Maybe you think going vegetarian will be better for your health. Maybe you can’t bear to eat animals. Or maybe you’re concerned about the environment and want to do your part to save it. Whatever the reason, you’re considering giving vegetarianism a try, which is great—but you should definitely do your research first.
“Vegetarianism has long been a staple in many cultures,” explains Yasi Ansari, M.S., RDN. “It culturally began as a way to respect and care for animals and as a nonviolent practice toward animals. Today, more and more people are exploring more plant foods for various health benefits and the beneficial impact that eating more plant foods can have on the environment.”
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Traditionally, vegetarianism can include any number of variants, such as removing animal products altogether—including items that come from animals, such as milk and honey—or simply devoid of animal flesh, fish, and seafood. The term originates from a combination of the two words vegetable and agrian, and depending on your goals, it could encompass any number of variants.
Check out the most common versions of vegetarianism below:
1. Vegetarian (Otherwise Known as Lacto-Ovo Vegetarians)
“Vegetarians will not eat meat, poultry, fish, or seafood but will eat dairy products, honey, and eggs,” says Marissa Meshulam, M.S., R.D., CDN. Since it includes a number of high-protein foods like eggs and lentils, it’s a pretty sustainable way to eat if you want to exclude all meat from your diet.
“A flexitarian is more of a flexible vegetarian eating pattern, where your intake is mostly vegetarian, but you’ll eat chicken, steak, or any other animal product when you’re craving it,” says Ansari. “Think less meat and more plant-based foods.” This is the least restrictive vegetarian eating pattern and could also be called “mostly plant-based”—aka, veggies make up the bulk of your plate much of the time but not always.
“A pescatarian is a vegetarian who also eats fish, along with eggs and dairy,” says Meshulam. It’s a great option if you want to get some extra protein in your diet. It’s also touted as a great diet for getting ample brain-supporting omega-3 fatty acids, which are otherwise found in foods like chia seeds or walnuts.
“A lacto-vegetarian abstains from eggs, meat, poultry, seafood, and fish but eats dairy,” explains Meshulam. In India, for instance, a lacto-vegetarian diet is synonymous with vegetarianism as a whole, since Hinduism considers eggs and egg products to be animals.
“Ovo-vegetarians include eggs and egg products in their diet, but they don’t eat dairy or other animal proteins such as seafood, fish, poultry, and meat,” says Ansari. Many lactose-intolerant vegetarians may choose to eat this way.
“A vegan diet means eliminating all animal products, including those of animal origin,” says Meshulam. “This means no eggs, dairy, or even honey.”
Outside of diet, most vegans also eliminate animal-based products in their daily life. For example, they won’t wear leather or fur goods or use products that include any animal-derived ingredients such as gelatin.
“This is often the strictest form of a vegetarian diet,” explains Ansari. “A raw vegan excludes foods of animal origin. There is no cooking involved, and the uncooked foods include vegetables, fruits, legumes, sprouted grains, nuts, herbs, and seeds, with the belief that raw and minimally cooked/heated foods (less than 114 degrees Fahrenheit) provide more nutrients than foods that are cooked.”
Raw vegan diets have been associated with low cholesterol levels, but there isn’t a consensus on whether one type of vegetarian diet may be healthier than another.
Why do people opt for more plant-based diets?
If you’re looking to switch to a more plant-based diet, you’re not alone. But while it might seem like a trendy new term that hits you in the face every time you open Instagram, it can actually have some incredible benefits for both your health and the environment.
“I think, overall, we are becoming more health-focused as a population,” says Meshulam. “With that, people are understanding that incorporating more plant-based foods can have many benefits. Plant-based diets have been linked to a lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.” She adds that people are becoming more and more earth-conscious and opting to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle due to the environmental impact of factory farming.
For instance, one study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that transitioning to more plant-based diets could reduce global mortality by 6 to 10%, and food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 29 to 70%—when compared with a reference scenario for the year 2050. In addition, a 2013 study aimed at physicians asks them to consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.
Provided you’re doing it strategically—aka, your diet is full of whole foods, protein-rich plants, and complex carbs, as opposed to processed (albeit vegan-friendly) food—you should be able to reap plenty of benefits, says Ansari.
How to know which type of vegetarian diet is right for you.
It may sound a little obvious, but listen to your intuition and your body. Maybe certain religious or ethical reasons encourage you to go completely vegan, or you may feel better with a piece of steak in your diet on occasion. Perhaps you do a lot of weight training workouts, so you feel like you need protein from poultry and seafood—or maybe just keeping eggs in the mix feels like enough.
“I encourage my clients to focus on what foods feel right to them at this current point in their life, with the awareness that it can change,” says Meshulam. “This allows flexibility around food and creates a sense of trust within our bodies that we can honor what we need.” For instance, she says some people really thrive off a mostly vegetarian diet, while others feel good incorporating certain animal products. “I would pay attention to your energy levels and satisfaction and see what is right for you.”
In addition, Ansari recommends working with a dietitian or checking out the macros in your food so you can be sure you’re meeting the adequate nutrient requirements when it comes to your diet. “I would recommend transitioning in phases—either a few days a week or removing food groups gradually,” she says. “You can 100% meet your nutritional needs through food and the right supplements. A few key nutrients I monitor during the transition include B-12, calcium, vitamin D, iodine, omega-3, iron, and zinc.”
Transitioning to a vegetarian diet can be totally healthy and help you reach your health goals, provided it’s done in the right way. Do your research, trust your intuition, find some yummy recipes, and see how it goes.