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Vegetarian Diet

What Is a Vegetarian Diet?

A vegetarian diet excludes meat, poultry, fish, and foods containing these products. There are many different variations of the vegetarian diet. This article focuses on the lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet, which is based on plant foods, but also includes eggs and dairy.

Why Follow a Vegetarian Diet?

There are many health benefits associated with following a vegetarian diet. In general, vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and provide higher amounts of many vitamins and minerals than traditional western diets. Moreover, a well-balanced vegetarian diet may help:

People choose to follow a vegetarian diet for many different reasons, including health benefits, concern for the environment, and concern for animal welfare.

Vegetarian Diet Basics

A lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet is based on plant foods such as grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, and nuts, in addition to dairy and eggs. To make sure that you meet all your nutrient needs on this diet, be sure to eat a variety of each of these types of foods. Nutrients that deserve extra attention to make sure they are eaten in sufficient amounts include: protein, iron, calcium, zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Eating Guide for a Vegetarian Diet

This guide is based on the United States Department of Agriculture food guide, ChooseMyPlate.

Food Category Key Suggestions Key Nutrients Provided
Grains
  • Consume at least ½ of your grains as whole grains.
  • Whole grains include: whole wheat products, oatmeal, brown rice, barley, bulgur, popcorn.
  • Vitamin B12 (fortified breakfast cereals)
  • Zinc-fortified breakfast cereals, wheat germ
  • Iron-fortified breakfast cereals
Vegetables
  • Eat a variety of different vegetables every day.
  • During a meal, fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables.
  • Eat more of the following:
    • Dark green vegetables (like broccoli, spinach, bok choy, romaine lettuce)
    • Orange vegetables (like carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash)
  • Calcium (collard greens, turnip greens, bok choy, and mustard greens)
  • Iron (spinach, turnip greens, peas)
Fruits
  • Eat a variety of fruit.
  • During a meal, fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables.
  • Choose fresh fruit over fruit juices.
  • Calcium (fortified orange juice)
  • Iron (raisins, prunes, dried apricots)
Milk
  • Choose low-fat (1%) or fat-free dairy products; limit intake of full-fat cheese.
  • Milk alternatives include calcium-rich or -fortified foods and beverages.
  • Protein
  • Calcium (all milk products, fortified milk alternatives)
  • Vitamin D (fortified milk and milk alternatives)
  • Vitamin B12 (milk products and fortified milk alternatives)
Protein Rich Foods
  • Eat a variety of protein sources that include eggs, beans, peas, nuts, nut butters, and soy (like tofu).
  • Protein
  • Zinc (white beans, kidney beans, and chick peas)
  • Iron (kidney beans, black-eyed peas, lentils)
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (eggs, ground flaxseed, walnuts)
Fats and Sweets
  • Limit or avoid solid fats such butter, stick margarine, lard, and shortening.
  • Limit foods high in added sugar or solid fats.
  • Avoid sugary drinks. Drink water instead.
  • Eat a variety of foods from each of the food groups every day.
  • Limit your intake of cheese and other high-fat dairy products.
  • If you are new to this diet, do not just continue eating your usual diet minus the meat. Be sure to replace the meat with other protein-rich foods (like milk, beans, and nuts).
  • Consider meeting with a registered dietitian to makes sure you are meeting all your nutrient needs on this diet. A dietitian can create a meal plan for you.
  • Enjoy your food, but do not overdo it. Avoid oversized portions.
  • Check the sodium amount on the Nutrition Facts label and aim to eat foods low in sodium.
  • Eat Right—American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

    http://www.eatright.org

  • The Vegetarian Resource Group

    http://www.vrg.org

  • Dietitians of Canada

    http://dietitians.ca

  • Toronto Vegetarian Association

    http://www.veg.ca

  • American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada. Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: vegetarian diets. Can J Diet Pract Res. 2003;64(2):62-81.

  • Craig WJ, Mangels AR; American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. J Am D Assoc. 2009;109(7):1266-1282.

  • Healthy eating for vegetarians. US Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/ten-tips-healthy-eating-for-vegetarians. Updated November 13, 2015. Accessed December 4, 2015.

  • Messina V, Melina V, et al. A new food guide for North American vegetarians. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003;103:(6):771-775.

  • Proteins food gallery. US Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://origin-www.choosemyplate.gov/foodgallery-protein-foods. Updated July 17, 2015. Accessed December 4, 2015.

  • Tips for vegetarians. US Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://origin-www.choosemyplate.gov/tips-vegetarians. Updated July 23, 2015. Accessed December 4, 2015.