By KATE BENNETT
VA Dietetic Intern
It’s likely that you’ve known or met someone in your life who is a vegetarian. The vegetarian diet has been around for a while and is becoming more and more popular due to research on the benefits of this diet. Even the idea of following a diet more closely related to the vegetarian diet is popping up in the minds of meat-eating adults across the country, due to the diet’s researched health benefits.
According to a recent poll by the Vegetarian Resource Group, 47 percent of Americans eat at least one vegetarian meal per week.
The term “vegetarian” usually refers to an individual who does not eat meat, fish or poultry and relies only on plant-based foods for their diet. A well-structured vegetarian diet is high in fruits, vegetables and plant-based protein sources like beans, nuts and soy products. There are multiple types of vegetarians with various limits set for what they will and will not eat, including:
* Lacto-ovo vegetarians, who restrict meat, fish and poultry, as well as eggs or egg products.
* Pescatarians, who restrict meat and poultry; however they will eat fish.
* Vegans, who follow the strictest diet and will not eat meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, lard, gelatin or any foods made with ingredients from animal sources.
* Flexitarians/Semi-vegetarians, which describes individuals who eat a mostly vegetarian diet, but occasionally eat meat.
There are many reasons why individuals may choose a vegetarian diet. These may include personal preference, cultural and religious beliefs, health concerns or environmental concerns.
As more people have started to practice a vegetarian diet, more research has been done on how choosing to eat a plant-based diet can affect health. A recent study conducted at Loma Linda University researched the connections between vegetarian dietary patterns and death in more than 73,000 Seventh-day Adventist men and women. The results showed that the vegetarians—including vegans, lacto-vegetarians, pescatarians and semi-vegetarians—were 12 percent less likely to die from all causes compared to nonvegetarians. Specifically, people on a vegetarian diet had a lower rate of death due to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and kidney disorders.
The Centers for Disease Control has stated that consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, vegetarian eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes, including lower levels of obesity, reduced risk of heart disease and lower blood pressure. Vegetarians also tend to consume fewer calories from fat and get more fiber, potassium and vitamin C in their diets than nonvegetarians.
So what should you do if you’re considering switching to a vegetarian or vegetarian-based diet? Use the following tips to incorporate some aspects of the vegetarian diet into your life.
* Keep it simple. You don’t have to overhaul your entire diet in one day. Make small changes to your meals and snacks. Gradually eliminate certain foods over time while introducing new plant foods into your diet.
* Escape from the thought that every main dish must include a meat. Plan your meals around protein options that are naturally low in fat like beans, nuts, or tofu, and add whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.
* Buy a vegetarian cookbook or search online for vegetarian recipes to inspire new meal and snack ideas.
* Evaluate your diet and figure out what vegetarian foods you currently eat and enjoy.
* MyPlate is a great resource for anyone—vegetarians or meat eaters—who wants to follow a healthy and balanced diet. The plate includes a “protein foods” section that includes many vegetarian options, and the website offers tips for vegetarians.
* For more tips and help to transition to a vegetarian diet, make an appointment with your local VA dietitian and check out the USDA’s vegetarian resources.
For more information about healthy eating, contact your local VA Nutrition clinic, or your MOVE!® or TeleMOVE!® Weight Management Program coordinator.