Twenty years ago, when Davis Frydman was a college student, he became vegetarian. “I came from a household that ate a lot of meat,” he says, “and I began to sense that meat was not healthy. I didn’t just cut back; I stopped altogether. I’m a ‘cold turkey’ kind of guy.”

Frydman, a Concord resident, has become one of the 12 million Americans who have made the choice to become vegetarian, cold turkey (or cold tofu, as the case may be).

The decision to eliminate meat reduces a vegetarian’s food choices considerably and raises the question: Is a diet without meat healthy?

“An appropriately planned vegetarian diet is healthful, meets nutritional needs and provides health benefits in prevention and treatment for certain diseases.” This official policy statement of the American Dietetic Association should allay any concerns vegetarians might have.

“But don’t overlook the key phrase — ‘appropriately planned,’” says Jane Hackett, registered dietician with Exeter Hospital’s outpatient nutrition services. “A healthy vegetarian diet is not just cheese, pasta and pizza.” Nor, she adds, is vegetarian fare “just salads, day after day.” A healthy vegetarian diet includes a variety of plant-based foods to assure that nutritional needs are met.

Not all vegetarians follow the same approach. Vegans use no animal products — no eggs or dairy products. Lacto-ovo vegetarians (numerically the largest group) do include eggs and dairy products in their diets. Some vegetarians eat eggs but not dairy products; others allow dairy but use no eggs. Pesci-vegetarians also eat fish and seafood. None include beef, pork, fowl or game in their diets.

The motivation for becoming vegetarian isn’t the same for everyone. Some are motivated by health concerns. In recent years, there has been widespread publicity about the fat content of meat and the dangers of high cholesterol. Concerns about excessive use of growth hormones and antibiotics make some people wary of eating meat.

Others are motivated by ethical concerns. They feel that it’s wrong to kill other sentient beings, and that, with the options now available, it’s no longer necessary to do so. Some have environmental concerns. They point to the huge amount of water, grain and energy it takes to get meat to the table.

For Davis Frydman, being a vegetarian is a way of being, not a cause. His wife and children (ages 6 and 9) do eat chicken, but rarely. “We don’t miss it,” he says. “We really don’t think about it.” Though his motivation began from health concerns, he has come to consider the ethical issues as well.

Those who are motivated by health have a growing body of evidence to support their views. A study of 28,000 vegetarian Seventh-day Adventists demonstrated heart disease rates well below national rates. Jane Hackett points to research from the American Institute of Cancer Research which demonstrates that unrefined carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains) are loaded with fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that protect our immune system, thus protecting us from illness, chronic and acute. “As a vegetarian you are less likely to form kidney stones or gallstones,” she says. “You are at lower risk for osteoporosis, diabetes, hypertension, and certain types of cancer. Vegetarian diets reduce saturated fat intake, resulting in lower cholesterol levels.”

The health benefits seem well established. But, remember the importance of planning. There are health concerns to be considered. Vegetarians must pay attention to potential deficits in vitamin B12 and protein. The safest approach is to supplement the diet with B12 fortified products. Vegetarians can consume adequate protein by using a mixture of complementary plant proteins. Hackett suggests that adolescent vegetarians take a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement.

The nutrients to focus on are iron, calcium, zinc and B12. Fortified cereals and bread, nuts, beans, blackstrap molasses and dried fruit are good sources for iron. Whole grains, legumes and nuts are sources of zinc. Vegans will need to find alternatives for calcium. Good sources are almond butter, legumes, tofu and fortified soymilk, orange juice and cereal.

The American Dietetic Association concludes, “Vegetarian diets are adequate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy and lactation.” As with any healthful diet, you have to put a little effort into making good choices. NH