What Exactly Is a Vegetarian?

High-angle view of a vegetarian dinner table

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The simplest definition is that vegetarians are people who do not eat meat. Lacto-ovo vegetarians, the broadest category and most common type of vegetarian in North America, do not eat beef, pork, poultry, fish, shellfish, insects, or animal flesh of any kind. However, they do eat eggs and dairy products (lacto comes from the Latin for milk and ovo for egg).

From a menu perspective, a lacto-ovo vegetarian doesn't eat grilled chicken, hamburgers, steak, fish, shrimp, lobster, or any other animal flesh or seafood. They avoid most animal-derived products as well, such as gelatin, bone broth, and tallow or lard. The word vegetarian can be used as a noun as in, "That person is a vegetarian," or it can be used as an adjective as in, "That person follows a vegetarian diet."

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Lacto-Vegetarian

The term lacto-vegetarian describes a vegetarian who passes on eggs but does eat dairy products. Many Hindu vegetarians are lacto-vegetarians who restrict eggs for religious reasons but do eat dairy products such as yogurt and cheese.

Ovo-Vegetarian

People who do not eat meat or dairy products but do eat eggs may be referred to as ovo-vegetarians. Many follow this dietary plan simply because they are lactose intolerant, making it difficult for them to digest most dairy products.

The Basics of a Vegetarian Diet

Vegetarian diets are commonly defined by what they exclude rather than what they include. For example, many people refuse to allow eggs on a vegetarian diet, whereas others, particularly in the United Kingdom, prohibit certain types of cheese in a vegetarian diet as well, likely due to the use of rennet, which may be animal based. In the 1960s and 1970s, when vegetarianism started to spread in the United States, the so-called house salad and pasta dishes were often the only options available to vegetarians on restaurant menus. But as awareness rose and adoption spread through the 1980s, 1990s, and into the 21st century, the rich variety of a vegetarian diet gained commercial appeal. Restaurant kitchens from fast food to fine dining now put out tasty and inventive vegetarian meals that appeal to meat eaters and non-meat eaters alike.

A vegetarian diet includes fruits and vegetables in abundance; beans and legumes; whole and ancient grains such as rice, wheat, barley, millet, teff, oats, quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth; soy products such as edamame and tofu; meat substitutes such as veggie burgers, vegan "chicken," tempeh, and seitan; baked goods and breads including cookies, cakes, croissants, and bagels; nuts and seeds, including non-dairy milk such as almond, hemp, and flax; all varieties of wheat and non-wheat pastas; seaweeds such as nori and wakame; oils, seasonings including herbs and spices; and hot sauce, soy sauce, and nama shoyu. Lacto-ovo vegetarians also eat eggs and egg products; and dairy and dairy products such as ice cream, cheese, milk, cream, and butter. Some global cuisines, such as Indian, Ethiopian, and Burmese, rely heavily on plant-based meals, but other meat-loving cultures produce some of the most inventive vegetarian dishes, such as Chinese, Mexican, and Italian.

The Reasons for a Vegetarian Diet

People may choose a vegetarian diet out of simple preference, for ethical or religious beliefs, or because of its widely recognized health benefits, such as lowering the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. A vegetarian diet may also make it easier to address other dietary concerns, such as lactose or gluten intolerance, and some food allergies. Plant-based diets have also been put forward as a solution to climate change and may result in a lower grocery bill, especially for those who grow vegetables and herbs in a backyard garden.

Recipes for a Vegetarian Diet

The broad variety of vegetarian meals rivals any carnivorous menu. Some dishes herald their plant-based approach while others try to mimic meat, but the freshness of ingredients remains key to a tasty spread.

Whether you want to reduce your meat consumption, go fully vegetarian, or simply disrupt your standard recipe rotation, plant-based dishes offer endless opportunities for culinary exploration and gratifying dining.