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Whether you're a vegan or 'flexitarian,' vegging out has health benefits.

Gone are the days when people tended to think of vegetarians as a small group of earth-loving hippies who spent top dollar for bruised-looking produce at health stores. Vegetarians of every type, from the "flexitarian" (occasional meat eater) to the strict vegan, have gone mainstream.

These days, more and more people are seeking the health benefits of a diet rich in plant-based foods; foods that are now easily found on the shelves of neighborhood grocery stores.

According to the American Dietetic Association, approximately 2.5% of the U.S. adult population eats a diet free of meat, poultry, and fish. And a growing number of people are embracing the flexitarian way of life, which offers many of the health benefits of a vegetarian diet while still allowing occasional meat, fish, and/or poultry.

Of course, some people follow a vegetarian diet for religious or ethical reasons. But enjoying an eating plan rich in plant foods also has many health benefits, ranging from aiding weight loss to preventing disease, experts say.

The American Cancer Society, American Institute for Cancer Research, and American Heart Association all recommend a diet rich in plant-based foods. Such a diet contains an abundance of antioxidants, phytochemicals, and fiber, with low levels of saturated fat and cholesterol.

Indeed, the USDA's MyPlate guidelines promote a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, and low-fat dairy -- foods that are the foundation of most vegetarian diets.

Veggie Lingo

"Vegetarian" can mean lots of different things. The various types of vegetarian diets include:

  • Vegan. Strictest of all, eats only plant products.
  • Lacto-vegetarian. Eats dairy products along with a plant-based diet.
  • Ovo-vegetarian. Eats eggs along with a plant-based diet.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian (the most common type). Eats both dairy products and eggs.
  • Pesco-vegetarian. Eats fish along with a plant-based diet.
  • Flexitarian. While there's no formal definition, this generally refers to a lacto-ovo vegetarian who occasionally eats meat, fish, or poultry. Sometimes called semi-vegetarian.

The Nutrition Low-Down

Vegetarian diets were once thought to be lacking in certain nutrients. But experts say that with a little planning, vegetarians can easily meet all their nutritional needs.

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