A healthy vegetarian diet consists primarily of plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seed. Because the emphasis is on nonmeat food sources, a vegetarian diet generally contains less fat and cholesterol, and typically includes more fiber. The average total fat intake of vegetarians varies widely (15 to 40 percent of daily energy) and the whole range of fat intake is compatible with excellent health.

Principles of Healthful Vegetarian Diets:

  • A variety and abundance of plant foods
  • Emphasis on unrefined and minimally processed foods
  • Optional use of dairy products and/or eggs
  • A wide range of total fat intake
  • Generous intake of water and other fluids

Vegetarian Diet Forms

Vegetarians fall into groups defined by the types of animal-derived foods they eat:

  • A stricter form of vegetarianism is veganism – vegan diet. People who follow this form of vegetarian diet eat only foods from plants:fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, seeds and nuts, no meat at all, including poultry, fish, milk, eggs and cheese.
  • Lacto-vegetarians consume plant foods, milk and milk products. They omit eggs as well as meat, fish and poultry.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians don’t eat red meat , fish and poultry but eat eggs, milk and milk products, such as cheese and yogurt, in addition to plant-based foods.

Any type of vegetarian diet should include enough calories to meet your energy needs and nutrients your body needs. If you follow a vegan diet, you may need to find alternatives for eggs and dairy products.

Some suggest that vegetarians have higher rates of deficiencies in those nutrients that are found in high concentrations in meat, but vegetarian diet food can easily provide all nutrients recommended for a healthy diet.

Nutrients in a vegetarian diet

  • Protein. It is rare for vegetarians to have insufficient protein intake. Vegetarians who eat eggs or dairy products have convenient sources of protein. Other sources of protein include soy products, meat substitutes, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
  • Calcium. This mineral helps build and maintain strong teeth and bones. Vegetable greens such as spinach, kale and broccoli, some legumes and soybean products, are good sources of calcium from plants. Vegetarians absorb and retain more calcium from foods than nonvegetarians do.
  • Vitamin B-12. Your body needs vitamin B-12 to produce red blood cells and prevent anemia. This vitamin is found almost exclusively in animal products, including milk, eggs and cheese. Vegans can get vitamin B-12 from some enriched cereals, fortified soy products or by taking a supplement that contains this vitamin.
  • Iron. Like vitamin B-12, iron is a crucial component of red blood cells. Dried beans and peas, lentils, enriched cereals, whole-grain products, dark, leafy green vegetables, and dried fruit are good sources of iron. To help your body absorb non-animal sources of iron, eat foods rich in vitamin C в such as strawberries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, cabbage and broccoli в at the same time you consume iron-containing foods.
  • Zinc. This mineral is an essential component of many enzymes and plays a role in cell division and in the formation of proteins. Good sources of zinc include whole grains, soy products, nuts and wheat germ.

Vegetarian Food

Whole Grains – includes cereals such as wheat, corn, oats, rice, millet, and cereal products such as bread, pasta, and tortillas. Select whole wheat or whole grain products;

Legumes – includes beans and peas such as soy, pinto, kidney, navy, limas, split peas, black-eyed peas, lentils, and garbanzos. Also includes soy products such as tofu, beverages, and texturized protein foods;

Vegetables – also includes starchy vegetables such as potatoes and yams;

Fruits – emphasize whole fruit rather than juice;

Nuts and Seeds – also includes butters or spreads. Emphasize raw or dry roasted;

Vegetable Oils – emphasize those high in monounsaturates such as olive, sesame, and canola. Limit tropical oils (coconut, palm kernel, and palm oil) and avoid hydrogenated fats;

Dairy – emphasize non- or low-fat products. If dairy is not included, women, adolescents, children, and the elderly need to ensure adequate sources of calcium and vitamin D;

Eggs – limit eggs or use eggwhites only;

Sweets – eat in moderation.

Since no single food provides all of the nutrients that your body needs, eating a wide variety helps ensure that you get the necessary nutrients and other substances that promote good health. The more variety you bring to your vegetarian diet, the better the chance you’ll meet all your nutritional needs.

No matter what your age or situation, Vegetarian and vegan diets can be a healthy way of eating for all age groups. Even children and teenagers can do well on a plant-based diet, as can older people, and pregnant or breast-feeding women.

Vegetarian diets can be healthful if it carefully planned to include essential nutrients. Vegetarian diet seems to helps keep body weight under control and reduces risk of heart diseases and hypertension, some forms of cancer and type 2 diabetes.

Individuals choosing to follow a vegetarian diet often choose additional healthy lifestyle habits and all factors considered essential to achieving and maintaining optimal nutrition and a healthy body weight.
If you’re unsure whether a vegetarian diet is right for you, talk to your doctor or dietitian.