Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD
“Not even chicken?!?”
What vegetarian hasn’t heard this question or something similar?
This question is usually asked by well-meaning people who just want to understand your diet. And some people really do consider meat to be beef and pork. Poultry and fish are often listed as separate categories, though I’ve never quite understood the reasoning for that distinction.
We’ll leave the mean comments and rude “facts” that are recited to us out of this post.
I think that much of the confusion around what vegetarians eat is due to the different types of vegetarianism. And the new terms “flexitarian” and “semi-vegetarian” add to the noise of a topic that many people aren’t familiar with.
So this post is for the loved ones of a vegetarian. We’ll delve into the types of vegetarian diets, so when your kid brings home a vegan friend for dinner, you have an idea of what they will and won’t eat
What is Vegetarianism?
In short, vegetarianism is an active choice to eliminate meat and other foods sourced from animals. This can include broths, gelatin, dairy, and eggs.
Individuals may choose to eliminate or reduce meat intake for many reasons, including (but not limited to) ethics, animal welfare, concern for global climate change, aversion to meat, rising food costs, or a variety of health concerns.
A vegan is someone who omits all forms of animal-based foods. This includes honey, gelatin, dairy, and eggs.
Lately, I’ve seen some arguments among vegans as to whether or not honey is a vegan product. I cannot stress enough that this is for the individual to decide if they are comfortable with the food, not other vegans.
(For what it’s worth, a vegan that eats honey is known as a beegan, and I think that’s adorable)
This group has to pay the most attention to their diet to avoid certain nutritional deficiencies, particularly vitamin B12 and protein. This diet can be healthy for all life stages as long as these nutrients are monitored.
There is a subset within the vegan community that is concerning: raw veganism.
Raw food advocates do not eat food that has been heated above 118 degrees F.
This can lead to many nutrient deficiencies as your protein sources become even more limited, and many micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) remain bound in uncooked fibers.
Additionally, you lose a lot of the joy of food when you don’t cook it! Special family or cultural recipes are avoided. Celebrations and shared bereavement often include food that is avoided in this diet plan. You lose the potency of spices and reduce the variety of textures.
I do not recommend a strictly raw diet for anyone. That’s not to say raw foods are bad, simply that they should be included in a diet that includes cooking.
A lacto-vegetarian is essentially a vegan that eats dairy products. This broadens their protein sources but also increases their availability of unhealthy fats such as ice cream, sour cream, and cream cheese.
Usually, any vegetarian from here until the end of the list will include honey, though that is still a personal choice.
An ovo-vegetarian is a vegan that eats eggs.
Many times, an ovo-vegetarian will eat eggs that are laid by their own chickens, ensuring that the animals involved are not mistreated.
Other times, they may get their eggs from a farm they can visit or stick to organic, free-range eggs only when buying from the store. Again, everyone has their line in the sand and determines their comfort levels with certain foods.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarian (That’s Me!)
A lacto-ovo-vegetarian eats (wait for it!) eggs and dairy. Honey is usually accepted, but gelatin often isn’t.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarians have the best chance of finding a decent meal when eating out. More and more restaurant chains are including a vegetarian option, with either a vegetarian burger or beans as a protein source.
We went to a restaurant last year that had a variety of Gardein products included in their menu!
Another way to describe a flexitarian is to say they are a semi-vegetarian or a partial vegetarian.
There are different “levels” of this concept.
Some flexitarians eat vegetarian most of the time but will eat meat if someone cooks it for them, or in other such cases, such as a birthday dinner at a steak house. They may also eat vegetarian except for the twice-weekly fish.
Some flexitarians use this dietary pattern as a stepping stone to vegetarianism. Everyone has their “line in the sand,” so to say. While a flexitarian is technically not a vegetarian, they belong on this list, as they do eschew meat from part of their everyday routine.
I’ve seen a form of flexitarianism in people who eat vegan at home but will broaden their diet to lacto-ovo-vegetarian when eating out or at friend’s houses.
Actually, this pattern of eating most closely resembles the Mediterranean Diet pattern, which I’m all for.
I can’t prove it, but I suspect that many people who follow a flexitarian diet made changes to their diet due to some health-related trigger rather than an idealistic or ethical reason.
Like the flexitarian, a pescetarian isn’t technically a vegetarian. And their consumption of meats can range from fish once or twice a week to fish/shellfish at almost every meal.
This can potentially be a very healthful diet pattern for this person. Their consumption of omega-3 fats is most likely much higher than vegetarians and omnivores. This can result in lower rates of heart disease, stroke, and depression.
Some worry about their mercury intake as fish consumption increases. You can click here to see the mercury levels in different species of fish. Or just know that sharks, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish by far have the highest concentration of mercury so eat those less frequently.
As with flexitarianism, pescetarians may be more motivated by health reasons to change their diet than animal rights or environmentalism. Though choosing sustainable sources of seafood should be considered when possible.
So What Do I Feed My Houseguests?
If you’ve made it clear that you will be providing food, your vegetarian guest should speak up. Use the guidelines laid out above to get a general idea of what your guest is comfortable eating.
I generally offer to bring my own food, or at least my own protein, to dinner parties to reduce some of the stress on the host. Alternatively, sometimes I just know I’m going to have a low-protein meal. And that’s okay too!
Then, general, unnoticeable swaps can be made on the sides:
- Vegetable or mushroom broth instead of chicken or beef broth
- Avoid unnecessary bacon – that stuff is dang near everywhere (looking at you, Southern Greenbeans)
- Cheese on the side
- Olive oil instead of butter
- Soy milk
- Increase the garlic and onion powder if you need some more flavor
- Add soy sauce or tomato paste if the dish needs some umami
Use these swaps only if the integrity of the dish can remain relatively intact. Putting cheese on the side of macaroni and cheese is just boiled noodles! Not every dish needs to be adapted; just pick one or two that works. Your vegetarian guest will appreciate the effort!
If I’m going to a potluck-type event, I always bring a dish that I am comfortable with being my only choice, just in case it is. Interestingly enough, this is oftentimes the most popular dish on the table!
Finally, your guest may have learned, as I have, to eat a snack before showing up, just in case.
It is important to remember that people who change their diet from the one they were raised with can be made for many different reasons. Sometimes the reasons are for general health, to protect animal welfare, or a desire to be “greener.”
Sometimes, the switch to vegetarianism is impulsive. However, staying on a diet that excludes meat is usually based on long-thought-out ideals and may be tied to that person’s morals and ethics, and they should not be shamed for their decisions.
Often I hear judgment come from within the vegetarian community against other vegetarians or against those that do eat meat. This is never acceptable behavior. Just as people should not be judged for which religious group they associate with, a person’s dietary label should not be a target to mock and ridicule.
And here, I will step off my soapbox!
Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD is a registered dietitian, mom, wife, and vegetarian in North Texas. She has dedicated Dietitian Jenn to be a source of information, ideas, and inspiration for people like her, vegetarians that live with people with different dietary beliefs and/or needs in a multivore household.