Becoming a vegetarian involves more than giving up meat. Learn the basics of a healthy vegetarian diet.
Studies have shown that a well-planned vegetarian diet can help lower your risks for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Vegetarians also tend to have lower overall cancer rates and higher intakes of many important vitamins and antioxidants than nonvegetarians.But giving up all or even some animal foods is no insurance that your diet will be nutritious. Without the proper planning, a vegetarian diet can be very unhealthy. Being healthy requires eating more than white bread, rice cakes, processed cheese, and diet soda.
A vegetarian diet must consist of a wide variety of plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans and other legumes. This will ensure adequate amounts of fiber and healthy fat along with protein and other nutrients.
Vegetarians should also try to limit their intake of highly sweetened, fatty, and heavily refined foods. These foods may be animal-free, but they offer no or very little nutritional benefits.
The term “vegetarian” can refer to many different approaches to eating. Here’s the rundown:
- A vegetarian is someone whose diet does not include certain animal products.
- Flexitarians (semi-vegetarians) mainly follow a plant-based diet. They sometimes eat small amounts of meat, poultry, or fish.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians include eggs and dairy in their diet, along with plant-based foods. They do not eat red meat, fish, or poultry.
- Lacto-vegetarians include just dairy in addition to plant foods. They do not eat eggs, meat, fish, or poultry.
- Vegans eat only plant-based foods. In addition to excluding meat and poultry, they don’t eat fish, eggs, or dairy – such as milk, cheese, or yogurt. Many also exclude animal products like honey.
- Raw or living foodists eat only foods that are uncooked and unprocessed, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds, sprouted grains, beans, and dried fruit. Some eat raw meat, like carpaccio, or raw fish, like sushi, as well as raw unpasteurized milk products.
Ensuring adequate nutrition
A meal-plan strategy will depend on the type of vegetarian you are. The more restrictive your diet, the more challenging it is to get the proper nutrition your body needs. Here’s how to get the main nutrients that may be lacking in some vegetarian diets:
- Protein. Vegetarians who eat eggs or dairy products have convenient sources of protein. Vegans can choose from a wide variety of plant-based protein sources. In addition to beans and other legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy foods, plant-based protein is also found in vegetables and grains. To get the most nutrients, emphasize whole grains, such as oats, quinoa, whole-grain breads, cereals, and pastas.
- Calcium. In addition to low-fat dairy foods, calcium can be found in dark green vegetables, such as turnips and collard greens, kale, bok choy, and broccoli. Tofu enriched with calcium and fortified soy milk and fruit juices are other options. If you’re a vegetarian who doesn’t eat dairy, you may need to take a calcium supplement if you don’t get enough from your food. You may also need a Vitamin D supplement.
- Vitamin B12. Vegans are at especially high risk for a vitamin B12 deficiency. This vitamin is found almost exclusively in animal products. Milk, yogurt, cheese, and eggs are the only vegetarian food items that naturally contain significant levels of vitamin B12. Plant foods may be fortified with B12. These include rice and soy beverages, plant-based meat substitutes, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeast. Read labels carefully. Not all products and brands have B12 fortification, and the amount of fortification can vary.If you are a vegan, you will need a daily B12 supplement if you don’t eat plant-based fortified foods every day.
- Iron. Dried beans and peas, lentils, enriched cereals, whole-grain products, dark leafy green vegetables, and dried fruit are good sources of iron. To help your body absorb non animal iron sources, eat foods rich in vitamin C – such as strawberries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, cabbage, and broccoli – at the same time you eat foods containing iron.
- Zinc. Good vegetarian sources of zinc are whole grains, soy products, nuts, and wheat germ.
With careful planning, you can design a simple yet well-balanced vegetarian meal plan that meets all your nutritional needs.