While there are many reasons people choose a vegetarian eating style, a well-planned vegetarian diet can be healthy, taste great and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.
There are different types of vegetarians:
- Flexitarian: Flexitarians are also known as semi–vegetarians. They avoid animal products most of the time, but will occasionally eat fish or meat.
- Pesci–vegetarian: Pesci–vegetarians eat fish, dairy, and eggs but don’t eat meat or poultry.
- Lacto–ovo vegetarian: Lacto–ovo vegetarians don’t eat meat, fish or poultry, but do eat eggs and dairy products (ovo means eggs and lacto means dairy). This is the most common type of vegetarian diet.
- Lacto vegetarian: Lacto vegetarians don’t eat meat, fish, poultry or eggs, but do eat dairy products.
- Ovo vegetarian: Ovo vegetarians don’t eat meat, fish, poultry or dairy, but do eat eggs.
- Vegan: Vegans avoid eating any animal products. They don’t eat any meat products, dairy, eggs, honey, or gelatin. Some vegans (and some other types of vegetarians) choose not to wear clothes containing animal products, such as leather, wool, or silk, or use products such as lotion or makeup that may have been tested on animals.
What is a vegetarian diet?
There are many types of vegetarians, but most follow a vegetarian diet that excludes meat, poultry and seafood. Some may choose a plant-based diet that excludes eggs and dairy, like milk, yogurt and cheese. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals of all ages including infants, children, teens and pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as adults.
Are there health benefits?
Vegetarian diets can be healthy and may even lower the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer. However, eating a balanced diet when you are vegetarian requires some extra attention. Because vegetarians take out certain foods from their diets, they often need to work to add in foods that will provide the nutrients found in animal products. By eating a variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, soy products, and whole grains, vegetarians can get adequate nutrients from non–meat sources. Vegetarians, especially vegans, need to pay attention getting enough protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and omega–3 fatty acids.
Food Groups for Vegetarians
These food groups may look familiar. They are the same food groups featured in USDA's MyPlate.
- Fruits: Eat a wide variety of colorful fruits, including fresh, frozen and canned with no added sugar. Fruit supplies fiber, vitamins and minerals.
- Vegetables: Choose vegetables in a varietyof colors, especially orange, red and dark-green for their vitamins, minerals and fiber.Vegetables like broccoli, bok choy andcollard greens provide calcium. Vegetablescan be fresh, frozen or canned without salt.
- Grains: Eat more whole grains in place ofrefined ones. Some grains, like quinoa andmillet are higher in protein. Many ready-to-eat cereals are fortified with iron and evenvitamin B12. Replace white rice, pasta andbreads with whole-grain options.
- Proteins: Variety, again, is important in thisfood group. Beans, peas and lentils arepacked with iron, zinc, fiber and protein.Nuts, seeds and soy products are also greatchoices.
- Dairy: Milk, yogurt and cheese are rich incalcium and most are fortified with vitaminD.Choose low-fat or fat-free options. Non-dairy alternatives are also available such ascalcium-fortified soymilk and almond milk.
Healthful Vegetarian Meal and Snack Ideas
As you can see, a healthy vegetarian eating style depends on variety and thoughtful planning. Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Spread almond butter on a whole-grain toasted bagel and top with apple slices.
- Instant oatmeal made with low-fat or fat-free milk with nuts and dried cranberries
- Whole-grain toaster waffle topped with blueberries and yogurt
- Vegetable burger or falafel with cheese,mushrooms and tomato on a whole-grain bun
- Main dish salad with your choice of leafy greens, cut-up vegetables, beans or tofu,fruit and nuts
- Peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole-wheat bread with carrot and celery sticks
- Chili made with beans and textured vegetable protein plus shredded cheese and cornbread
- Whole-grain pasta with tomato sauce plus vegetables (mushrooms, tomatoes,eggplant, peppers and onions)
- Pizza with or without cheese and topped with vegetables and tofu or meat substitute.
- Tacos or burritos filled with beans,textured vegetable protein, tofu or tempeh
- Tofu and vegetable stir-fry with brown rice
- Baked potato topped with broccoli and cheese
- Hummus and pita wedges
- Bagel with nut butter
- Yogurt layered with crunchy whole-grain-cereal and sliced fruit
- And a cup of vegetable soup and wholegrain crackers
Zinc is important for growth and your immune system. It is found in whole grains (refined grains such as bread or pasta made from white flour or white rice are not sources of zinc), fortified breakfast cereals, dairy products, soy foods, nuts, and legumes.
Iron is important for your blood and is found in beans, seeds, soybeans, tofu, fortified breakfast cereals, dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, and dried fruit such as apricots, figs, or prunes. Plant–based iron is essentially different from the iron found in meat and it’s not absorbed as well by your body. Adding vitamin C helps your body to absorb iron, so it’s important to eat foods rich in vitamin C (such as citrus fruits and certain vegetables such as tomatoes) when you are eating plant-based iron foods to maximize the amount of iron you can absorb.
Calcium is needed to build strong bones. It is found in dairy products such as milk, yogurt (there is more calcium found in traditional yogurt compared to greek yogurt), and cheese. You can also find plant sources of calcium such as broccoli, butternut squash, collard greens, black beans, white beans, soybeans, and tofu. Plant sources of calcium have less calcium per serving, and are ultimately more difficult for our bodies to absort compared to dairy products. Some foods aren’t naturally high in calcium but have calcium added to them; these foods are called calcium–fortified. Some products such as soy milk, enriched rice milk, orange juice, cereal, and cereal bars are calcium fortified. Therefore, if you choose to not eat dairy, eating calcium fortified foods is a great way to ensure you are eating enough calcium. Look at the Nutrition Facts Label to find out which brands are highest in calcium.
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The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Center for young women health