The first step in becoming a vegetarian may be answering the question:
What is a Vegetarian?
The practice of vegetarianism means to abstain from the consumption of animals. That’s the basic.
However, from here the questions branch out:
- Does a vegetarian abstain only from red meats, poultry, and other animal flesh?
- Or do they also avoid animal bi-products, (such as cheese, milk, etc.) ?
- And what about seafood?
- What are the parameters around being a vegetarian?
First let’s look at why you would become a vegetarian.
You may know some people who grew up in a vegetarian home and maintained such a diet into their adulthood. Someone else may be able to tell their story, pinpointing back to a specific time in life or event when they decided to start going sans meat.
Others choose a vegetarian diet for health, environmental, animal rights concerns, or even religion (Jainism, Hinduism, and Seventh-day Adventists).
Maybe you watched a movie like “Death on a Factory Farm,” “Our Daily Bread,” “Vegucated,” “Food, Inc.” or “Farm to Fridge” and feel motivated to make a change.
On the health front, the USDA has reported (2010) that in comparison, a vegetarian diet versus a non-vegetarian diet was associated with a lower level of obesity, as well as a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease. Other clinical trials and studies also point to lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease, lower LDL cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of type 2 diabetes. These health benefits are mostly credited to the reduced intake of saturated fats, less calories from fat, and higher intake of fibers and vitamins from plants. All of these factors are known to reduce the risk of many chronic diseases and cancers.
Questions of a reduced mortality rate have been brought up on multiple studies, but the conclusions have always been the same: vegetarians do indeed have a lower mortality rate compared to the general public, but it’s difficult to tell if this is solely due to their diet changes, or if other factors contribute (such as lower smoking rate among vegetarians, socioeconomic status, etc.).
Other health considerations include eliminating/reducing the passage of disease from animals, and possibility of improved mood.
Restriction of meat, fish, and poultry in omnivores improves mood, Arachidonic Acid to Eicosapentaenoic Acid Ratio in Blood Correlates Positively with Clinical Symptoms of Depression, Vegetarian Diets are Associated with Health Mood States: a cross-sectional study in Seventh Day Adventist adults.
The United Nations made a statement back in 2006 that the livestock industry is one of the “largest contributors of environmental degradation worldwide.”
From local (pollution of animal waste in nearby waters) to global, many scientists and environmentalists are expressing their concerns about the ability to sustain our meat consumption – and Americans are among the worst. Industrial farming is, unfortunately one of the largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions.
For others, the decision to go meat-free is an ethical one. Some of the documentaries earlier mentioned can be especially eye-opening to how the meat on your table gets there.
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) are known for fighting the way animals are treated on industrial farms. One common feeling is that if you’re not willing to slaughter it yourself, you shouldn’t be eating it.
A Vegetarian Diet
Those who consume a vegetarian diet reportedly also consume less calories from fat (especially saturated), more fiber, potassium, phytochemicals, and vitamin C, and have a higher intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and soy products. Exactly what a vegetarian diet includes depends on what kind of a vegetarian diet one chooses.
You may be familiar with the different kinds already:
This is the most strict form of vegetarianism, abstaining from all flesh of animals and their bi-products (cheese, eggs, yogurt, milk, etc.). This even includes sources which are not obvious, such as gelatin (often made from the hooves of animals). They may also choose to consume a raw-only diet.
This excludes meat, poultry, fish, and eggs, but does allow dairy such as milk and yogurt from animal sources.
They also exclude meat, poultry, and fish but will consume eggs and dairy products. This is the most common form of vegetarianism in the U.S.
Flexitarian / Pescatarian
There are some who focus on a vegetarian diet, but do allow occasional consumption of meat or poultry. Likewise, some exclusively refuse to eat meat but do allow fish and seafood (pescatarians), or choose only to exclude mammalians from their diet. The Vegetarian Society states that a diet which includes these animals is not a vegetarian diet because birds and fish are still animals.
Becoming a Vegetarian: How to Make the Change?
Thinking of switching yourself or your family to a vegetarian diet? First, you need to choose which category of vegetarianism you’d like to try: strict, only eggs, with fish, no flesh but include dairy?
My recommendation is to start with the widest category and slowly narrow in on what works for you. Start with the elimination of meat, then decide later if you want to make the switch to ovo- lacto- or strict.
The next step is to do your research. Vegetarian diets used to be a concern:
Would vegetarians be able to get high enough amounts of the nutrients that we commonly associate with meat-consumption? This includes protein, iron, and B12 especially.
This is no longer a question, however, as the ADA (American Dietetic Association) states that “well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”
You can find what they say about a vegetarian diet here: http://EatRight.org
The Biggie: Protein
This is the most obvious, and yet the nutrient with the easiest solution. Americans all too often only associate protein with meat. However, most Americans are consuming more protein than they need.
Taken straight from the CDC: “With all this talk about protein, you might think Americans were at risk for not eating enough. In fact, most of us eat more protein than we need.
Protein is in many foods that we eat on a regular basis.“ With the exclusion of meat you can turn to sources of legumes, soy(milk, tofu, tempeh), eggs (an incredible and complete protein source), nuts, seeds, dairy and dairy products, and grains. (Did you know that rice and beans together make a complete protein – that is, containing all essential amino acids?).
The recommended intake for the average adult woman is 46 g/day, and for men is 56 g/day.
Other nutrients to be especially conscience of when cutting meat are n-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B-12 – some of these more than others. For example, the only concern about vitamin D is that foods fortified with the D-2 form (vegan friendly) may be less effective in our bodies than D-3 (animal-derived). However, this risk of developing a vitamin D deficiency is extremely low.
Nutrients such as B-12 and iron can take a more conscious effort. Vegetarians are recommended to consume more iron than meat-eaters because the non-heme variety of iron found in plants is less bioavailable than that from red meat. Flaxseed, quinoa, beans, dark leafy greens, and prune juice are all examples of alternate sources.
Interestingly enough, studies show the possibility that our bodies adapt to lower iron intake over time. The incidence of iron-deficiency anemia is actually similar in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian adults.
For B-12 the most common sources for vegetarians will be fortified cereals, meat substitutes, or dairy products. There is no reliable plant source of B-12 (though fermented soy products, nutritional yeast, and spirulina are being looked at as vegan sources), so if consumption of fortified products is low then a supplement is recommended.
If choosing a lacto-ovovegetarian diet, calcium is of no concern. Yogurts, cheeses, and milk are all great sources of calcium. For vegans, fortified foods are a good option. Many soy products and juices are also calcium-fortified.
The tricky part comes when looking to plants as a bone-strengthening sources. Leafy greens that can be a source of calcium also have what are called oxalates. These, unfortunately, greatly hinder calcium absorption. Low-oxalate greens such as bok choy, broccoli, collards, and kale are all still good sources of calcium, but unfortunately spinach and swiss chard, for example, are too high in oxalates to count them as a calcium source.
Do some reading. Make sure you understand your needs and how to achieve them (this is a good recommendation for anyone, no matter what diet they’re choosing). Haphazard vegetarians can easily end up with vitamin deficiencies that cause other health concerns. You want to make sure you’re gleaning the health benefits of a vegetarian diet!
Once you feel ready to go, it’s time to do some grocery shopping. Get yourself a vegetarian/vegan cookbook, mark some recipes to try on the internet, and get experimenting to find new lovable foods that fit your lifestyle change!