An estimated 8 million U.S. adults — or about 3 percent of the population — are vegetarians, according to a survey conducted by Harris Polls for the Vegetarian Resource Group. And a whopping 37 percent of the U.S. population "always or sometimes" eats vegetarian when dining out. Whether you're a part-time vegetarian or treat it as a serious lifestyle, there are five big reasons to be vegetarian.
Did you know? According to the same Harris Polls study, about half of the vegetarians in the U.S. — an estimated 3.7 million people — are also vegan.
What Kind of Vegetarian Am I?
There's one important issue to address before getting to the five common reasons to be a vegetarian: What exactly does it mean to be a vegetarian, anyway?
There are four mainstream ways of defining a vegetarian diet:
- Vegans eat no meat, poultry, fish or animal byproducts.
- Lacto vegetarians are essentially vegans who consume dairy products (and often use other animal byproducts like honey and gelatin).
- Ovo vegetarians are pretty much vegans who eat eggs and, typically, use animal byproducts.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians are, just as you'd expect, vegans who eat eggs, consume dairy products and might be willing to use animal byproducts.
You'll also encounter other types of "partial vegetarians," who essentially eat a vegan diet plus a specific type of animal-based protein, usually fish ("pescovegetarian" or "pescatarians") or chicken and other types of poultry ("pollo-vegetarian").
Going Vegetarian Because of Religious Convictions
Followers of the ancient Indian religion of Jainism believe that all living beings, including animals and plants, have a soul. Because they consider each of these souls to be of equal value and believe they must be treated with respect and compassion, the followers of this religion — called Jains — are strict vegetarians.
Although no other major world religions are as strict about vegetarianism as Jainism is, several have strong traditions of vegetarian lifestyles (or strict traditions in certain sects). For example, many Hindus are vegetarian, and vegetarianism is a strong tradition within the Buddhist faith — although strict vegetarianism is generally restricted to schools of Mahayana Buddhism.
Finally, although a vegetarian diet isn't considered to be a key tenet of mainstream Christianity or Islam, you'll still find sects of each religion that espouse a vegetarian tradition. Of course, followers of any religion might take up a vegetarian diet for other reasons.
Use of Environmental Resources
A July 2017 study published in the journal Scientific Reports evaluated the environmental impact of vegan, lacto-ovo vegetarian, and omnivorous (including meat) diets, measuring their daily carbon emissions, water use and ecological impacts. The scientists found that the omnivorous/meat-eating diet produced notably worse effects in all three categories.
Ultimately, there's no arguing the fact that plant-based foods use fewer environmental resources than animal-based foods, and that's why many people cite concern over sustainability and reducing their environmental impact as reasons to take up a vegetarian lifestyle.
Have you ever seen video of a "factory farm" for any animal, including chickens, turkeys, cattle and pigs? It's not pretty — and this sort of widespread, casual mistreatment of animals in the U.S. meat industry is a big reason some vegetarian people take up a meat-free lifestyle.
In some cases, the wish to avoid exploitation of and cruelty to animals, or an emphatic bent toward nonviolence, spurs people to take up an entirely vegan lifestyle. They not only avoid meat but also don't use animal byproducts for food, clothing or other purposes. This includes products such as honey, butter and leather.
Vegetarian Benefits for Chronic Diseases
There are plenty of ways to eat an unhealthy vegetarian diet. For example, you could eat sticks of butter wrapped in lettuce leaves and be at least technically correct in saying that you're a lacto-ovo vegetarian. But the typical, healthy vegetarian diet — which includes a rich variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains — tends to be low in fat and high in fiber. This, in turn, helps reduce your risk of a number of chronic ailments, including heart disease, several types of cancer, diabetes, hypertension and obesity.
It May Be Your Personal Preference
While it's true that many vegetarians have strong religious, ethical or health reasons for cutting animal products from their diets, there's one more perfectly valid reason people become vegetarian: They simply prefer it. A vegetable-rich, meatless diet can be extremely interesting and flavorful; you'll find meatless dishes in every type of world cuisine, so you'll never be left wanting variety. Or you might simply prefer how your body feels when you eat vegetarian.
A Few Things to Keep in Mind
No matter your reasons for doing it, if you've decided to take up a vegetarian diet, there are a few things you need to keep in mind:
There are 21 different amino acids that go into making a complete protein. While animal-based proteins are "complete," most vegetable-based protein sources only have some of these amino acids — so you need to mix and match different types of protein to make sure you get all the necessary amino acids. While experts used to recommend combining certain foods for this (for example, beans and rice), they now say that eating a varied, healthy vegetarian diet is enough.
Some of the best vegetarian protein sources include tofu, tempeh and other soy products; eggs and yogurt for the lacto-ovo crowd; and nuts.
Vegetarians get about the same iron as meat eaters, at least in Western countries. But plant iron, known as nonheme iron, isn't as readily absorbed as the heme iron from meat sources. You can help boost your iron absorption by taking vitamin C supplements, eating foods rich in vitamin C, and avoiding the phytic acid in whole grains, beans, lentils, seeds and nuts, which can inhibit vitamin C absorption. Sprouting your grains, seeds or nuts before using them will break down the phytic acid and make it easier for your body to absorb the nutrients in these foods.
Not sure which foods are rich in vitamin C? All fruits and vegetables have some vitamin C, but the highest content comes from items such as citrus fruit, cantaloupe, kiwi fruit, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, cauliflower and spinach.
It's a Trap — Maybe
Although a healthful vegetarian diet is known to provide marked health benefits, the key word is healthful. The "trap" is that, as mentioned, it's entirely possibly to eat an unhealthy diet and still call yourself vegetarian. For example, if you ate nothing but spaghetti with tomato sauce, or macaroni and cheese, or peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, you'd be well within the parameters of a vegetarian diet. But it wouldn't be very healthy.
With that said, it's actually very easy to eat a healthful vegetarian diet: All you have to do is take an open-minded approach to eating a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
- Harvard Health Publishing: Becoming a Vegetarian
- The Vegetarian Resource Group: How Many Adults in the U.S. Are Vegetarian and Vegan?
- From the Academy: Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets
- Brown University: Being a Vegetarian
- Mind Body Green: What 6 World Religions Have to Say About Vegetarianism
- BBC: Jainism at a Glance
- Huffington Post: Why Aren't All Buddhists Vegetarians?
- The Vegan Society: Definition of Veganism
- Scientific Reports: Environmental Impact of Omnivorous, Ovo-Lacto Vegetarian, and Vegan Diet
- Vegetarian Times: 7 Top Protein Sources for Vegetarians
- Arizona State University: Ask a Biologist
- Harvard Health Publishing: Are Sprouted Grains More Nutritious Than Regular Whole Grains?
- MedlinePlus: Vitamin C