Food and Nutrition|Prevention and Wellness|Weight Loss and Diet Plans

Vegetarian Diet: How to Get the Nutrients You Need

Last Updated April 2022 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Robert "Chuck" Rich, Jr., MD, FAAFP

A vegetarian diet excludes or limits animal flesh and products. Becoming a vegetarian is a big choice. For most people, it means changing a lifetime of eating behaviors.

You might switch to a vegetarian diet for health reasons or personal beliefs. Some people care about the ethics of using and harming animals. Other concerns include the effects of the food industry on our environment. Some religious groups ban eating certain foods.

Whatever your reasons, becoming a vegetarian is an adjustment. You’ll need to learn new habits and replace old food choices. When dining out, check out the restaurant’s online menu ahead of time. It also helps to surround yourself with other like-minded people.

Path to improved health

There are several types of vegetarian diets. You should choose one based on your health needs and personal beliefs.

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, or fish. They do eat eggs and dairy products.
  • Lacto-vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, fish, or eggs. They do eat dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese.
  • Ovo-vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, fish, or dairy. They do eat eggs.
  • Flexitarians (also called semi-vegetarians) are not traditional. They continue to eat meat, poultry, fish, and animal products in small amounts. This diet is more common for people who only have health-related concerns. A flexitarian diet can help you reduce the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol you eat. It also helps you increase the amount of vegetables, fruits, and grains in your diet.
  • Pesco-vegetarians do not eat meat or poultry as part of their vegetarian diet, but they do eat fish.
  • Vegans avoid meat, eggs, dairy, and animal products. This includes animal byproducts, such as gelatin and honey.

Vegetarian diets can be challenging but may be worth the effort. Benefits of a meatless diet may include:

  • Lower cholesterol levels
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower intake of saturated fats
  • Decreased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers
  • Healthier body weights

A successful vegetarian diet means more than saying no to meat. Like everyone, vegetarians must be careful to eat foods that are balanced and nutritious. Although fruits and vegetables are a great source of nutrients, they aren’t all created equal. Some nutrients found in animal products are hard to get in other foods. You need to plan your diet carefully. This helps you prevent malnutrition and enjoy a healthy lifestyle.

Make sure you get enough of the following nutrients:

  • Iron plays a key role in the production of red blood cells. These cells help carry oxygen throughout your body. Good sources of iron include beans, broccoli, raisins, wheat, and tofu. Iron-fortified cereals are a good source. Iron found in non-meat sources is harder to digest. You should eat foods rich in vitamin C, such as oranges and broccoli. These can increase your ability to absorb iron.
  • Protein is an important nutrient for almost every part of your body. It keeps your skin, bones, muscles, and organs healthy. For ovo-vegetarians, eggs are a great source of protein. Vegan options include nuts, peanut butter, seeds, grains, and legumes. Non-animal products like tofu and soymilk also provide protein. Vegetarians must consider getting enough “complete protein.” Protein is made up of small parts called amino acids. These help your metabolism. A complete protein contains all the amino acids your body needs. You can get complete protein by eating certain foods together. Examples include rice and beans or corn and beans.
  • Calcium builds strong bones and helps prevent osteoporosis. This is a disease that weakens your bones and can cause breaks. For many people, dairy products are the primary source of calcium. For a vegan diet, you can eat soybeans or almonds. Dark leafy greens like kale, collard greens, and bok choy, are good options. You also can drink fortified soymilk and juices. Calcium supplements also are available.
  • Vitamin D also plays an important role in bone health. It helps your body absorb calcium and promote bone growth. Your body produces some vitamin D in response to sunlight. You should get 10 minutes of sun exposure 3 to 4 times a week, if possible. Based on where you live, this should be all the vitamin D you need. Make sure you always use safe practices in the sun. If you need more of vitamin D, drink cow’s milk or look for fortified products. This includes soymilk, rice milk, and some cereals.
  • Vitamin B12 helps produce red blood cells and prevent anemia. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians can get this from eggs or dairy products. If you are vegan, look for products fortified with this vitamin. This includes soymilk and some cereals. Talk to your doctor about taking a vitamin B12 supplement.
  • Zinc is vital to your immune system. A lot of cheeses contain zinc. You also can find it in beans, nuts, and soy products.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids improve your heart health and brain function. Flaxseed meal and oil are two good sources. You also can look for food products fortified with omega-3 from a plant source. Talk to your doctor about taking an omega-3 supplement. If you are vegan, check the label to make sure it doesn’t come from fish oil.

Things to consider

Over time you will get used to the vegetarian diet. Then you can explore new types of foods. This diet can help you live healthier. However, this requires making balanced choices. Try not to indulge in junk foods. You should eat high quality foods with nutrients your body needs. Keep an eye out for signs of nutritional problems. This includes changes in your weight, skin, or hair.

If you have questions or concerns, talk to your family doctor. If you have special health needs, such as diabetes, consult your doctor before starting a new diet. They can help you make the best nutritional choices for your health.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What are the side effects of switching to a vegetarian diet?
  • Can a vegetarian diet help manage certain diseases and conditions?
  • Can a vegetarian diet be bad for me?
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