With the production and sale of meat substitutes on the rise, an increasing number of people may contemplate adopting a vegetarian diet. Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat now offer popular, meatless burgers that taste like burgers made with animal products and directly target people who currently eat meat. Maybe you saw these products in the grocery store or on a fast food menu and wondered, “What does it mean to be a vegetarian?”
Read on for answers to seven frequently asked questions about this meatless diet.
What Do Vegetarians Eat?
No set vegetarian diet exists. Instead, the term “vegetarian” refers to items excluded from a person’s diet. Vegetarians generally avoid animal meat, including beef, pork, poultry, and seafood. They also usually continue to eat animal-derived products, such as eggs, milk, butter, yogurt, and honey.
The ideal vegetarian diet includes a variety of vegetables, whole grains, fruits, and healthy sources of protein. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a vegetarian diet should still adhere to its MyPlate guidelines. Instead of meat, vegetarians can consume protein from eggs, beans and peas, nuts and nut butters, and soy products like tofu and edamame.
Are There Different Types of Vegetarians?
Yes, vegetarians often fall into one of four categories based on what they will and won’t eat:
- Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian: This is a person who avoids all animal meat, but continues to eat eggs, milk, and other dairy products. It’s the default assumption of what someone means when they say “vegetarian.”
- Lacto-Vegetarian: This is a person who avoids animal meat and eggs, but continues to consume milk and other dairy products.
- Ovo-Vegetarian: This is a person who avoids eating animal meat and dairy products, but continues to eat eggs.
- Strict Vegetarian: This is a person who avoids eating any animal meat or animal products, such as dairy and eggs. Researchers primarily use the term “strict vegetarian” while the general public more commonly calls this a vegan diet.
People often use two other terms to describe individuals who follow a semi-vegetarian diet:
- Pesco-Vegetarian or Pescatarian: This is a person who avoids most animal meat, but continues to eat fish or other seafood.
- Flexitarian: Sometimes called a reducetarian, this is a person who mostly adheres to a vegetarian diet while occasionally consuming animal meat.
Can You Lose Weight as a Vegetarian?
Yes. Research shows that, on average, vegetarians have a lower body weight than people who eat meat and a vegetarian diet may provide an effective weight-loss strategy.
That said, you must eat a healthy vegetarian diet in order to lose weight. While French fries and chocolate cake technically fall into a vegetarian diet, you probably won’t lose weight if that’s all you eat. Following the USDA guidelines for weight loss will help ensure you lose weight in a healthy way while following a vegetarian diet.
Is It Healthier to Eat Meat or Adopt a Vegetarian Diet?
Studies suggest eating a vegetarian diet filled with vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins can provide many health benefits. When done right, research shows a vegetarian diet can improve a person’s heart health as well as lowering the risk for cancer and type 2 diabetes.
In addition, studies found eating large amounts of red meat — including beef, pork, and lamb — can increase a person’s cancer risk. Recent research also shows that both red and white meat can raise cholesterol levels. Reducing or eliminating meat from your diet can help lower the risks associated with meat consumption.
What Are the Risks of a Vegetarian Diet?
When done right, a vegetarian diet poses no health risks. Risks only arise when a person fails to eat the right foods and doesn’t replace essential nutrients they previously consumed in meat.
The most common nutrients vegetarians worry about include protein, iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids. Check out these other posts focused on how vegetarians can consume enough of these nutrients on a daily basis:
- 10 High-Protein Vegetarian Foods
- 10 Iron-Rich Vegetarian Foods
- 10 Calcium-Rich Vegetarian Foods
- 5 Vitamin B12-Rich Vegetarian Foods
- 5 Omega-3-Rich Vegetarian Foods
Can Children and Teens Safely Eat a Vegetarian Diet?
Yes, children and teens can safely follow a vegetarian diet. Parents should ensure their vegetarian children and teens eat a balanced, healthy vegetarian diet rather than loading up on snacks, sugary foods, and simple carbs to replace meat. For more information, check out these USDA resources on healthy vegetarian living for children and teens.
Is It More Expensive to Follow a Vegetarian Diet?
People sometimes assume a vegetarian diet is more expensive than a traditional American diet because they associate vegetarianism with high-end, specialty foods. While many interesting, meatless products on the market do come with a hefty price tag, they aren’t a required part of a vegetarian diet.
In fact, studies suggest that vegetarians might save up to $750 per year compared to their meat-eating friends when it comes to food costs. Based on USDA food guidelines, this research compares similar diets that meet the recommended nutrition requirements. Because meat typically costs more than vegetarian sources of protein, a vegetarian diet generally offers a less expensive option.
If you’re interested in becoming a vegetarian, check out these 10 Tips for Becoming a Vegetarian.