Authors: Sara Kate Kneidel and Sally Kneidel
So, you’re vegetarian and you don’t eat eggs, but your brother’s a vegetarian and he eats fish. And your best friend, she doesn’t even drink milk, but your neighbor calls herself vegetarian, even though you saw her eat chicken the other day. What’s going on? The truth is, being a vegetarian can mean lots of different things. Everyone has a different definition of what they do and don’t want to eat. Fortunately, if you want to be more specific, there are a number of useful terms. Let’s break it down.
This is a general term. About five percent of the current U.S. population considers themselves to be vegetarian, although a number of varying dietary habits fall into this category. Usually this term refers to someone who doesn’t eat any kind of meat, including beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and seafood. However, there are many people who don’t quite match this description, but still use this label. These include…
This is someone who follows a mostly vegetarian diet but is known to eat the occasional McChicken sandwich or nibble at some turkey jerky. In reality, birds are meat, so this isn’t really a form of vegetarianism, but lots of people who call themselves vegetarians do indulge in a bit of chicken every so often.
Again, this is someone who follows a mostly vegetarian diet but who does eat a little meat—in this case, seafood. For some reason, lots of people don’t seem to count aquatic creatures as animals. This is often for health reasons: fish is a healthier choice than pork or beef, for instance. Other people choose to eat fish because it doesn’t affect land use as much as raising livestock does. However, overharvesting and polluting our seas and lakes is a significant environmental concern. Nonetheless, this is a popular diet, although, like pollo-vegetarianism, it’s not technically vegetarian.
This person eats no meat, including seafood, but does eat dairy products and eggs. Most lacto-ovo-vegetarians follow this basic rule: if you have to kill the animal to get the product, then don’t eat it. Therefore, milk is okay, but gelatin, which is made from horse hooves, is not.
This person eats no meat or eggs but does eat dairy products. Dairy products include cows’ milk and any food you can make from cows’ milk, such as ice cream, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream, butter, and so on. Other animal products, such as goat cheese, are also included.
A person on this diet eats no meat and no dairy products but does eat eggs. This isn’t too common. (The lives of hens that provide table eggs are at least as miserable as chickens raised for meat, and eggs are no healthier in our diets than meat, so it’s little wonder there are few ovo-vegetarians.)
About one percent of the U.S. population follows a vegan (pronounced “VEE-gun”) diet. This excludes all meat, eggs, and dairy products, and usually any other food produced by animals, such as honey. A strict vegan also avoids products that may seem innocent, such as refined sugar (white table sugar), because animal bones are used to process it. Many vegans also refuse to use non-edible animal products, such as leather, silk, wool, feathers, and so on. This can get really complicated. For example, did you know that camera film isn’t vegan? Gelatin is used to manufacture it. Or that some lotions contain lanolin, which comes from wool? Strict vegans have to be very well-informed.
A follower of the macrobiotic diet is mainly vegetarian, but this diet sometimes includes seafood. All other meat products are excluded, as well as eggs and dairy products. Basically, this diet focuses on eating local and seasonal foods that balance each other in harmonic ways. Some people follow this diet as a philosophy of life and others follow it for health reasons.
A fruitarian is a person who eats only fruits and vegetables, often including beans, nuts, and grains, usually raw. It's important that these things are taken from the plant without killing it.
A person who follows this diet eats only raw foods. The concern is that heating foods above 116°F destroys important enzymes that help with digestion. This person also believes that cooking diminishes the vitamin and mineral content of the food.
Hurray for all types of vegetarians! All of these choices can be healthy—some more than others—but it's important to be well-informed about the health benefits and risks of any diet that you choose to follow. Although people often feel strongly that their choice is the best and may be critical of others, the reality is that cutting your meat consumption in any way is a positive step. Reducing the amount of meat in your diet benefits your health, promotes animal well-being, and helps the planet support the growing human population.