What does it mean to have a vegetarian diet?

Eating a vegetarian or vegan diet can be a healthy, exciting alternative to traditional meat-based meal planning. Following a vegetarian diet may be easier than you think. There’s a wide variety of meat, dairy and egg replacements available at some markets. You can find many recipes on the internet and in cookbooks.

What are the types of vegetarian diet?

Vegan

This diet excludes all animal products, including:

  • Meat.
  • Poultry.
  • Fish.
  • Eggs.
  • Dairy.
  • Honey.

Lacto-vegetarian

This diet includes dairy products, but excludes products like:

  • Meat.
  • Poultry.
  • Fish.
  • Eggs.

Lacto-ovo-vegetarian

The majority of vegetarians in America fall into this category. This diet includes eggs and dairy products, but excludes:

  • Meat.
  • Poultry.
  • Fish.

What are the benefits of a vegetarian diet?

There really are no disadvantages to a vegetarian or vegan diet. A vegetarian diet offers many potential health benefits. Choosing vegetarian foods, rather than animal-based ones, for the nutrients you need eliminates much of the saturated fat and cholesterol found in a meat-based diet. A vegetarian diet can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels and help cut calories. These changes can reduce your risk of obesity, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and possibly cancer. The key to these benefits is balance.

How do I create a balanced vegetarian diet?

A vegetarian diet must offer the right amounts of:

  • Carbohydrates.
  • Protein.
  • Calcium.
  • Iron.
  • Fat.
  • Fiber.
  • Other nutrients.

An unbalanced vegetarian or vegan diet can lead to weight gain and high triglyceride and blood glucose levels. Because balance is so important, it is recommended that you meet with a registered dietitian before starting a vegetarian diet.

Protein

There are many nonanimal sources of protein. Although it was once thought that vegetarians had to combine certain foods to get a complete protein, that is not the case. Plant foods rich in protein include:

  • Nuts.
  • Seeds.
  • Legumes (beans).
  • Lentils.
  • Tempeh.
  • Seitan.
  • Tofu.
  • A variety of prepared soy and wheat gluten (the protein portion of wheat) foods.

These foods are available in grocery and health food stores.

Calcium

Lacto-vegetarians and lacto-ovo-vegetarians can eat dairy products rich in calcium. Calcium-rich choices for vegans include:

  • Dark, leafy greens.
  • Bok choy.
  • Kale.
  • Broccoli.
  • Tofu made with calcium.
  • Calcium-fortified nondairy milk alternatives.
  • Almonds.
  • Blackstrap molasses.
  • Calcium-fortified cereals and juices.

Calcium that comes from plant sources is absorbed by the body twice as well as that from cow’s milk.

Iron

Good sources of non-heme iron (the type of iron found in plant foods) include:

  • Dark leafy greens.
  • Dried legumes (beans) and lentils.
  • Soybeans.
  • Blackstrap molasses.
  • Spinach.

When you eat iron together with a source of Vitamin C, it is absorbed six times better than if you eat it alone. For example, vegetarian chili that contains beans (iron) and tomato (Vitamin C) quickly provides a good source of iron to the body. Many vegetables, such as broccoli and bok choy, are high in iron and Vitamin C, so the iron in these foods is very well absorbed.

Vitamin B-12

Vitamin B-12 is the only vitamin not plentiful in plant foods. Lacto-vegetarians and lacto-ovo-vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs every day do not need to worry about getting enough B-12. But, vegans need to make sure they get enough of this nutrient. Good sources are fortified cereals and soy milk. Nutritional yeast is another good source that has a pleasant cheesy flavor and can be used as a cheese substitute in recipes. Vegetarians age 50 or older should take a B-12 supplement. This is because, after age 50, our bodies do not efficiently absorb dietary sources of vitamin B-12. Ask your doctor or dietitian how much vitamin B-12 you need and whether you need a supplement.

Vitamin D

Few foods are naturally high in Vitamin D. Because Vitamin D is added to milk, vegetarians who drink milk are not at high risk of becoming deficient. Vegan sources of Vitamin D include mushrooms, soy milk, almond milk and orange juice and cereals with added Vitamin D.

Vegans can get Vitamin D by spending 20 minutes in directed (unprotected) midday sunlight or by taking a 2,000-IU supplement. The supplement should be taken with food.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/01/2019.

References

  • US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin D. Accessed 3/6/2020.
  • Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics. Dec 2016; 116(12): 1970-1980.

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