People who followed a vegetarian diet used to be called food faddists, health nuts, or worse. Today they get more respect as increasing evidence suggests that a vegetarian diet can be very healthful. Like alternative music, this alternative diet is going mainstream. A few drummers who blazed the vegetarian trail are Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, and more recently, AFI’s Adam Carson.
Vegetarians do not eat meat, although some have dairy products and eggs in their diet (called lacto-ovo vegetarians). Those who eat only plant foods and shun animal products all together are vegan.
People may be vegetarian for health reasons, but they may also do it for ethical and ecologic reasons. Some believe that it is wrong to kill animals, while others are concerned about the impact of factory farming on resources and the environment.
Overall, vegetarians tend to be healthier than those who eat the standard American diet. They tend to be leaner and have less heart disease than the rest of the population. This shouldn’t be surprising since the typical American diet ranks among the worst in the world. Vegetarian diets can be unhealthful, too, if one eats a lot of junk foods.
So what does a healthful vegetarian diet consist of? The bulk of the diet is composed of vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), and grains eaten at every meal. Seeds, nuts, eggs, and dairy products should be consumed daily. (A vegan would omit dairy and eggs.) Soy milk might be substituted for cow’s milk. Soy or rice protein shakes can be included for convenience.
Like every diet, a vegetarian diet has its advantages and disadvantages. Vegetarians are often deficient in vitamin B12, iron, and zinc, which can be provided by a multiple vitamin/mineral supplement. Obtaining enough protein can also be a problem if one is not getting enough calories or variety in daily food choices.
Is it necessary or advantageous to go completely vegetarian to be healthy? The traditional diets of some of the healthiest people in the world contain moderate amounts of meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, and fish. The science is becoming increasingly clear, however, that Americans should cut back on their intake of red meat (less than twice per week) to reduce their risk of cancer and heart disease.