Increasing numbers of U.S. consumers are trying plant-rich diets such as vegetarianism. The dietary practice of abstaining from eating meat has ties to a wide range of social movements and ethical positions. But this worldwide trend also has varied roots in Asia, Africa and Indigenous cultures — something that can be easy to miss as we browse recipes online or order takeout food.
What Is Vegetarianism?
Vegetarianism is a dietary practice of eating foods that are made of plants: beans, legumes, fruits, grains and — most importantly — no animal flesh. People who follow a vegetarian diet may eat animal products like honey, eggs and milk-based products. Some vegetarians eat dairy products but not eggs. Some vegetarians exclude all animal products from their diet, as vegans do. There are even people who call themselves vegetarian despite eating fish.
Some adhere to a vegetarian lifestyle because of ethical beliefs about reducing harm toward animals. Health is another value that many vegetarians share. Some vegetarians are private about their diet, and others are more public. Vegetarianism can also be a social identity: vegetarians can find each other and form communities based on their shared experiences.
The vegetarian standards of individuals and groups can vary and also evolve, resulting in complexities in the vegan and vegetarian experience. For example, PETA used not to oppose the eating of eggs from companion birds if they were well-cared for and not purchased from hatcheries, but now omits that exception to their position.
History of Vegetarianism
Vegetable-based diets that avoid the consumption of meat are often tied to belief systems that have roots in ancient history. Diets that abstain from meat and avoid harm to living beings were first documented in religious texts dating back to fifth century B.C. in India. When the British colonized India in the 17th and 18th centuries, they observed vegetarianism in practice and went on to popularize the practice back home to other Europeans, according to one British historian.
Many peoples indigenous to the Americas had plant-based diets that preceded contemporary vegetarianism. The Choctaws of present-day Mississippi and Oklahoma were farmers whose diet was primarily plant-based, with infrequent consumption of game meat. A corn, pumpkin and bean stew was a staple food of Choctaws, who also wore plant-based clothing and who revered corn as a divinity. Aztecs and Mayan people are reported to have raised their children as vegetarians. Many other grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables in today’s domestic pantries, particularly those of vegans, are the result of agricultural advancements of Indigenous peoples, including tomatoes, potatoes and paprika.
Indigenous and diasporic Africans also have plant-based traditions that sustain today’s vegan movements. In Africa, Ethiopian food traditions have catered to semi-vegan diets since antiquity as a result of many Ethiopians’ adherence to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s fasting practices.
In the 1930s in Jamaica, Rastafarians developed a movement of Black vegetarians who opposed systems of oppression under British colonial rule and neo-imperialism. Rastafarians saw spiritual divinity embodied in Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie, who was referred to as Ras Tafari until he became emperor in 1930. Ras means chief in Amharic, the language spoken in Ethiopia. Since the 18th century, Black people active in U.S. social and religious movements have often identified with Ethiopia due to its central presence in the Bible, as explained in Horace Campbell’s Rasta and Resistance. The Ethiopianism movement solidified in South Africa in the 1870s, Campbell writes, spread throughout Africa, and contributed to the formation of the Rastafarian religion.
Ethiopian vegan dishes, like Rastafarian “Ital” foods, also have distinct histories tied to anticolonialism. Ethiopia’s victory against Italian invasion in 1896 was a significant sign of resistance, giving hope to Africans and Black people around the world organizing against white supremacists. Each year on March 2, Ethiopians celebrate that their country was the only African nation to successfully resist the European partition of Africa.
Why Choose a Vegetarian Diet?
Health is a commonly cited reason for people to pursue a vegetarian diet. Reducing harm toward the environment and to animals are also popular reasons for going vegetarian.
In India about one-third of the population is vegetarian, partly the result of social taboos around eating meat. These social stigmas can make it difficult to measure people’s fidelity to their self-described diets. Not eating meat in India can also be a matter of having little disposable income, living in rural areas and living in cultural isolation. These latter reasons for following a vegetarian diet reveal some of the diverse socioeconomic factors that complicate researchers’ understandings of dietary trends.
What Is a True Vegetarian?
There is no such thing as a “true vegetarian” in any generally accepted sense. However, academic researchers have used this term to describe people who choose to abstain from eating meat, poultry and fish. The term can be useful for researchers studying human behavior since a significant number of self-described vegetarians do eat some meat, according to nutrition surveys in the United States. Researchers also describe vegetarians who eat meat as semi-vegetarians or part-time vegetarians. Pesco-vegetarians eat fish, dairy products and eggs, but no other types of meat.
Are Vegetarians Hypocrites?
Some vegans regard vegetarianism as inconsistent, even characterizing vegetarians as hypocritical for consuming animal-derived products like dairy and eggs. But the characterization of vegetarians as hypocritical ignores the reality that there are many different reasons why some people choose to be vegetarian, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group. These include economics, health, the environment, disliking the taste of meat, compassion for animals and a range of other ethical principles. Vegetarians are simply people who do not eat meat, which includes fish and poultry.
To make matters more complicated however, because some self-described vegetarians do sometimes eat meat, discussions about the term can become challenging. When vegetarians are motivated by moral ideals such as not wanting to harm animals and then still eat meat, they may feel a tension between their beliefs and their behaviors.
The discrepancy between someone’s attitudes and their actions can be described as a form of hypocrisy — though the term has negative connotations and assigns unpleasant qualities to a person or organization. To deal with the difficult feelings that arise from consistently living out of alignment with one’s values, people develop coping mechanisms such as avoiding thinking about farmed animals or eating meat products that do not resemble the original animal.
Animal advocates who are interested in changing consumer habits have found that focusing on moral hypocrisy, however, is not necessarily helpful in achieving their goal of reducing meat consumption. In a 2021 survey of British respondents, the Humane League UK found that people were more likely to be swayed to sign a petition for farmed fish when they were told about the disgusting health of farmed fish, compared to when they heard messages about the corporate hypocrisy of supermarkets. The message about corporate hypocrisy did, however, resonate with anti-corporate vegans in the study.
Types of Vegetarians
While food and nutrition researchers classify vegetarian diets into different categories, two of which are listed below, there is significant heterogeneity of diet within each grouping of vegetarians. It all boils down to the individual experience of someone who is trying to eat in a certain way.
Ovo-lacto (or lacto-ovo) vegetarians do not eat meat, but do eat dairy products and eggs. Dairy products include milk, cheese and whey. Lacto-vegetarians allow themselves to eat dairy products, but no meat and no eggs.
Vegans exclude all animal products from their diet — and lifestyle — to the extent that is practical and possible. Vegan diets typically exclude meat, eggs, honey, dairy and other animal-derived food ingredients.
What Do Vegetarians Eat?
Vegetarians eat fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, nuts, beans, legumes, grains and food products that are derived from these ingredients. Vegetarians can make simple meals quickly at home or they can purchase ready-made food from the supermarket or restaurants.
How Do Vegetarians Get Protein?
Vegetarians can get protein simply by eating a variety of foods. Some popular sources of protein include beans and legumes — like chickpeas, peanuts, black beans and soy.
What Foods Do Vegetarians Not Eat?
Vegetarians do not eat foods that have meat or animal products in them, including ham, chicken, or beef, or a soup with bone broth.
What Are the Benefits of Vegetarianism?
Many people adopt the vegetarian diet because it is associated with lowered risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer. People who value animal welfare and animal rights can also feel better eating vegetarian foods, knowing that their diet will exclude their animal friends. Another benefit of vegetarianism is that it is considered better for the planet, and a way to mitigate climate change.
Nutrition for Vegetarians
The information below is summarized from Vegan Health.
Vegetarians who do not eat eggs or dairy products should take vitamin B12 supplements and eat foods that have been fortified with the vitamin, according to nutritionists and vegan health professionals. B12 is found in meat, eggs and dairy, but it is not usually found in plant foods. However, it is made by bacteria, so B12 supplements are available that are not derived from animal products.
Plant foods high in iron content include Grape Nuts cereal, Total cereal, molasses, lentils, spinach, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, Swiss chard, edamame and pinto beans. Iron in plant foods can be made more absorbable by adding vitamin C to meals, and by avoiding calcium supplements at meals.
Plant foods with higher amounts of zinc in them include oatmeal, tofu, cashews, sunflower seeds, garbanzo beans and lentils. Zinc is not typically difficult for vegans to find in their diets, but like iron it is harder for them to absorb from their foods due to phytates that are found in plant foods.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
To meet the recommended amount of essential omega-3 fatty acid intake, vegans can eat chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, soybeans, soy oil, canola oil, tofu and tempeh. The VeganHealth website also recommends taking more than the daily recommended amount per day.
How To Make the Change to a Vegetarian Diet
Organizations based in the United States and Europe have developed programs to support individuals seeking to make a change toward a vegetarian diet. Sentient Media’s Take Action resource webpage includes a section on Dietary Change that includes a 30-day pledge program, petitions for plant-based options in public schools, and other events.
What You Can Do
If you haven’t already done so, you can read more articles to help you reduce meat in your diet. To help you consider a more vegetarian diet, check out Sentient Media’s plant-based guide and recipes.
What are the benefits of vegetarian diet? ›
Compared with meat eaters, vegetarians tend to consume less saturated fat and cholesterol and more vitamins C and E, dietary fiber, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, and phytochemicals (plant chemicals), such as carotenoids and flavonoids.What are the benefits and risks of a vegetarian diet? ›
Vegetarian diets continue to increase in popularity. Reasons for following a vegetarian diet are varied but include health benefits, such as reducing your risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. Yet some vegetarians rely too heavily on processed foods, which can be high in calories, sugar, fat and sodium.What is the different types of vegetarians? ›
- Lacto-Vegetarians. First up in the categories of vegetarians is what is formally known as a lacto-vegetarian. ...
- Ovo-Vegetarians. Similarly, ovo-vegetarians are very close in their choices to vegetarians. ...
- Lacto-Ovo Vegetarians. ...
- Vegans. ...
- Pescatarians. ...
- Pollotarian. ...
It requires less processing, less land, less energy input, and less water than raising and killing animals for food. In short, plant-based protein is more efficient and easy to produce than animal protein.What are benefits of eating meat? ›
A healthy balanced diet can include protein from meat, as well as from fish and eggs or non-animal sources such as beans and pulses. Meats such as chicken, pork, lamb and beef are all rich in protein. Red meat provides us with iron, zinc and B vitamins. Meat is one of the main sources of vitamin B12 in the diet.Is a vegetarian diet more healthy? ›
Analysis: Numerous studies have shown that a vegetarian diet is one of the most effective for maintaining health. Plant-based diets are healthier than diets where meat is consumed, whether measured by the occurrence of heart disease, cancer, or death.Who are vegetarians short answer? ›
a person who does not eat or does not believe in eating meat, fish, fowl, or, in some cases, any food derived from animals, as eggs or cheese, but subsists on vegetables, fruits, nuts, grain, etc.What are the 4 different types of vegetarians? ›
- The Vegan Diet. This is the most restrictive type of vegetarian diet. ...
- Lacto-Vegetarianism. ...
- Lacto-Ovo Vegetarianism (Ovo-Lacto Semi Vegetarian) ...
- Pescatarians. ...
The health factor
A plant-based diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, legumes and nuts, is rich in fiber, vitamins and other nutrients. And people who don't eat meat — vegetarians — generally eat fewer calories and less fat, weigh less, and have a lower risk of heart disease than nonvegetarians do.
In terms of health, research suggests that plant-based alternatives are superior to animal products in many ways. They have favorable nutritional profiles, including more fiber and less fat, saturated fat, trans-fatty acids, cholesterol, and calories.
Is a vegetarian diet more sustainable than an animal meat diet? ›
“This review demonstrates overwhelming evidence that, as well as being far more sustainable compared to animal products in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water use and land use, plant-based animal product alternatives also have a wide range of health benefits.What are 5 benefits of eating meat? ›
Meat and poultry are great sources of protein. They also provide lots of other nutrients your body needs, like iodine, iron, zinc, vitamins (especially B12) and essential fatty acids. So it's a good idea to eat meat and poultry every week as part of your balanced diet.What is the concept of vegetarianism? ›
vegetarianism, the theory or practice of living solely upon vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, and nuts—with or without the addition of milk products and eggs—generally for ethical, ascetic, environmental, or nutritional reasons.What are the benefits of animal products? ›
Why do humans eat meat and other animal products? Animal products can improve human nutrition and heart and bone health. Meat, such as poultry, beef, pork and fish, supply many nutrients. These include protein, B vitamins (niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, and B6), vitamin E, iron, zinc and magnesium.Is vegetarian a safe diet? ›
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can be healthful for people at all stages of life. Plant-based diets may help reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and other conditions.What does a healthy vegetarian diet look like? ›
A vegetarian diet should include a diverse mix of fruits, vegetables, grains, healthy fats and proteins. To replace the protein provided by meat in your diet, include a variety of protein-rich plant foods like nuts, seeds, legumes, tempeh, tofu and seitan.What is vegetarianism essay? ›
Vegetarians often have to take supplements to get all the essential vitamins and minerals. Finally, it may be the case that too much meat is harmful, but we can easily limit the amount we have without having to cut it out of our diet completely. To sum up, I do not agree that everyone should turn to a vegetarian diet.What's another word for vegetarian? ›
Try vegetarian diet, study says. LONDON — A British study of how diet affects the health of new mothers and their babies produced the surprise finding that vegetarian women are more likely to have girls, one of the report's authors said Tuesday.What are 5 reasons people become vegetarians? ›
- Reduce risk of the No. 1 killer – Heart Disease. ...
- Cancer prevention. ...
- Lose excess weight and keep it off. ...
- Live longer, slow the aging process. ...
- Avoid toxic food contaminants. ...
- Reduce Global Warming. ...
- It Makes Economic Sense. ...
- Help end world hunger.
What is the best type of vegetarian diet? ›
Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian Diet
For most people, this is a healthy diet. Advantages of the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet include: A wide array of options for consuming protein, including eggs, cheese, milk and yogurt. Less risk of low intake of vitamin B12, vitamin D and iron compared to some other vegetarian diet options.
A vegetarian diet can be a healthy choice for all kids, as long as it's planned well. The basics of a vegetarian diet are the same as for any healthy diet — provide a variety of foods including plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes (like beans, soy, and lentils), nuts, and seeds.What is the most common type of vegetarian? ›
Lacto-ovo vegetarians are the most common kind of vegetarian. You can be just one or the other. A lacto-vegetarian is used to describe a type of vegetarian who does not eat eggs but does eat dairy products. Ovo-vegetarian refers to people who do not eat meat or dairy products but do eat eggs.What is a Level 5 vegetarian? ›
Level 5 vegans are those who are seen as incredibly committed to the vegan lifestyle, and are often hailed as “extreme vegans”. Level 5 vegans go to an extensive effort to follow a vegan lifestyle that is free of any type of animal product or animal exploitation.What happens if you don't eat? ›
Low blood sugar causes people to feel irritable, confused and fatigued. The body begins to increase production of cortisol, leaving us stressed and hangry. Skipping meals can also cause your metabolism to slow down, which can cause weight gain or make it harder to lose weight.What happens if a vegetarian eats meat? ›
nothing, according to Robin Foroutan, a registered dietitian nutritionist and representative for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Some people may feel as though they have a harder time digesting meat if they aren't used to it, Foroutan said, but there's no scientific evidence for this.What are the pros and cons of plant-based meat? ›
Choosing plant-based meats can also be a healthy choice if made from whole-food ingredients like beans, legumes, or grains. But many plant-based meats can be highly processed with added saturated fat and sodium. They may also lack essential nutrients that animal meat provides if they aren't added in.Why plant-based is better than meat based? ›
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.What are the environmental benefits of plant-based meat? ›
“When people choose plant-based products, the savings in water consumption, land-use and greenhouse gas emission is well over 90 per cent,” says Yeung. He says plant-based meats are ten times more eco-efficient than their animal-based counterparts.
A vegetarian saves more than 25 land animals each year. We kill over 7.7 billion land animals each year for our food. Using the formula mentioned earlier, we find that a vegetarian saves over 25 land animals each year, almost 24 of who are chickens.
What is better for the environment vegan or vegetarian? ›
Vegan diets offer the greatest potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse emissions might be decreased by 35% by replacing half of all animal-based meals with vegan diets. Even switching one animal product, would have a significant impact on climate goals.What are the risks of a vegetarian diet? ›
Plant-based diets carry some risk of inadequate protein, vitamin, and mineral intake. But these risks are readily overcome by choosing the right vegetarian foods and, when necessary, supplements. For example, soy, quinoa, and nuts are good sources of protein, and tofu, lentils, and spinach are good sources of iron.What are the risks of being vegetarian? ›
- Low Vitamin D. Yes, you can get vitamin D from plant sources and supplements. ...
- Not Enough Zinc. Beef and lamb are two of the highest sources of zinc. ...
- Anemia. ...
- Anxiety. ...
- Depression. ...
- Eating Disorders.
Cons of being a vegetarian
High-carb diets cause your blood pressure to spike and drop, which negatively impacts overall health and increases your likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes. Other cons of being a vegetarian include vitamin deficiencies, especially when it comes to nutrients found only in meat.
Downsides to Eating Vegetarian/Vegan? Stroke risk: British researchers followed more than 48,000 men and women with no history of heart disease or stroke for about 18 years. Vegetarians had a 13% lower risk of heart disease than meat eaters. But they also had a 20% higher rate of stroke than meat eaters.What to know about being vegetarian? ›
Someone following a vegetarian diet eats meals focused on plants, including nuts, seeds, grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes. There are many different types of vegetarians, but the most traditional definition is someone who doesn't eat meat. Plenty of reasons exist for why someone might become a vegetarian.What does a vegetarian diet look like? ›
- Eat a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. ...
- Base meals on starchy carbohydrates. ...
- Dairy or dairy alternatives are needed for calcium. ...
- Eat beans, pulses, eggs and other sources of protein. ...
- Choose unsaturated oils and spreads. ...
- Limit foods high in fat, salt and sugar.
In my opinion, the consumption of a vegetarian diet is a better way to live a healthy life and I agree with the notion. Firstly, vegetarian diets are cheaper and more healthy. If the majority of people become vegetarians, a nation needs to struggle less to become self-sufficient on food production.What is the advantage and disadvantages? ›
As nouns, the difference between disadvantage and advantage is that disadvantage is a weakness or undesirable characteristic; a con while the advantage is any condition, circumstance, opportunity, or means, particularly favorable to success, or any desired end.