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Vegan and Vegetarian: What to Know About Plant-Based Diets

There are many reasons people choose to cut out dairy and/or meat from their diets, including personal, religious, environmental or financial reasons.

Vegetarianism, veganism and other forms of plant-based diets are becoming more appealing and accessible to people these days, thanks to greater access to fresh produce, options in restaurants and a growing number of plant-based alternatives like Beyond Meat. But what exactly is a vegan or vegetarian diet, and should we really ditch dairy and meat?

Beril Hezer, a registered dietitian at Banner Health, explained the advantages and disadvantages of these plant-based diets and important tips to keep in mind if you decide to follow one.

What is a plant-based diet?

While vegetarian and vegan are types of plant-based diets, a plant-based diet doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t eat meat or dairy.

“A plant-based diet is simply a way of eating where you focus on filling up on plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds and legumes,” Hezer said. “If you eat mainly a plant-based diet, you may still choose to eat small amounts of animal proteins such as red meats, seafood and dairy products.”

What’s the difference between a vegan and vegetarian diet?

Vegan and vegetarian diets have similar roots in their foundation. “They both omit ‘flesh’ foods like meat, poultry, pork and fish from their diets for health or environmental reasons,” Hezer said. “However, there can be varying degrees of vegetarianism.”

Let’s break them down:

Vegetarian

Vegetarians may consume animal by-products like eggs, milk and other dairy items. But these eaters can be further divided by what animal products they choose to include in their diet.

The most common types include:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians who eat both eggs and dairy products
  • Lacto vegetarians who eat dairy products but not eggs
  • Ovo vegetarians who eat eggs but not dairy products
Vegan

Vegans don’t consume or use any animal products or byproducts. And it’s not just limited to food consumption, they also avoid leather, wool, silk and soaps. As well, they avoid the use of latex that contains casein, cosmetics that contain animal fat or manufacturers that test on animals.

Partial vegetarian

Partial vegetarians avoid eating meat but do consume some animal foods, such as fish and seafood (known as pescatarian) or chicken (known as pollo-vegetarian).

Flexitarian

Those who are semi-vegetarian, or flexitarians, occasionally eat meat, dairy, eggs, chicken and fish in small amounts but mostly focus on a plant-based diet.

“Flexitarians and partial vegetarians don’t meet the traditional definition of vegetarianism, because they do eat animal flesh,” Hezer said. “Many times, they do so to get the health benefits of eating a largely vegetarian diet without giving up meat entirely.”

Advantages of being vegan or vegetarian

Vegetarians tend to eat more vitamins C and E, dietary fiber, folic acid, potassium, magnesium and phytochemicals (plant chemicals). A diet centered on whole foods can provide many health benefits, such as a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including obesity, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and some forms of cancer.

“Fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts are low in saturated fats, contain heart-healthy fats and are a great source of fiber,” Hezer said. “Those who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet tend to have lower blood pressure, body mass index and LDL (low density lipoprotein), or bad cholesterol. They also have a lower risk of atherosclerosis (plaque build-up inside your artery), reduced oxidative stress and inflammation.”

Disadvantages of being vegan or vegetarian

While vegetarians and vegans eat high amounts of nutrient-rich foods, they may still be at risk of getting insufficient vitamins and minerals, such as iron, calcium, zinc, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D.

“Since meat products are rich in zinc and B vitamins, following a vegan diet for a prolonged period of time, without getting adequate vitamin and mineral supplements, will put you at risk for vitamin B12 deficiency or anemia,” Hezer said.

A plant-based diet isn’t automatically healthy either. There are many products and pre-packaged foods that are considered vegan/vegetarian, such as cookies, French fries and ice cream, yet they contain refined carbohydrates, are highly processed and are high in added sugar and salt. Additionally, some processed meat and egg substitutes are high in sodium and preservatives.

“Remember any foods that have been highly processed should be eaten mindfully,” Hezer said. “It’s important to read nutritional labels carefully to help you choose products wisely.”

Tips for eating vegan or vegetarian

If you choose to say goodbye to animal products, here are some ways you can ensure you stay on track.

  1. Talk to an expert. Meet with your provider or a registered dietitian to evaluate your health and identify the right nutritional plan for you. They may also recommend fortified foods or supplements you may need.
  2. Dip your toe slowly. You can go cold turkey (no pun intended) or gradually add in days as you adjust to the new diet.
  3. Swap ingredients. You may still be able to whip up your favorite recipes by simply swapping out the main protein with a vegetarian source like tofu or tempeh. If the recipe calls for chicken broth, you can use vegetable broth instead. There are also a number of dairy alternatives when it comes to milks and cheeses as well.
  4. Read labels. Animal ingredients can go by many different names. Read labels carefully and familiarize yourself with common hidden sources of animal products.

Vegan and vegetarian recipes

To tempt your tastebuds, try some of the following recipes: 

Could I benefit from a vegan or vegetarian diet?

For those looking to lose weight or reduce their risk for certain diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease, a vegan or vegetarian diet can help. If you make the switch to a vegan, vegetarian or plant-based diet, it’s important to carefully review your eating habits to make sure you’re getting proper nutrition.

“Becoming vegan or vegetarian can be challenging for those with certain medical conditions like anemia and iron absorption issues, kidney failure, allergies and malabsorption, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) and celiac disease who have gluten intolerances,” Hezer said. It is also important if you’re breastfeeding, pregnant or a child, you supplement with additional vitamin B12, vitamin D and iron when necessary.

Talk to your health care provider or a registered dietitian who can evaluate your health and determine the right dietary plan to meet your nutritional needs and goals. To find a doctor at Banner Health, visit www.bannerhealth.com.

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