Do you know someone who embraces a vegetarian diet? It’s estimated that six million to eight million Americans are vegetarian.

Do you know someone who embraces a vegetarian diet? It’s estimated that six million to eight million Americans are vegetarian.

People become vegetarian for many complex reasons: to improve their health, to help save the environment, compassion for animals, non-violent beliefs, ethical or economical concerns, religious beliefs, or a simple dislike of meat.

Some people give up meat, fish and poultry overnight, while others make the change to a meatless diet more gradually.

There are different kinds of vegetarianism, depending on how strict you choose to be.

Some eat fish. Some eat dairy. Some avoid all animal products.

The most popular vegetarian diet is the lacto-ovo vegetarian.

This means that meat, fish and poultry are avoided, but dairy products and eggs are eaten.

Vegans avoid eating and using all animal products. This includes dairy, eggs, honey, lard, gelatin, wool, silk or leather.

You may wonder how vegetarians can possibly get all the nutrients they need, especially protein, if they don’t eat meat.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has affirmed that a vegetarian diet can meet all known nutrient needs for people of all ages, including babies and children.

The key, as with any diet, is to eat a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grain products, nuts, seeds and beans.

Fatty foods and sweets still need to be limited.

Getting enough protein doesn’t have to be difficult with a vegetarian diet.

Meat eaters typically eat twice as much protein as they need. Old-school thinking was that vegetarians needed to eat a specific combination of foods to get complete protein in their diet.

A mixture of proteins throughout the day is best to provide enough essential amino acids for protein.

Beans, lentils, tofu, nuts, seeds and soy are all excellent sources of protein. Iron can be found in fortified grains, dried beans, tofu, spinach and dried fruits. Calcium is supplied by leafy greens, nondairy milk substitutes and fortified juices.

There are health benefits to a vegetarian diet. A study published in 2013 in The Journal of the American Medical Association found vegetarians live longer than meat eaters.

This may be because vegetarian diets are higher in fiber and antioxidants, and lower in saturated fat.

Vegetarians also tend to be thinner and as a group, consume less alcohol and tobacco.

Vegetarians have a lower risk of heart disease and lower cholesterol levels.

They have lower rates of hypertension, possibly due to the beneficial compounds in plant foods. Diets than are more plant based reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

You don’t have to become a total vegetarian to reap health benefits. Start by incorporating a meatless dinner once a week.

Common vegetarian meals might be spaghetti with marinara sauce, macaroni and cheese, eggplant parmesan, vegetable lasagna, breads, yogurts, eggs, nut butters, bean burritos or grilled cheese, plus fruits and vegetables, of course.

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.