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What is a Vegetarian Diet ?

What is a vegetarian diet ?

Vegetarians do not eat meat products.
(There are, however, different types of "vegetarians" - see below.)

Individual vegetarians may have chosen not to eat meat for any of various reasons, for example:

  • Ethical reasons e.g. concern about animal welfare
  • Religious reasons e.g. to meet the requirements of their religion - perhaps in circumstances where some types of food or food handling and processing facilities are unavailable
  • Medical reasons e.g. to avoid products that might include ingredients to which the person is (food) intolerant, allergic, or suspects he or she may be intolerant or allergic
  • Reasons of cost or availability e.g. an adequate diet can be more readily and/or cost-effectively obtained from non-animal sources.

Different types of "vegetarian" diets

The two main types of vegetarian diets are:

  • Vegetarian (no meat or fish or any product made using any part of any animal, including fish and sea-creatures, but products derived from live animals are acceptable so dairy products such as milk, cream, cheese and eggs are included in the diet). This type of vegetarian diet is also called ovolactovegetarian - because eggs and milk products are acceptable.

    as opposed to ...

  • Vegan (no meat or fish or any product made using any part of any animal, including fish and sea-creatures, and also excluding any and all products derived from animals - so dairy products such as milk, cream, cheese and eggs are not eaten and other products produced by animals e.g. honey - because that is made by bees - are also unacceptable.)

There are also other words used to describe diets that are "almost vegetarian", "mostly vegetarian" or describe a more specific type of vegetarian diet. These include:

  • Lactovegetarian (no meat or fish products or any eggs are acceptable but dairy products such as milk, cream, cheese, ice-cream and yoghurts are eaten.)

  • Ovolactovegetarian, also known as lacto-ovo-vegetarian (as described above as simply "vegetarian", probably the most common case in which no meat or fish products are acceptable but milk and eggs - usually including eggs from both poultry and fish are eaten.)

  • Pescovegetarian (no meat or any product made using any part of any land-animal including poultry and other birds, but dairy products such as milk, cream, cheese and eggs are included in the diet and fish and sea-creatures such as shell-fish e.g. crab, mussels, cockles etc., and crustaceans e.g. prawns and lobsters are eaten).
    Note: This is not generally considered truly vegetarian but it is quite a widespread lifestyle choice and meets some health, environmental, and animal welfare reasons why some people choose "vegetarian" diets.

  • "Semi-vegetarian" is not really a category of vegetarian diet either but is a description sometimes applied to the diets of people who do not eat a substantial type or category of meat products, e.g. "no red meat". So, people who do not eat red meat and call themselves "semi-vegetarian" may still eat both fish and "white meats" such as chicken.
    This can be confusing. If in doubt it is safest to assume that "vegetarians" do not eat any meat or fish products including strictly no animal derivatives such as gelatin in sweets or desserts. If catering it also makes sense to ensure that egg-free options are also available. If in doubt and/or concerned about allergies etc. ask for more information about the person's dietary requirements.

Other variations include people who take a firm animal welfare position so will not eat farmed animal products in order to be certain that they do not consume animals whose quality of life might have been low, but will eat wild game (e.g. pheasants or other birds) and sea-fish. A different example is ovolactovegetarians who consider dairy products to be ethically acceptable but are only able to eat certain types of cheeses e.g. goats' cheeses rather than cows' cheeses due to allergies or intolerances. Some people do not want to explain their reasons every time they need to state what type of diet they follow and so simply state "vegetarian" or "vegan" even if they do make certain exceptions. It is therefore safest to assume "no exceptions" but don't be offended if they don't seem to be quite as strict as expected.

What are the main considerations needed to ensure that a vegetarian diet is healthy ?

A balanced diet includes the correct proportions of the following:


Vegetarian diets are extremely well established in some parts of the world - in some cases due to limited availability of meat and fish products, and in other cases for religious reasons. However, in parts of the world in which vegetarian diets are not as widespread there may be concern about people who are considering becoming vegetarian receiving enough of the necessary nutrients from a diet that does not include animal products.

Standard dietary advice for good health is to follow a balanced diet. That means following a diet that includes all of the person's dietary needs in the correct proportions. Ovolactovegetarians (who eat eggs and dairy products e.g. milk, cheese, etc.) can easily maintain a balanced diet. However, some vegans choose to take supplements because certain nutrients are found mostly in food products derived from animals (incl. dairy products and eggs). For example, vitamin B12 is most commonly found in products derived from animals - though it is also present in some vegan food sources such as wheatgerm and *beer.

*Beer is an alcoholic drink so is unacceptable to vegans who do not consume alcohol.

Examples of words used to communicate eating restrictions concisely include:

  • vegetarian (no animal products, including no fish or seafood),
  • vegan (no animal, fish, dairy, or other foods derived from or made by animals incl. insects)
  • diabetic (diet subject to management of the medical condition diabetes - which can have different levels of severity)
  • gluten-free (diet restricted by the constraints of coeliac disease, an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine - need to avoid foods that contain gluten)
  • kosher (diet meets Jewish religious requirements)
  • halal (food meets Muslim religious requirements)

... and other terms that refer to diets meeting the constraints of other specific medical conditions or religious requirements

How to ask people about vegetarian diets (or not)

Whenever people eat outside of their homes or eat food prepared by other people they need to state which, if any, foods they do or do not eat. Many people choose not to consume some foods and/or need to avoid certain types of foods e.g. due to medical conditions such as diabetes, coeliac's disease, Crohn's disease, food allergies and food intolerances.
In order to clarify food or eating requirements clearly and simply, in as few words as possible, it helps to use labels that summarize which foods are and are not eaten.

As indicated by the examples in the list on the right, some words used to describe diets concern medical conditions while others indicate religious adherence. In the cases of vegetarian and vegan diets the person's reason for their stated dietary requirements may, or may not, be obvious. In some cases the reason may be due to the person's religion. In other cases the person may have medical condition(s) or concerns that have resulted in e.g. avoidance of "red meat" and a decision to actively seek and restrict him or herself to a vegetarian diet. Other people follow vegetarian diets due to concern about food safety and hygiene e.g. when in unfamiliar surroundings - perhaps in a foreign country. Some people have no access to meat products, no experience of consuming them, and no desire to do so. Some people avoid meats and/or all foods that have been derived from animals due to concerns about animal welfare, global environmental concerns e.g. re. efficiency of feeding the increasing human population, and many people just have no desire to eat animals and really can't understand why anyone would want to do so.

Here are some more thoughts about how much to ask people about their vegetarian (or other) dietary requirements:

See also the main types of foods in a vegetarian diet, what are the benefits of a vegetarian diet? and
what are the possible deficiencies in a vegetarian diet?

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