Read an Excerpt
In This Chapter
* Who's who and what they will and won't eat
* About labels and why they really don't matter
* If you don't eat meat, what do you eat?
Are vegetarians members of a secret club? Seems like it. To gain admission, you have to shop at natural foods stores and eat strange foods such as tempeh and nutritional yeast. It helps if you're a celebrity. Maybe a rock star or an actor. They're into weird lifestyle alternatives. The rules are complicated and somewhat mysterious. Some people are lacto, and some are lacto ovo. Worse yet, some are vegans. What the heck is a vegan?
Not to worry. Sit back, relax, and read on. It'll all be very clear in just a few pages. And it's pretty simple and straightforward too.
In this chapter, you'll learn what the term "vegetarian" means and what different types of vegetarians eat.
Try This Label on for Size
Most of us are pretty good at describing the essence of a person in three words or less:
"He's a liberal Democrat."
"They're yuppie boomers."
"She's a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant."
It's like the saying goes: One picture (or label) says a thousand words.
We use other labels too. When people use labels to describe vegetarians, different terms correspond to different sets of eating habits. A lacto ovo vegetarian eats differentlythan a vegan eats. In some cases, the term used to describe a type of vegetarian refers to a whole range of lifestyle preferences, rather than to the diet alone. In general, though, the specific term used to describe a vegetarian has to do with the extent to which that person avoids foods of animal origin.
In 1992, Vegetarian Times magazine sponsored a survey of vegetarianism in the United States. The results showed that almost 7 percent of the American public considered themselves vegetarians. At that time, that figure equated to about 12.4 million adults.
However, a closer look at the eating habits of those "vegetarians" found that most of them were eating chicken and fish occasionally, and many were eating red meat at least a few times each month. That finding prompted many of the more strident vegetariansthose who never ate meat, fish, or poultryto pose the question, "Since when do chicken, fish, and cows grow in a garden?"
The fact is, many people today use the term "vegetarian" loosely to mean that they are consciously reducing their intake of animal products. The term has a positive connotation, especially among those who know that vegetarian diets confer health benefits.
What about the "real" vegetarians? Who are they and what do they eat (or not eat)?
According to a Roper Poll sponsored by the nonprofit Vegetarian Resource Group in 1994, the actual number of people who never eat meat, fish, or poultry is about 1 percent of the adult population. The poll was repeated in 1997, and the number remained the same.
The definition of a vegetarian most widely accepted by fellow vegetarians is this:
A vegetarian is a person who eats no meat, fish, or poultry. Not "I eat turkey only for Thanksgiving," or "I eat fish once in a while." A vegetarian consistently avoids all flesh foods as well as by-products of meat, fish, and poultry. A vegetarian avoids refried beans made with lard, soups made with meat stock, and foods made with gelatin (such as Jell-O), some kinds of candy, and most marshmallows.
Of course, vegetarian diets vary in the extent to which they exclude animal products. The major types are:
Lacto Ovo Vegetarian Diet
A lacto ovo vegetarian diet excludes meat, fish, and poultry but includes dairy products and eggs. Most vegetarians in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe fall into this category. Lacto ovo vegetarians eat such foods as cheese, ice cream, yogurt, milk, and eggs and foods made with these ingredients.
Lacto Vegetarian Diet
A lacto vegetarian diet excludes meat, fish, and poultry, as well as eggs and any foods containing eggs. So, a lacto vegetarian, for instance, would not eat the pancakes at most restaurants, because they contain eggs. Some veggie burger patties are made with egg whites, and many brands of ice cream contain eggs. A lacto vegetarian would not eat these foods. A lacto vegetarian would, however, eat other dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese.
Technically, the term vegan refers to more than just the diet alone. A vegan is a vegetarian who avoids eating or using all animal products, including meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, any foods containing by-products of these ingredients, wool, silk, leather, and any nonfood items made with animal by-products. Some vegans avoid honey.
So in addition to avoiding foods containing animal products, vegans also avoid animal products in all other areas of their lives.
Are vegans from the planet Vegan? No, but they'll think you're from another planet if you don't pronounce the word correctly. It's pronounced VEE-gun. Never mind what Webster's says. This is the accepted pronunciation within the vegetarian community.
The term strict vegetarian is the correct term to use to mean those who avoid all animal products in their diet but who don't carry animal product avoidance into other areas of their lives. In practice, however, the term vegan is usually used by both strict vegetarians as well as vegans, even among those in the know. Call it a bad habit. Rather than calling themselves vegans, though, strict vegetarians will often say that they "eat a vegan diet."
So, a vegan, for instance, would not use hand lotion that contains lanolin, a by-product of wool. A vegan would not use margarine that contains casein, a milk protein, and a vegan would not carry luggage trimmed in leather. Vegans (as well as many other vegetarians) also avoid products that have been tested on animals, such as many cosmetics and personal care products. Many vegans avoid using regular, white granulated sugar, since much of it has been processed using char from animal bones (for whitening).
It can be difficult to maintain a vegan lifestyle in our culture. Most vegans are strongly motivated by ethics, however, and rise to the challenge. It's not as difficult as you might think, either, once you get the hang of it. A large part of maintaining a vegan lifestyle has to do with being aware of where animals products are used and knowing about alternatives. Vegetarian and animal-rights organizations have many materials to help people maintain a vegan lifestyle. Sometimes vegans unwittingly use a product or eat a food that contains an animal by-product. There are times when it's hard to know if a product is free of all animal ingredients. However, the intention is to strive for the vegan ideal.
Those are the three primary types of vegetarian diets. Of course, we could go on from there.
Question: What do you call a person who generally avoids red meat but eats chicken and fish, though less frequently than most people?
Answer: A semi-vegetarian. ("Why not a semi-omnivore?" you might ask, but we're talking about the vegetarian lifestyle here.)
Question: What do you call a person who avoids red meat and poultry but eats fish or seafood?
Answer: A pesco vegetarian.
Question: What do you call a person who avoids red meat but eats poultry and fish or seafood?
Answer: A pesco pollo vegetarian.
The list actually goes even further. One adaptation of a vegetarian diet is a raw foods diet, in which adherents eat a diet that consists primarily of uncooked foods. Practitioners of a raw foods diet believe that cooking causes undesirable changes in foods and that humans were designed to eat foods in their natural, raw state. Another adaptation, the fruitarian diet, consists only of fruits; vegetables that are botanically classified as fruits, such as tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, and avocados; and seeds and nuts. Planning a nutritionally adequate fruitarian diet is difficult, and the diet is not recommended for children.
This book will focus on the most common forms of vegetarian dietsvegan, lacto, and lacto ovo vegetarian diets. These types of vegetarian diets are nutritionally adequate and are associated with health advantages.
As you can see, there's a label to suit practically everyone.
The Vegetarian Continuum (Or Why Labels Have Limitations]
Now that you know the criteria for the different types of vegetarian diets, which label would you affix to your own eating style?
What would you call a person who avoids all flesh foods and only occasionally eats eggs and dairy products, and then usually as a minor ingredient in a baked good or dish, such as a muffin, cookie, or veggie burger?
Technically, the person is a lacto ovo vegetarian, right? But that person's diet seems as though it's leaning toward the vegan end of the spectrum.
As a nutritionist, I see this kind of variationeven within the same category of vegetarian dietall the time. One lacto ovo vegetarian may eat heaping helpings of cheese and eggs and have a high intake of saturated fat and cholesterol as a result. In fact, this type of vegetarian may have a nutrient intake similar to the typical nonvegetarian American'snot so hot. Another lacto ovo vegetarian may use eggs and dairy products but only in a very limited fashionas a condiment or minor ingredient in foods. This person's nutrient intake could more closely resemble that of a vegan's. That is, of course, assuming that the vegan isn't a Coke and French fries vegetarian.
What am I getting at? That labels are only a starting point, and they have their limitations. Even if you know what type of vegetarian a person is, there can be a lot of variation in the degree to which he or she includes or avoids animal products.
Many new vegetarians find that their diets evolve over time. At the start, for example, many vegetarians rely heavily on cheese and eggs to replace meat. Over time, they learn to cook with grains, beans, and vegetables, and they experiment with cuisines of other cultures. They decrease their reliance on foods of animal origin. Gradually, they consume fewer eggs and dairy products. One day, they might even find themselves eating a mostly vegan (or strict vegetarian) diet.
You might say that vegetarian diets are on a continuum, starting from the typical American, meat-centered diet, to the vegan ideal. Most vegetarians fall somewhere in between. Some may be content with wherever they land on the continuum. For others, their diets will continue to evolve as they hone their skills and develop new traditions, moving from semi-vegetarian, or lacto ovo vegetarian, closer and closer to the vegan end of the spectrum.
If You Don't Eat Meat ... What's Left to Eat?
Your eating style is a mindset. Here's proof:
Ask your neighbor or coworker what he's having for dinner tonight. The chances are good he's going to say ...
"We're grilling steaks tonight."
"I'm having fish tonight."
Or he might be going out to eat at a restaurant that serves a Western-style, meat-centered meal, such as a 32-ounce steak, for example.
Ever notice how no one mentions the rice, the potato, or the salad, vegetables, bread, or anything else besides the meat? Those are the incidentals, the "side dishes." They're less important than the "main course." We live in a society in which meals revolve around meat as the focal point of the plate. It's just a habit. Our tradition.
A semi-vegetarian might push the meat to the side of the plate, move the vegetables and grains and legumes to the center, and double their portion sizes. They might eat more meatless meals more often. Other vegetarians push the meat off the plate altogether and build an entirely different kind of meal.
When people think of vegetarian diets, they often visualize a plate with a big hole in the centera gaping bare spot where the meat used to be. They get a little hungry.
"What's left to eat?" they wonder.
"Rabbit food," they figure, thinking about the stuff that is usually relegated to the side of the plate, or maybe the little bit of fruit garnish teetering on the edge.
And they get a little hungrier.
Just the opposite is true, however.
That's because the variety is actually in the plant world. The abundant, colorful, flavorful, fragrant, delicious, and nutritious varied plant world.
When you think about it, most people really only eat a few types of meat. They cook it in a bunch of different ways, and they usually doctor it up with spices and condiments to give it some variation in flavor. The lament I hear most often from people trying to improve their diets is "Chicken and fish, chicken and fish. I know a 1,001 ways to cook chicken and fish. I'm going to overdose on chicken and fish."
Because our diet traditionally centers on meat (and puts heavy reliance on eggs and dairy products too), the diet can be fairly monotonous. Once you make the switch to a vegetarian diet, however, lots of options open up. There are hundreds of different types of fruits, vegetables, grains and grain products, legumes, and other vegetarian foods. There is an endless number of ways that you can fix them. Many of those dishes originated in cultures other than our own. Some examples are listed in the table that follows. Some of them may be familiar to you; you'll find that others open a window to the world.