A person may choose to follow a vegetarian diet for various reasons, including health issues, environmental concerns, or religious beliefs. Regardless of the reason, it is important to consider a few things before becoming vegetarian.
For instance, people should know which foods to avoid and what to include in their diet to ensure that they are meeting their nutritional requirements.
Keep reading for more information on what to expect when becoming vegetarian, the potential risks, and how to make the transition.
A person may choose from several different types of vegetarian diet, which differ in terms of the foods that they include or exclude. The main types include:
A basic vegetarian diet excludes meat, poultry, and fish from the diet. However, there are subcategories of the vegetarian diet, which get their names from the food types that they include:
- lacto — allows the inclusion of dairy products but not eggs
- ovo — allows eggs but not dairy
- lacto-ovo — allows both dairy and eggs
A partial vegetarian will exclude most meats from their diet but will include either fish or poultry. For example, a pescatarian will eat fish but avoid other meats. A pollo-vegetarian, or pollotarian, will include poultry but no other meats.
A flexitarian primarily eats a vegetarian diet. Where they differ from other vegetarians is that they will occasionally eat small amounts of meat, poultry, eggs, and fish.
A vegan will avoid consuming any animal products, including meat, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs, and honey.
There are some potential health benefits of becoming vegetarian. However, these are dependent on what a person includes in their diet. For example, if a person's diet includes mainly processed foods, they are unlikely to get as many benefits as someone who primarily eats fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
Research has shown that a person may gain the following benefits from eating a vegetarian diet:
Following a diet that is overly restrictive in any way can lead to health issues. A person should plan any new diet carefully before starting it and discuss it with a healthcare professional to make sure that they are getting all of the nutrients that they need.
Although a vegetarian diet can be a good choice for a person's overall health, it is possible to be a vegetarian and eat poorly. Many unhealthful foods are vegetarian because they do not contain animal products, and eating too many of these foods can be detrimental to overall health.
Although plant-based diets are typically rich in low calorie foods, such as vegetables and fruits, it is still possible to overeat, which can cause a person to gain weight.
It is important for a person switching to a vegetarian diet to make sure that they eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, healthful fats, and whole grains. Eating only vegetarian foods can put a person at risk of not getting enough of certain nutrients, including proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin B-12.
A person should plan their diet to include sources of these and other nutrients that are essential to overall health. In some cases, supplementation may also be necessary, especially for people following more restrictive plant-based diets that cut out most or all animal products.
A person may be at risk of certain nutritional deficiencies when making the switch to a strictly vegetarian or vegan diet.
The specific nutrients that a person may be lacking will depend largely on the type of vegetarian diet that they eat.
For instance, a person who still eats dairy, fish, eggs, or a limited amount of meat may not have any issues with nutritional deficiencies. Conversely, people who follow vegan diets may need to supplement with vitamins and minerals, depending on their dietary intake and restrictions.
Some of the nutrients that are most likely to be lacking include:
Most people get their protein from meat, fish, or poultry. Lacto, ovo, and lacto-ovo vegetarians can get protein from both plant and animal sources. People who follow a vegan diet will not get protein from animal products. Some substitutes can include:
- certain grains, such as quinoa
- nut and seed butters
Iron is another nutrient that is present in red meats and other animal-based products. However, a person can get iron from other sources, such as:
- whole grain wheat
Calcium is primarily in milk and other dairy products. Some potential replacements for people following a vegetarian diet that does not include dairy include:
- fortified cereals
- collard greens
- fortified plant milk, such as soy or rice milk
The body produces vitamin D when the skin gets direct exposure to sunlight. However, certain factors can make it difficult to get enough vitamin D in this way. For example, in many countries, there is not much sun during the winter months, and people tend to cover up.
As the dietary sources of vitamin D are mostly animal products, vitamin D supplements are the best way for many vegetarians and vegans to get consistent, absorbable vitamin D.
Zinc is another nutrient that is important for a person's body. Many animal-based foods are high in zinc, including meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy. However, there are also plant-based sources of zinc, such as:
- soy products
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are present in fish, such as salmon. These healthful fats are important for overall health, especially brain health.
Although plant-based omega-3 fatty acids also occur naturally in chia seeds, algal oil, and flax, these are a type called alpha-linolenic acids, which the body has a limited ability to convert to active forms. Therefore, a person may wish to look for fortified products or talk to their doctor about omega-3 supplements.
Vitamin B-12 is important for many functions in the body, including red blood cell production. A vegetarian can obtain vitamin B-12 from:
- eggs and milk, if they are following a vegetarian diet that includes these foods
- certain fortified cereals
- fortified plant milk
- nutritional yeast
Many people choose to follow a vegetarian diet for health reasons, but there are other reasons why a person might make the switch. Some reasons may include:
- religious or cultural beliefs
- environmental and sustainability concerns
- supporting animal welfare
- avoiding antibiotics in meat
- reducing the cost of food bills
A person should start with a general plan of how they want to become vegetarian. Anyone with specific health concerns should talk to a healthcare professional before starting a new diet. A healthcare professional should be able to give them advice on what foods to include in the diet or what supplements to take.
From there, a person should decide what foods they will include or exclude. Some people approach becoming vegetarian by immediately stopping the consumption of all meat. Others prefer to include small amounts of meat as they transition from eating meat frequently.
It may help a person to try new foods that fit with a vegetarian diet as they decrease their intake of animal products. Learning about substitutions, such as olive oil in place of butter, can help. Also, a person may want to familiarize themselves with vegetarian-friendly cookbooks, meal plans, and recipes.
People who want to become vegetarian will need to start reading product labels if they do not already do so. They should check for ingredients, such as dairy, eggs, and other animal products, depending on the type of vegetarian diet that they choose to follow. Nutrition labels can also provide information on what nutrients the food includes.
A person should also plan on eating a well-balanced diet that includes nutrient-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables.
A vegetarian diet does not have to necessitate the removal of all animal-based products. A person can choose a diet that includes eggs, milk, poultry, fish, or no animal products at all.
By starting with a carefully considered diet plan, a person eliminating certain food types is more likely to maintain a balanced and nutritious diet and avoid nutritional deficiencies.
Regardless of a person's reason for becoming vegetarian, maintaining a balanced diet is crucial for health.