Vegetarian Diets….the question is “why”?

veggie burger

Why on earth would a dietitian even question a vegetarian diet when it seems like such a healthy way to eat? Eliminating all that saturated fat in the form of meat from your diet has to be a good thing, right? And when you think of vegetarians, don’t you get a vision of someone munching on a giant salad?

Well, let me give you a reality check. Having been around the block a few times (meaning I have been a dietitian for over 35 years),  I have encountered my share of vegetarians. When someone tells me they are a vegetarian, or a vegan, I do not make any assumptions about their diet or their intentions. But what I have found is that the reasons people become vegetarian are not always clear. I have noticed that people turn to a vegetarian diet for a few different reasons. In fact, I have encountered 3 types of vegetarians over my long career as a nutritionist (my experience only, I can’t speak for everyone). The people I have worked with or have known in my life tend to fall into the following categories:

1. The True Vegetarian: This is the individual who truly has a strong empathy for animals. They just are not comfortable with consuming them.  They may have had meat in their lives but then, they change and make a decision that they do not want to eat meat any longer. There are different types of vegetarians, those who are ok with eating dairy or eggs or fish, but not meat. I remember my daughter as a teenager getting very upset when the rodeo was in town, and she actually joined a group who stood on the corner and protested. This led her to looking into protecting animals and she decided to stop eating meat at the time. I also have a best friend who is vegetarian, is a great cook, and who also is all about protecting animals (it is a passion with many vegetarians I have come to know over the years). They eat everything, just not meat. I have to say, not all of those I have met who are true vegetarians are healthy eaters like my friend. Many people (especially teenagers who love their kid-foods) tend to live on noodles and chips, still vegetarian, but no vegetables involved!

2. The “I want to be healthier” Vegetarians“: These are the people I have encountered who may have developed some health issues such as high cholesterol, and decided they are going to “cut down on” meat consumption. The reason they want to change their diet is because being healthy is important to them. They may have an occasional meal with meat, but otherwise they believe eating less of it is healthy.

3. The “I am pretending to be vegetarian because it is a good excuse to eat less” Vegetarians: Unfortunately, I have worked with many people over the years with eating disorders who start out with “vegetarianism”. They start eliminating foods, and becoming a vegetarian is kind of a good “excuse” for the eating disorder to NOT EAT. This type of “vegetarian” is different in that they typically refuse to eat the normal vegetarian standbys such as peanut butter, nuts, beans, etc. They may say they do not like salad dressing, olive oil, trail mix, granola or nut butters. This is always a “red flag” to me. Most of the “True Vegetarians” I know rely on nuts and peanut butter for protein and have no problem with pasta and rice and beans and all the other food needed to round out their diets. Not to mention delicious Tofutti Ice Cream!

So what is the bottom line? If you or someone you knows decides to become vegetarian, always ask “why?” If it is to be healthier, or because you care about animals, then you can definitely meet your nutritional needs with some guidance. Vegan diets are a bit harder in that you may need supplemental iron, vitamin B-12 and calcium, and also you need to know how to get protein in your diet (I recommend seeing a Registered Dietitian to be sure-check out http://www.eatright.org and “Find a Dietitian”). But if you know someone who just started being a vegetarian, is losing weight, who no longer eats potato chips (those are vegan!) then don’t ignore it. It could be an eating disorder just beginning.

For more information from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, check out: http://vegetariannutrition.net/

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