What is a vegetarian diet?
In general, a vegetarian diet is a diet that doesn't include meat. But there are several kinds of vegetarian diets.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian.
This type of diet includes milk products (such as milk, cheese, and yogurt) and eggs. But it doesn't include meat, poultry, seafood, or fish. "Lacto" means milk. "Ovo" means eggs.
It includes milk products but no eggs, meat, poultry, seafood, or fish.
It's a diet of only plant foods. This means no milk products, eggs, honey, or gelatin. (Gelatin comes from bones and other animal tissue.)
Many people follow a semi-vegetarian diet. Most of their diet is vegetarian. But sometimes they may eat meat, poultry, seafood, fish, and/or eggs.
Why eat a vegetarian or vegan diet?
People may choose a vegetarian or vegan diet for various reasons. For example:
- It can be healthier than other diets.
- Some people think it's wrong to use animals for food.
- Some religions forbid eating meat.
- It may cost less than a diet that includes meat.
- Eating less meat can be better for the environment.
- Some people don't like the taste of meat.
What are the benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet?
In general, people who don't eat meat:
- Weigh less than people who eat meat.
- Are less likely to die of heart disease.
- Have lower cholesterol levels.
- Are less likely to get:
- High blood pressure.
- Type 2 diabetes.
- Prostate cancer.
- Colon cancer.
The health benefits may be related to a diet of mostly fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Eating a Healthy Diet
A vegan or vegetarian diet can give you most of the nutrients you need. As long as you eat a variety of foods, there are only a few things you need to pay special attention to.
You might want to think about working with a registered dietitian to be sure you are eating a balanced diet.
- Get enough protein.
- A vegetarian diet that includes eggs and dairy provides quality protein.
- A vegan diet takes more planning. Eat a wide variety of protein-rich foods to get the protein you need. Examples are soy products, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds.
- Pay attention to vitamin B12.
- Vitamin B12 occurs naturally only in foods from animal sources, such as milk, eggs, and meat.
- If you follow a vegan diet, be sure to eat foods fortified with vitamin B12 (such as fortified soy milk) or take a supplement that contains vitamin B12.
- Get enough iron.
- Include cooked dried beans, peas, and lentils, leafy green vegetables, and iron-fortified cereals in your diet.
- Iron from plant foods is not absorbed as well as iron from meats. Eat foods that contain vitamin C to help your body absorb iron from a meal.
- Get plenty of calcium.
- If you don't use milk or other dairy products, be sure to get calcium from other sources.
- Good sources of calcium include calcium-fortified products such as orange juice, soy milk, and tofu.
- Other non-dairy sources include corn tortillas made with lime (calcium carbonate) and green vegetables such as turnip greens, collard greens, kale, bok choy, and broccoli.
- Get enough vitamin D.
- If you don't use milk or milk products, be sure to get enough vitamin D from other sources. Soy milk and cereals are often fortified with vitamin D.
- Your body can produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight on a regular basis. You may need a supplement if you don't consume enough vitamin D or don't get enough sunlight.
- Get enough zinc.
- Good sources of zinc include whole-grain breads, cooked dried beans and lentils, soy foods, vegetables, milk, and yogurt.
- Add omega-3 fatty acids.
- If your diet doesn't include fish and eggs, you need other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. These include hemp seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, certain leafy green vegetables, soybean oil, and canola oil.
Getting enough protein
Protein is made of building blocks called amino acids. The human body can make some of these amino acids. But you must get the nine essential amino acids from food.
Protein isn't just found in meat. Other sources include cheese, milk, beans, tofu, nuts, and seeds. Instead of eating 1 ounce of meat, you can eat:
- ¼ cup cooked beans, peas, or lentils.
- ¼ cup tofu (about 2 ounces).
- 8 oz milk.
- 1 oz cheese.
- 8 oz regular yogurt or 4 oz Greek yogurt.
- 2 Tbsp hummus.
- ½ oz nuts or seeds (for example, 12 almonds or 7 walnut halves).
- 1 Tbsp peanut butter or other nut or seed butter.
You can get more protein in your food by adding high-protein ingredients. For example, you can:
- Add powdered milk to other foods, such as pudding or soups.
- Add powdered protein to fruit smoothies and cooked cereal.
- Add beans to soup and chili.
- Add nuts, seeds, or wheat germ to yogurt.
You can also:
- Spread peanut butter on a banana.
- Mix cottage cheese into noodle dishes or casseroles.
- Sprinkle hard-boiled eggs on a salad.
- Grate cheese over vegetables and soups.
You can also buy protein bars, drinks, and powders. Check the nutrition label for the amount of protein in each serving.
Vegetarian Diets for Children and Teens
A well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can be healthy for children and teens. In fact, it can be a great way to get them into a lifelong habit of healthy eating.
Here are some things to think about at different stages of a child's life.
Supplements may be important.
- Babies who get only breast milk should have iron supplements after the age of 4 to 6 months (or you can add iron-fortified cereal).
- Breastfed babies of vegan mothers need vitamin B12 supplements if the mother's diet isn't fortified.
- A vitamin D supplement may be appropriate for children younger than 1 year of age. Talk with your doctor about how much and what sources of vitamin D are right for your child.
Children ages 1 to 2 years need extra fat for brain and nerve development.
- If you use milk, use whole milk. Don't use low-fat or fat-free milk. (Children younger than 12 months of age should not drink cow's milk.)
- If you use soy milk, make sure that it's full-fat soy milk.
- Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian to make sure that your child is getting enough fat.
Vegan and vegetarian diets can contain a lot of fiber. Fiber fills you up without adding a lot of calories. But children have small stomachs. The fiber they eat can fill them up before they get enough calories. Frequent meals and snacks with plenty of whole grains, beans, and nuts will help children get the energy and nutrients they need for healthy growth.
Young children who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet tend to be slightly smaller but still within normal growth ranges. And they tend to catch up to other children in size as they get older.
Teens need plenty of calcium and vitamin D. And iron is especially important for teen girls who are menstruating. If your teen decides to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet:
- Teach your teen how to plan meals to get all the right nutrients every day. You may want your teen to talk to a registered dietitian to learn how to plan a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet.
- Talk with your doctor or dietitian about the vitamins and minerals your child needs. Ask if your teen needs to take a daily supplement.
- Find out why your teen wants to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Some teens adopt this diet as a way to lose weight, and it can hide an eating disorder like anorexia.
Current as of: February 28, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board: All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.