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A guide to vegetarian diets

Vegetarian diets can be very healthy. But, as with any eating plan, you'll need to pay close attention to food choices. It's important to get all of the essential vitamins and nutrients and not too many calories and fat.

Going vegetarian is a popular choice these days. Millions of Americans choose to eliminate some or all animal products from their diet, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

While a vegetarian diet can provide a variety of health benefits, it can also leave you low on some key nutrients.

However, with a little planning a vegetarian diet can meet all of your nutritional needs, according to the academy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

What is a vegetarian diet?

Being a vegetarian can mean several things. For example, some vegetarians eat no animal products, while others eat dairy products but not meat.

In general though, vegetarians focus their diet on plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, seeds and nuts, and avoid meat, fish and poultry.

Vegetarians fall into four main categories, according to the academy:

Flexitarians generally follow a vegetarian diet but occasionally eat meat, fish or poultry. Some people consider themselves flexitarians, or semivegetarians, because they don't eat red meat.

Lacto-vegetarians eat cheese and other dairy products, but not meat, fish, poultry or eggs.

Ovo-lacto vegetarians eat eggs as well as cheese and other dairy products, but not meat, fish or poultry.

Vegans avoid all animal products.

Health benefits

Research shows that a vegetarian diet can be healthy in many ways. Vegetarians have a lower risk for and lower rates of:

  • Obesity.
  • Heart disease.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Diabetes.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Some forms of cancer.

Vegetarians may experience these health benefits because their diets are lower in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than the diets of people who eat meat. Vegetarians also tend to consume more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and soy products than meat eaters. These foods are known to have important properties—such as fiber and phytochemicals—that help keep the body healthy.

Vegetarian doesn't always mean healthy

It's important to remember that a vegetarian diet is not automatically a healthy diet. For example, a vegetarian diet may still contain fat, sugar and calories. Good food choices and reasonable portion sizes will help limit these less healthy elements.

A healthy vegetarian eating plan will need to replace the following nutrients—either through specific foods or supplements.

These nutrients include:

  • Protein. Make sure you get enough by including sources like beans, nuts, peas, whole grains and soy products, such as tofu and tempeh.
  • Iron. Vegetarians may run a greater risk of iron deficiency than those who eat meat. Adding plenty of dried beans, spinach, whole-wheat bread, iron-fortified cereal and dried fruit can supply you with the iron you need.
  • Calcium. Research shows that a vegetarian's body uses calcium better than a nonvegetarian's system, but you still need to make sure you're getting enough if you're avoiding dairy products. Try some leafy greens such as spinach, kale and broccoli to get your daily supply of calcium.
  • Zinc. Many types of beans, including, white, kidney and chickpeas, are good sources, along with zinc-fortified cereals, wheat germ and pumpkin seeds. Some people choose supplements, but make sure not to take ones that have more than 15 to 18 milligrams of zinc or you might end up lowering your "good" cholesterol levels.
  • Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is found in milk and eggs. You can also get it from fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals, soy-based beverages, veggie burgers and nutritional yeast. It's also available in supplements.
  • Vitamin D. Vitamin D comes from sunshine, but many people get much of their intake from fortified cow's milk. If you are not eating dairy products, you can obtain vitamin D through fortified breakfast cereals and supplements.

Learn more to make healthy choice

For more information about healthy vegetarian eating, visit the USDA's nutrition website, choosemyplate.gov.

reviewed 1/27/2020

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