Terry is a nationally registered dietetic technician with a degree in dietetics from Pennsylvania State University. She has written numerous articles, blogs and e-books on health and food-related topics.
By definition a vegetarian diet is a diet which excludes any kind of food which originates from the flesh of an animal including all types of poultry, fish, and other seafood. Vegetarians, also called lacto-ovo (or ovo-lacto) vegetarians, do however consume dairy products and eggs as well as foods containing these products. The diet also includes a wide variety of other foods including fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and vegetarian processed foods.
There is no exact date for when people began to follow a vegetarian diet; however, there is strong evidence the diet dates all the way back to the very beginning of man. The diet was officially recognized in the mid-1800s when the Vegetarian Society of Great Britain was founded and created the term. The Seventh-Day Adventists followed suit; believers came together as a religious organization in 1863 and highly recommended (and still do) eating a vegetarian diet. The customs of many other religions and ancient cultures support eating a vegetarian diet and include Hindus, Buddhists, Trappist Monks, and members of the international, non-denominational Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA). A vegetarian diet is often associated with the “hippie” movement in the 60s; however, few of these people were actually vegetarian. In modern society a wide variety of people across the globe embrace the vegetarian way of life.
A vegetarian diet is easy to follow due to the inclusion of a wide variety of foods. There are also many processed meat alternatives available in the marketplace, and because the diet allows dairy products and eggs, compliance is that much easier.
The vegetarian diet involves buying easily recognizable foods from the grocery store making it an affordable option for most people; however, if processed foods make up a large portion of the diet shopping trips could become quite costly.
A healthy vegetarian diet does require some planning as well as some shopping. Food preparation can be quite simple and take up very little time, or when following certain types of recipes can be more time-consuming and labor-intensive. The key is to balance out these approaches based upon individual time constraints.
As supported by the American Dietetic Association, an appropriately planned vegetarian diet which focuses on a wide variety healthy foods can meet all the nutrient needs of an individual.
A vegetarian diet is largely accepted in society as a reasonable approach to health and weight loss. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly The American Dietetic Association), the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, published a position paper in 2009 on vegetarian diets. The paper states: “It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
Benefits: A vegetarian diet with higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds may decrease the risk of chronic disease due to the reduced intake of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein and the increase in fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals.
Downsides: It’s easy to slip into a “junk food” vegetarian diet. With all the products on the market today the selections are pretty much endless. A vegetarian cookie is still a cookie after all and potato chips and corn chips are vegetarian too. When following this kind of vegetarian diet there are no health benefits and achieving a weight loss goal is nearly impossible. Another trap of the vegetarian diet is replacing meat with too many eggs and too many dairy products. Full of animal protein and animal fat these foods (especially in excess) will do nothing for weight loss or health.
The Bottom Line: The vegetarian diet is a healthy diet overall; however, the variety of dietary habits among those following the diet makes it hard to assess. Relying heavily on eggs and dairy and consuming highly processed vegetarian foods and meat alternatives can compromise health. Following a vegetarian diet to lose weight and/or regain health requires making healthier choices.