Vegetarianism comes in many forms — from lacto-vegetarians, who consume dairy but no other animal products, to vegans, who choose to eliminate animal-based products entirely. The reasons people adopt a plant-based diet are equally as diverse. It’s an ethical decision for some, a matter of personal preference for others.
Whatever the variety of vegetarianism or the reasoning behind it, a meat-free diet made up largely of fruits and vegetables certainly has its merits. For starters, plant-based diets are believed to be an effective means of treating chronic disease, including diabetes. They also combat obesity and lower blood pressure and the risk for cardiovascular disease. Vegetarian diets have also been associated with lowering the risk of colon cancer.
But animal-based products have benefits, too, including some nutrients not readily available in plants. These nutrients include vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, heme iron, and essential fatty acids. If you’re considering going meat-free, it’s important to pay special attention to these, says Natalie Khoo, a senior clinical nutritionist at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.
Here, Khoo, who has been a vegan for 10 years, talks about how best to transition to a plant-based diet and the types of foods you should be consuming to ensure you’re getting the necessary nutrients.
How do you define a plant-based diet?
I’m a vegan, so to me it’s a diet that’s completely free of animal products and byproducts—no meat, seafood, poultry, dairy, or eggs.
What are the benefits of eating this way?
Plant-based diets are made up of nutrient-dense foods — fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains — rich in essential vitamins and minerals, low in saturated fat, high in fiber, and free of cholesterol. Because of this, they reduce the risk of chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.
What are the drawbacks?
Initially, it’s a hard transition for a lot of people since most of the foods we eat are centered on meat and fish and contain butter, dairy, and eggs. Also, socially, it can be tough to get family and friends on board with accepting the diet. All of these things can, of course, be overcome.