Types of Vegetarianism: Which Is Right For You?
The vegetarian lifestyle is more popular than ever, but there are still many misconceptions about what vegetarians and vegans do and do not eat.
Whether you're thinking about becoming a vegetarian or vegan, or you're simply curious about vegetarian and vegan diets, this article will help you understand the terminology and make an informed choice about what type of vegetarian or vegan - if any - you want to become.
A Little Basic Biology
Like the other great apes - gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans - humans are naturally omnivores. That means that unlike herbivores, who eat only plants, and carnivores, who eat only meat, we can consume and digest both plant and animal foods.
In nature, omnivorous species tend to be opportunistic eaters who eat primarily plant foods, because they are more readily available, but who take advantage of opportunities to eat animal foods when they present themselves. For example, the majority of the diet of wild chimpanzees is made up of fruits and greens, but they also raid bird nests for eggs and nestlings, catch and kill small mammals, and display early forms of tool use to catch ants, termites, and other insects.
Humans are unique among animal species in that we cook our food. We are also one of the few species to grow our own food. There is considerable debate in the scientific community about how much these two factors have affected our evolution.
What Is a Vegetarian?
The most basic definition of a vegetarian is someone who doesn't eat meat or meat byproducts, such as gelatin or lard.
Vegetarians do not eat red meat, poultry or fish. Occasionally you might meet someone who claims to be vegetarian but who eats chicken or fish. They are not vegetarians at all but pollotarians (someone who eats chicken but not red meat or fish) or pescetarian (someone who eats fish and seafood but not red meat or poultry).
Some people also claim to be "semi-vegetarians," which usually means that they eat some meats but not others, or eat vegetarian most of the time but occasionally eat meat. Unfortunately, being "semi-vegetarian" is like being "semi-pregnant." You either are or you aren't. A more accurate term for semi-vegetarian eating habits is "flexitarian."
Flexitarians who eat only organic, free-range, or grassfed animal products often call themselves "compassionate carnivores" ("compassionate omnivores" would be more accurate, but it doesn't sound as good) or "ethical eaters."
Being a vegetarian does not mean that you eat only vegetables. Vegetarians can eat exactly the same variety of plant foods that non-vegetarians eat, including vegetables, fruits, grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, vegetable oils, and more.
Whether or not vegetarians eat other animal products such as eggs and dairy products depends on what type of vegetarian they are.
Types of Vegetarianism
Within the broad definition of someone who doesn't eat meat or meat byproducts, there are a number of different types of vegetarian.
The most common type of vegetarian is the ovo-lacto vegetarian. Ovo-lacto vegetarians do not eat meat but do eat eggs (ovo) and dairy products (lacto). Some people are ovo vegetarians (eat eggs but not meat or dairy products) or lacto vegetarians (eat dairy products but not meat or eggs).
The second most common type of vegetarian is the vegan. Vegans do not eat any animal products whatsoever. No meat, poultry, or fish, no eggs, and no dairy products. Some vegans also avoid other animal products such as honey, leather, wool, and silk.
A Vegan Food Pyramid
Types of Veganism
In addition to the standard vegan diet, there are a few subcategories of vegans.
The most common is probably raw vegans. Raw vegans believe that cooking is unnatural and destroys certain enzymes and nutrients, so they typically strive to eat at least 75% of their food raw.
A fairly small subcategory if vegans is fruitarians, who eat only fruits. Most fruitarians define fruits more broadly than your typical grocery store consumer and include vegetable "fruits" such as tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as some nuts and seeds. Some also incorporate leafy green vegetables into their diets.
Raw vegan and fruitarian diets are by far the most controversial diets described in this article. Unlike vegetarian and standard vegan diets, which are well accepted by nutritionists and may be healthier than non-vegetarian diets in some regards, most nutritionists do not consider raw veganism and fruitarianism to provide optimal nutrition for human health.
Which Vegetarian Diet Is Right For You?
Choosing the best vegetarian diet for you involves many factors.
Treatment of Animals
Many people decide to become vegetarian or vegan after learning about the appalling treatment of many animals raised for food. The so-called "compassionate carnivore" movement seeks to minimize animal suffering by buying from small, local farmers who practice humane farming techniques. Others feel that killing animals for food is wrong regardless of how well the animal is treated when it is alive.
Livestock are one of the leading sources of methane emissions, a powerful greenhouse grass. Improper disposal of manure leads to air and water pollution. The Amazon rainforest is being logged for pasture and soybean fields to feed to beef cattle, and in this country, raising grain and soybeans to feed to livestock contributes to everything from the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone to the declining populations of hundreds of insect and bird species. More sustainable farming practices can prevent many of these problems, but many people feel that the best solution is to stop eating meat entirely.
Diets high in meat, dairy, and eggs have been implicated in hundreds of health problems, including everything from menstrual cramps to cancer. Paying careful attention to good nutrition can prevent these problems without requiring you to give up eating meat and animal products, but again, many people feel it is easier just to stop eating animal products entirely.
Social Justice Issues
Livestock consume an average of 80% of all grain grown in the United States. If Americans reduced their meat consumption by just 10%, enough grain would be saved to feed every person who died of starvation that year. Routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock is also creating a public health crisis in the form of antibiotic-resistant drugs. Many slaughterhouses employ illegal aliens in unsafe conditions. Organic methods and pastured, not grain-fed, livestock solve some of these problems, but once more, many feel that the most meaningful stance is to stop eating meat entirely.
Finally, some people just have strong personal or philosophical beliefs about the ethics of eating animal products.
Ultimately, the most important factor when deciding whether to become vegetarian or vegan should be what makes YOU feel best, both physically and emotionally.
Good luck, and good health!