Vegetarianism? Veganism? Veganism? What do all of these –isms even mean? I was always told, “Just eat what’s on your plate!” when I was growing up; no matter what was being served. So what’s up with young people these days choosing to cut certain foods from their diet? Is it healthy? Why do they do it?

Let’s start with what it means to follow a vegetarian diet. To be a vegetarian means you don’t eat meat, aka no hot dogs, no clam chowder, no pepperoni pizza (cheese or veggie pizza is fine!), and, unfortunately, no cheeseburgers. To be a vegan means you don’t eat any meat and don’t eat what’s called “animal byproducts”. Animal byproducts are foods that are produced by animals, or with materials made from animals. A few examples of these are eggs, milk, yogurt, and honey.

Okay, so let’s think… haven’t humans been carnivores (meat-eaters) forever? Is it healthy to all of a sudden stop eating meat? The answer is yes, ONLY if you pay close attention to getting the nutrients you usually get from eating meat. For many, meat is the biggest source of protein in their diet, so people who choose not to eat it may not get enough. Following a vegetarian diet would mean replacing meat at meals with protein-rich foods such as beans, nuts, and meat-substitutes such as tofu. Meat and animal byproducts also give you nutrients such as vitamin B-12, vitamin D, calcium, and zinc so vegetarian and vegans need to eat other food sources of these important nutrients or they should consider taking a supplement.

There are many health benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets for people who can get all of their nutrients from other foods or supplements. Vegetarians and vegans are at lower risks for obesity and diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. That sounds pretty great to me! This is because foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc. are low in saturated fat and high in fiber.

Finally, why would someone decide to eat a vegetarian or a vegan diet? Can anyone really like vegetables that much? There are lots of reasons someone would choose to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Some people do it for health reasons and some don’t eat meat or animal byproducts for moral reasons- they just love animals too much to see them on their plate. Other people may choose a vegetarian or vegan diet as a part of their religious traditions. What you eat is your choice and can reflect your individuality — whether it means eating meat every day, eating less meat, or eating none at all!