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Vegetarian and Vegan Diet

The simplest definition of vegetarianism is a diet free of meat, fish, and fowl flesh. But eating habits of vegetarians cover a wide spectrum. At one end are lacto-ovo vegetarians who avoid animal flesh but eat eggs and milk products. At the other end are vegans, who forego eating (and often wearing) all animal-based products, honey included. Raw foodists are vegans who eat mainly raw fruits, vegetables, legumes, sprouts, and nuts.

There are also pescatarians, vegetarians who eat fish and seafood, and lacto-vegetarians, who eat dairy products but not eggs. Fruitarians follow a diet that includes fruits, nuts, seeds, and other plant food. Those who follow a macrobiotic diet eat mostly grains but can also eat fish. They don't necessarily identify as vegetarians.

Reasons for Becoming a Vegetarian

Many adherents of vegetarianism and veganism -- Beatle Paul McCartney and actor Alec Baldwin are a few celebrities who happily promote the cause -- regard a flesh-free diet not only as more healthful, but as a more ethical way to live. They point to the cruel practices and the high environmental cost of raising animals for food as a few reasons for excluding meat from the diet.

Most Americans, however, continue to eat some form of meat or fish. A 2008 Harris Interactive survey commissioned by Vegetarian Times put the number of Americans who do not eat meat or fish at 3.2%, or 7.3 million adults.

Vegetarianism and Health

Most doctors and nutritionists agree that a low-fat diet high in fruits, vegetables, and nuts can be a boon to health. There is also widespread acknowledgment that reducing or eliminating red meat from the diet cuts the risk of heart disease.

Research also has shown that a plant-based diet can improve the health of people with type 2 diabetes. A study in 2004 and 2005 showed that people with diabetes who followed a low-fat vegan diet had less of a need for diabetes medications. They lost weight and their insulin sensitivity increased. They had improved glycemic and lipid control.

Does Being a Vegetarian Lower Cancer Risk?

Whether being a vegetarian or a vegan lowers cancer risk is less clear. This is mainly because of the diversity within the vegetarian population. Studies, however, have suggested that people who do not eat meat have a lower risk of prostate and gastrointestinal cancers.

Many of the cancer/vegetarian studies often conclude that diets rich in fiber, carotenoids (found in carrots, sweet potatoes and spinach), vitamins, minerals, and isoflavones (found in soybeans and legumes),seem to protect against disease, including cancer. This is in concert with a health-conscious lifestyle.

A British study of 11,000 vegetarians and healthy eaters concluded that daily consumption of fruit was associated with a 20%-plus reduction in mortality from heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, and cancers of the stomach, lung, pancreas, large intestine, and rectum. Researchers, however, didn't account for the kind of diet practiced by study participants (whether they ate dairy and fish or drank alcohol, for example). They also didn't check to see if their diets had changed over the course of the 17-year study.

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