comes from the Latin for milk, and “ovo” for egg). They do not consume beef, pork, poultry, fish, shellfish or animal flesh of any kind, but they do eat eggs and dairy products. This group may also include vegetarians who do not eat eggs but do eat dairy, also known as lacto-vegetarians.
Vegan. Vegans eschew any and all forms of food from animals, including all meats, eggs, dairy products, and even processed foods containing animal-derived ingredients such as gelatin. Many vegans also refrain from eating foods that are produced using animal products that are animal product-free in their final form, like sugar and some wines. And some even consider honey an off-limits food because of its origin.
Pescatarian. These vegetarians allow fish in their diets. Though the word is not widely used, many people become pescatarian for health reasons and as a first step toward becoming vegetarian.
Flexitarian/Semi-Vegetarian. You don’t have to be vegetarian to love vegetarian food. “Flexitarian” is a newly coined term for those who eat a mostly vegetarian diet but occasionally indulge in meat.
Benefits & Drawbacks of Vegetarianism
Many individuals choose to go vegetarian for health reasons. Eliminating meat from the diet can have many benefits, and according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), vegetarians have a lower risk of developing:
– Heart disease
– Colorectal, ovarian, and breast cancers
– Hypertension (high blood pressure)
This may be due to the fact that a well-balanced and healthy vegetarian diet is largely high fiber and low fat.
Still, too many fatty snacks, fried foods, full-fat dairy products, and eggs can make a vegetarian diet unhealthy. Vegetarians and vegans sometimes have a difficult time getting enough protein and instead load up on processed carbohydrates, which are detrimental to wellness.
Pescatarians need to be careful and watch the mercury content in fish, as certain fish like bigeye and ahi tuna should be avoided completely, while others like albacore and yellowfin tuna, mackerel, and Chilean sea bass should limited to three servings or fewer each month.
Some vegans may also have vitamin B-12, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and riboflavin intakes that are lower than recommended, so like any healthy diet, a vegetarian diet needs to be carefully planned to maximize health benefits and minimize health hazards.
5 Nutrients to Watch
The key to any healthy diet is to consume a wide variety of foods, and vegetarians should pay particular attention to these five nutrients:
Protein. Protein is found in both plant and animal-based foods, and for plant-based proteins, the AND has said that it is unnecessary to combine specific foods within a meal in order to “complete” the amino acids profile. Good sources of protein include whole grains, lentils, beans, tofu, low-fat dairy products, nuts, seeds, tempeh, eggs, and peas.
Calcium. The AND recommends that adults 19 to 50-years-old consume at least 1,000 mg of calcium per day – an amount equal to about 3 cups of milk or yogurt. Vegetarians can get calcium from low-fat and fat-free dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese. Calcium is also found in dark, leafy greens, broccoli, beans, dried figs, and sunflower seeds. Vegans often struggle to meet their daily calcium requirements, so look for soymilk fortified with calcium.
You can also include a calcium supplement in your diet such as VitaMedica’s Bone Support, which is formulated with 750 mg of calcium along with other bone supporting nutrients (450 IUs of vitamin D3, 350 mg of magnesium, 75 mcgs vitamin K and 1.5 mg of boron).
Vitamin D. Vitamin D helps your body absorb and use calcium, but because few foods are naturally high in vitamin D, many get it from fortified sources like dairy or soymilk products. Your body can make its own vitamin D, but only through sun exposure, which has its own set of risks. Those avoiding dairy and sun exposure should consider taking supplemental vitamin D.
The recommended intake of vitamin D for adults is 1,000 – 1,200 IUs per day. However, the Upper Level Intake is 4,000 IUs. VitaMedica’s Multi-Vitamin & Mineral is formulated with 450 IUs of vitamin D in both the morning and evening formulation, providing 900 IUs per day.
Iron. Many breads and grain products are fortified with iron, and dark green vegetables, dried fruits, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds are also rich in iron. Getting sufficient vitamin C will also help with iron absorption, but all adults need to be careful not to exceed their iron intake, as high levels are associated with cardiovascular events.
Vitamin B12. This B-vitamin is found in animal products and in soil bacteria. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians are generally not B-12 deficient because both eggs and dairy have B-12. However, vegans should include vitamin B-12 fortified foods or supplements in their diets. VitaMedica’s Multi-Vitamin & Mineral is an excellent source of B-12 (405 mcg) along with the other B-vitamins.
7 Vegetarian Must-Eats
Be sure to regularly include these foods in your diet to ensure that you obtain key nutrients for optimal health and wellness.
Tofu. A great source of protein, zinc, iron, tofu even has some omega-3 fatty acids. A half-cup is also calcium-rich, with more than 100mg. Its mild flavor and ability to absorb seasonings makes it a popular substitute for meat, poultry and fish in many recipes. If you don’t like the taste and texture of tofu, try tempeh, a minimally processed, fermented soybean cake that has more texture and a nuttier flavor.
Lentils. Protein and fiber-rich, legumes that have about twice as much iron as beans. They also have more B vitamins and folate, the B vitamin that reduces the risk for some birth defects. Try adding them to soups, stews, chili, and curries, or make a lentil salad tossed in vinaigrette. Mix in red, green, or yellow lentils for a colorful meal that doesn’t make you as gassy as beans might.
Beans. You can get about one-third of your iron and protein and nearly half your fiber in a single cup of beans, as well as potassium, zinc, B vitamins and calcium. Much of the fiber is the good kind – soluble fiber – that helps lower cholesterol. Beans are also a good addition to soups and chili, and they can easily be added to a pasta dish or even a salad. Beware the sodium content in canned beans, however; give them a thorough rinse to reduce some of the salt.
Nuts. Packed with protein, nuts like peanuts, cashews, and macadamias are full of zinc, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids. Other nuts like almonds can provide up to 175mg of calcium per half cup, and walnuts and pecans are rich in potassium, magnesium. Each nut has its own nutritional benefits – cashews have the most iron and zinc, with about twice as much as any other nut, and almonds have about four times more fiber than cashews. An added bonus is that nuts travel well as a snack, and they are also great added to salads, soups, and baked goods.
Whole Grains. Whole wheat bread and pasta, brown rice, wild rice, oatmeal, bulgur, whole rye, and pumpernickel, are high in B vitamins, zinc, and insoluble fiber which helps reduce cholesterol and the risk of colon cancer as well as other digestive disorders. Each grain has a different nutritional profile, so check labels and vary what you eat. Try ancient whole grains like quinoa, spelt, faro, and kamut, too, which are now much more widely available.
Dark Leafy Greens. Dark leafy greens like spinach, broccoli, kale, Swiss chard and collards are rich in iron (e.g. spinach, which has about 6 grams — one-third of a day’s recommended amount). They are also high in folic acid and vitamin A, and have cancer-fighting antioxidants. They even provide calcium, but because this form is not easily absorbed, adding lemon juice or vinegar while cooking or before eating can help make it more easily obtained.
Always pair foods high in iron with foods high in vitamin C to make the iron easier to absorb. This isn’t hard with dark leafy greens because they are well paired with citrus fruits and citrus juice, peppers, tomatoes, and carrots, all of which are rich in vitamin C.
Seaweeds. These sea greens, which include kelp, nori, spirulina, and agar, are nutrient-dense and packed with phytonutrients, iron, magnesium, calcium, iodine, iron, chromium, vitamins A, C, E, and many B vitamins. Many seaweeds can be found in Asian groceries. Try making veggie sushi rolls with nori, or eat roasted seaweed as a snack. Try adding kelp to pasta, rice, or soups. Seaweed salad is also a popular Asian appetizer, so have fun experimenting with this unusual but super-healthy food.
5 Delicious Vegetarian Dishes
One of the greatest things about vegetarian dishes is that you can draw from a variety of different cuisines. Many ethnic dishes are vegetarian-friendly, so it’s fun to experiment and try new foods like our favorites below.
Bibimbap. This Korean meal traditionally includes beef, but you can leave it out, as the vegetables are really the basis of the dish. A mix of raw, steamed, or sautéed vegetables, rice, sesame oil, and chili paste topped with a fried egg, it’s hearty and filling while still being healthy. Try this recipe, and have fun experimenting with different vegetables by the seasons.
Grilled Vegetable Tacos. Mexican food doesn’t always have to be meat-heavy. Grilled veggies can add smoky flavor to fabulous, filling tacos topped with a fresh salsa or a creamy sauce.
Guacamole. A great accompaniment for many foods including tacos, the avocado in guacamole is rich in protein, healthy fats, and carotenoids. Make this simple guacamole recipe, serve with veggies like baby carrots, bell peppers and sugar snap peas and serve as a healthy snack or side for a party.
Vegetable Pad Thai. Even the meat or seafood versions of pad thai always include a secondary protein source: tofu. You can make flavorful rice noodle dish (or order it at your favorite Thai restaurant) with just tofu and omit the fish sauce to make it more vegetarian-friendly. Try this meatless version, and experiment by adding tofu, bean sprouts, mushrooms, zucchini, or other vegetables.
Pasta “Bolognese”. Your favorite comfort foods can be veg’d out, too. Substitute the meat in your sauce with mushrooms and the pasta for spaghetti squash, and you’ll lower the carb count and increase the nutrition. Go gourmet with this recipe, and impress everyone – even the meat-lovers.
For those of us who want to try vegetarian but worry about missing our favorite foods, there are a number of brands that market meatless mockups of foods like breakfast sausages, burger patties, “chicken” nuggets, and, yes, bacon!
Gardenburger. Found on many restaurant menus, this burger patty, made with mostly grains, mushrooms, and cheese, comes in a variety of flavors like black bean chipotle, portabella, sun-dried tomato basil, and veggie medley.
Boca. In stock in supermarkets across the country, this popular brand offers meatless burgers, “chick’n” patties and nuggets, ground (meatless) crumbles, and breakfast links made with soy protein.
Morningstar Farms. From meatless patties, “chik’n” patties, nuggets, and wings, hot dogs, meatballs, ribs, breakfast links, and even veggie bacon, this brand makes practically everything anyone could ask for out of a soy protein and wheat gluten base.
Amy’s. A purveyor of pre-prepared vegetarian meals, Amy’s uses no meat, fish, poultry, or eggs in any of their products. Many items are also organic – everything from bowls, wraps, burritos, soups, chili, sauces, salsas, and desserts.
While convenient and sometimes tasty, be aware that many of these products are also heavily processed, which means you may find unfamiliar, scientific-sounding ingredients on the labels, and high levels of sodium – up to 20% of the daily recommended amount – in just one serving. So be sure to always read labels before purchasing, or simply go for whole foods that don’t need labels at all.
The great thing about changing your diet is that you don’t have to go all-in if you don’t want to. Many people participate in “Meatless Mondays,” a movement created to get people to eat more fruits and vegetables but also to bring awareness to how healthy and delicious going meat-free can be. Just a day or a few days per week can make a big difference in so many ways, so feel free to veg out!
Last updated February 29, 2016
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.