In 2012, 5 percent of Americans self-identified as vegetarian, according to a Gallup Poll, while 2 percent reported to be vegan, a stricter form of vegetarianism that eschews all animal products and byproducts. Women are slightly more likely than men to identify as vegetarians, and people who are unmarried are more than twice as likely as married folk. If you -- or your child -- is considering becoming a vegetarian, consider the pros and cons before removing animal products from your diet.
Reasons for becoming a vegetarian run the gamut from trying to be more healthful to concern about animal welfare to religious convictions. One aspect of vegetarianism that someone might find particularly beneficial is its focus on eliminating animal cruelty and promoting an environmentally sustainable diet. Another person might be drawn to the diet's budget-friendly nature. However, levels of vegetarianism vary from person to person. While one person might identify as a lacto-ovo vegetarian, which means he consumes milk and eggs, another might eschew either one of those products. Vegans avoid all animal-based foods, including meat, eggs, dairy products and honey.
In 2009, the American Dietetic Association published its official stance on vegetarian diets, affirming that a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet is healthful and nutritionally sound for people in all stages of life, from childhood to pregnancy, golden years and beyond. The ADA states that vegetarians have a lower risk of death from heart disease, lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, decreased blood pressure, a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes and lower overall cancer rates. The ADA also concludes that vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index rate and overall decreased risk of chronic disease, attributed to a decreased consumption of saturated fat and cholesterol, partnered with an uptick in eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fiber, soy products and phytochemicals.
Anytime a large swath of food options are removed from a diet, nutritional deficiencies can come into play. For vegetarians -- particularly vegans -- the diet runs the risk of being too low in vitamins B-12 and D, along with calcium, zinc and riboflavin, according to Brown University Health Services. Because vitamin B-12 is found only in animal products, vegans are especially prone to deficiency; therefore, supplementation or consuming fortified foods is recommended. While consuming enough protein can also be a challenge, particularly for athletes, plenty of protein-rich vegetarian foods, including beans and other legumes, soy and dairy products, can easily meet this need.
The ADA supports a vegetarian diet only when it's "appropriately planned." This means paying attention to the nutritional breakdown of your diet is vital to staying healthy. If your child has decided to become a vegetarian, make sure her concept of the diet doesn't revolve around consuming excessive amounts of cheese or other full-fat dairy products or refined carbohydrates. The benefits of vegetarianism only appear when you consume a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, lean protein and heart-healthy fats.