Vegetarian diets continue to be touted as one of the most beneficial for the human body. It's not new that vegetarian diets are associated with decreased rates of breast and colorectal cancers, and cardiovascular diseases that plague American adults. Vegetarian diets are quite often higher in fiber, and certain nutrients like Vitamin C, and lower in fat; all benefits over the typical meat-and-potatoes diet.   And if the personal health benefits aren't enough, environmental chemist Dr. Dorea Reeser reported that eating a vegetarian diet also helps to reduce your carbon footprint during the "Science Behind Vegetarianism" talk of the Philadelphia Science Festival.

It got me thinking: In our meat-laden society, is it realistic for an individual, let alone a family, to go vedge? Let's take a look.

What is vegetarianism?

The term "vegetarian" can have many different meanings to many different people. Broadly, a vegetarian is a person who does not eat meat, fish, or poultry.  While this may be the most well-recognized vegetarian, there are several sub-categories:

  • Vegans: Vegetarians who avoid any animal product, including dairy, eggs, and sometimes honey

  • Lactovegetarians: Exclude meat, fish, poultry and eggs, but include dairy

  • Lacto-ovovegetarians: Exclude meat, fish, and poultry, but include dairy and eggs.

Are there any health risks?

The potential health risks of vegetarianism are few, but in particular, vegans need to be conscientious of incorporating enough Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, calcium, and zinc in their diets.  To insure that you are meeting these requirements, opt for green leafy vegetables, and fortified juice and soy milks for calcium and Vitamin D.  Nuts, seeds, lentils, tofu and beans are all good plant sources of zinc.  Vegetarian sources of Vitamin B12 sources are a little trickier to find.  Nutritional yeasts and fortified soymilks are two of your better options, but it might be necessary to consider an oral supplement like a multivitamin to meet your B12 needs.

Does it cost a lot to go vedge?

Outside of dietary preferences for meat, cost always seems to be an issue.  Vegetarian eating does not have to drive up your grocery bill. Katy Green, Associate Produce Coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic Region with Whole Foods Markets, gave some great tips on keeping the cost of produce and other vegetarian eats down:

- Buy seasonal. Produce prices drastically decrease during the item's growing season, and that's when the nutrients are at their peak.

- Try before you buy.  There have been many, many times that I've wanted to try a new item, but just walk away because I don't want to waste my money if I don't like it.  Katy suggests asking someone in the produce department for a sample. Most would be happy to oblige.  Produce managers are a wealth of knowledge and can help you pick a ripe product (and even suggest preparations for it).

- Buy in bulk. Dollar for dollar, you will often get more for your money if you buy from the bulk bins.  Fill up on high protein grains like quinoa and farro, and experiment with dried beans and nuts to maximize your protein.  When you see a great seasonal produce sale, buy it, blanch it, and freeze it for later.  You lose minimal amounts of nutrients when you freeze.

What is the best way to transition to a vegetarian diet?

Start slowly.  Like many other aspects of nutrition, vegetarian eating doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing scenario.  Try to make one meal per day a vegetarian meal.  It's often easiest to transition with a smaller meal like breakfast or lunch.  Another alternative is to join the legions (including me!) that participate in Meatless Monday – making the commitment to eating a vegetarian diet one day per week.

Need some inspiration for meals?  Head to Pinterest for an enormous collection of meatless recipes, and get some more information from the Vegetarian Resource Group or the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Vegetarian eating can be easy, inexpensive.  Try just one day a week to start, and consider it an investment in your long-term health.