Vegetarians don’t eat meat or any product made from animal parts. I pursued a meatless path decades ago, much to my parent’s horror. We were a meat-and-potatoes family in the saucy style of Julia Child. Every dinner in our house consisted of an entree, a vegetable, and a starch, followed by a “PD” – Planned Dessert so my refusal to eat meat was hard for everyone else to swallow – so to speak.
Vegetarians fall into two categories:
Ovo-lacto (or lacto-ovo) vegetarianism – a diet of only non-animal products (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, legumes, beans, etc.) with animal byproducts such as yogurt and eggs allowed.
Vegan – complete abstinence from all meat products.
Vegetarians who eat fish only are called pescetarians. Those who eat meat occasionally are flexitarians.
Any way you slice it, nutritionists have known for quite a long time that the human body does just fine – maybe even better – with no meat-based fuel as long as the food consumed provides an appropriately well-balanced blend of protein, fat, and carbohydrate.
One benefit of consuming foods grown in soil is that they are packed with essential trace nutrients and chemicals that boost the body’s natural immune system. Commercial beef and other meats may contain synthetic growth hormones and other chemicals shown to be harmful to human health.
Major sources of plant-derived protein include:
- Legumes (such as peanuts and soy)
- Dairy and eggs (for ovo-lacto vegetarians)
The most common fat sources are the “good” mono- and poly-unsaturated fats.
Good plant carbs come from high-fiber vegetables, grains, fruits, beans, and legumes. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans credit improved diets to a dramatic fall in nutritional deficiencies and many infectious diseases. The recommendation for a 2000-calorie vegetarian diet assumes that all foods are in nutrient-dense form, lean or low-fat, and prepared without added fats, sugars, refined starches or salt:
Food group – Daily amount
Vegetables – 2 1/2 cups a day
Fruits – 2 cups a day
Grains (mostly whole) – 6 1/2 ounces a day
Dairy – 3 cups a day
Protein foods – 3 1/2 ounces a day
Oils – 27 grams a day
Meat is All-American and hard to avoid in restaurants and supermarkets nationwide. The modern national culture harkens back to the days of cowboys riding the western ranges, bringing beef to the eastern markets by the brand-new railroads. Although beef has gotten too pricey for many people to afford, U.S. pork farmers have stepped up to fill the void. Chicken and seasonal holiday turkey are also popular choices for meat-eaters stateside.
A <> </a> revealed that only about 5 percent of U.S. residents describe themselves as vegetarians. Some other interesting facts came out of the survey:
- Nonwhite Americans (9%) are three times as likely as white Americans (3%) to describe themselves as a vegetarian.
- 11% of self-identified liberals identify as vegetarian, compared with 2% of conservatives and 3% of moderates.
- Vegetarianism is less prevalent among older Americans: 2% of adults aged 55 and older say they adhere to a vegetarian diet, compared with 8% of 18- to 34-year-olds and 7% of 35- to 54-year-olds.
But, cultures in other parts of the world are very different when it comes to putting things in your mouth, chewing, and swallowing it. In India, for example, many people practice some form of vegetarianism and cows are considered holy animals. To eat a cow is sacrilege. Can you imagine what it would be like to watch someone eat a hamburger?
When I worked with a software engineering crew from India, the vegetarians among them were slim and trim. They didn’t make a big deal about their beliefs and preferences, simply and politely refusing all well-intentioned meat-related offers. They took turns preparing familiar recipes at home to bring to work and gathered together at lunchtime in the break room to eat together. One explained to me that they continued eating Indian food to stay healthy.
Some Americans who decide that giving up meat is a good choice make the mistake of consuming too many “bad” carbs such as sugars and refined flour rather than select wholesome, replenishing options. Non-vegetarians could make meat substitutions with fibrous vegetables, beans or legumes, fruits, and whole grains or go “cold turkey” (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one) and put a hard stop to getting protein and fat from meat sources.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has linked a vegetarian diet to a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease and other positive medical indicators:
“Vegetarians appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than meat-eaters. Vegetarians also tend to have a lower body mass index, lower overall cancer rates and lower risk of chronic disease.”
That said, people who don’t eat meat or fish may become deficient in certain key nutrients and may need to find supplemental sources for iron, calcium, protein, vitamin D and B12, and zinc.