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!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2010 kerryg
wwolfs on March 01, 2012:
Very interesting hub! I am not a total vegetarian but fit somewhere in one of those descriptions you have listed. In the last three years I have stopped eating red meat and the past year chicken. I still like eggs, cheese and fish though. My oldest son has been a vegetarian for the last ten years so I have often thought about it. And two other sons that eat some meat but are into nutrition and health too that I have often thought that maybe one day when I grow up I can be just like all of them. Actually, I am into nutrition and health myself but my decision for giving up meat wasn't because of them.
It started within the past three years when I was picking up meat at slaughterhouses. I had never been to any of these places and don't want to go back but it was mostly from watching the animals that were brought in and the smell of death that filled the air. I never went into the actual slaughter area (would look at the door) but would get upset over the animals. The truck drivers bringing them in would sit way back in their seats and would not look at me when they saw me looking into their trailers and even sometimes talking to the animals. Cows are actually intelligent and will respond to you. And all the trailer doors have locks on them so there's no chance for escape.
Looking down from a semi into the trailers other times after this I was bothered by what I sometimes would see the animals standing in. Totally disgusting to treat these animals this way. After this I started to read articles about meat, slaughterhouses, and the journey of our hamburgers. I will probably write a hub about this one day. I do respect the rights of others to eat as they wish. I think your descriptions of different types of vegetarians is good as everyone may not want to give up everything. I am still learning about all this. Great information!
riah :) on February 20, 2012:
Hi I'm 13 and am becoming a ovo-lacto vegetarian. I never liked the idea that farmers will kill animals(cows, goats,and chickens etc.) that have reached the end of the line with their youthful days instead of letting live to their full lifespans. I have been a vegetarian for 20 mins.-2/20/12
chamilj from Sri Lanka on September 08, 2011:
I think becoming ovo-lacto vegetarian is the best.
Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on July 03, 2011:
As I commented on another of your hubs about vegetarianism, I'm a former vegan who previously was a vegetarian for many years. My reasons for choosing the no-meat lifestyle were "all of the above" that you listed.
Now, because of my age (68), my doctor wants me to eat fish once a week plus an occasional egg. That means I'm now a "pesce-ovo-tarian." (I've also seen it spelled "pesco-ovo-tarian.")
I don't eat red meat, pork, or any poultry, and I only eat a few types of fish in a very limited amount. I found an organic farmer who feeds his laying hens organic food (including scraps of greens from his organic garden), and they are range-free except when they're in their large and comfy coop. I limit the eggs I eat as well. I don't consume any milk or milk products. I never liked milk anyway, and have always been lacto-sensitive. Soy yogurt contains probiotics like regular yogurt. Galaxy Nutritional Foods makes some terrific tasting soy "faux cheese" slices. The best ones are smoked provolone and pepper jack. I can't tell the difference in either taste or texture, and many people who've eaten these at my home say the same thing (in an astonished tone).That includes my six-year-old great-grandson who loves grilled "cheese" sandwiches and veggie burgers.
I have a wealth of foods that I do enjoy: all types of veggies, fruits, whole grains, nuts, olives and olive oil, coffee, decaf tea and water with lemon. I don't have much of a sweet tooth, but occasionally make very healthy oatmeal cookies or sweet potato pie, only I use stevia instead of sugar. I like to cook and make lots of dishes without meat, milk, butter or cheese that are enjoyed by family members and friends who ordinarily are omnivores. I cook with lots of herbs and spices, and many dishes contain garlic and olive oil. Eating this way is really an adventure for someone who likes to cook and doesn't want to eat junk food. I fully believe that what I eat is the reason I haven't had a cold in more than 10 years.
I respect the right of others to eat as they wish; however, I'm totally against all types of factory farming (plants and animals). While you may be able to find and purchase grass-fed beef, there's not a lot of it to go around.
Did you read the book EATING ANIMALS by Jonathan Foer? I highly recommend it.
Okay, I'm climbing down off my soapbox now!
As for that BLT sandwich, Morningside Farms makes a soy bacon that crisps in the microwave in one minute, 20 seconds and tastes delicious. I eat it on my BLT with organic tomato and lettuce.
The palate adjusts to changes, so that after a couple of weeks eating different foods, what you ate before doesn't taste right. When people MUST change their diet for emergency health reasons, they quickly adjust.
Believe me, I've heard all the silly and rude remarks over the years, but just put them down to a lack of knowledge on the part of the speakers.
Andrew Gubb from Barcelona, Spain on March 18, 2011:
Raw veganism kicks ass :)
Actually plenty of nutritionists believe that raw vegan is nutritionally complete - about as many who are willing to agree that veganism isn't the devil's diet.
But plain old veganism works too :)
TonyShepard from Dallas Texas on October 27, 2010:
Fabulous article kerryg. I really enjoyed this.
laura on August 14, 2010:
Nice Hub !
I always wanted to become a vegetarian. I finally made the decision to become one. But i realised that i did not know what type of vegetarian i wanted become .
My friend actually recommended a good website to help me decide what vegetarian type i wanted become
The website is Vegetarian Newbie http://www.vegetariannewbie.com it is a really good resource for people who are new to vegetarian lifestyle. I joined their Free Newsletter and receive a free report.
It has helped me to slowly transition into vegetarian lifestyle
casey kaldal on March 11, 2010:
Good hub with lots of info although I am not sure I agree with your semi-vegetarian comment.
I am now nearly vegan. With the seldom piece of cheese or ice cream. I was vegetarian for years but would eat turkey on Christmas and thanksgiving with my family. I still considered myself vegetarian during that time. What do you think?
blpelton on March 11, 2010:
Great hub!!!! very informative! Benn vegan a while now! thx for sharing!
Lyria on March 11, 2010:
I did my best at a vegan diet for several months this year but ended up allowing eggs and cheese back into my diet. I still want to be 100% vegan but it will take a little more planning and dedication on my part. Loved your hub, thanks for writing it!
entertianmentplus from United States on March 11, 2010:
Awesome info thanks.
Hello, hello, from London, UK on March 10, 2010:
Very, very interesting and I enjoyed reading it.
msorensson on March 10, 2010:
What an informative hub. Thank you, KerryG