Because the number of people interested in cutting back on meat is growing, food manufacturers and restaurateurs have started to follow suit. A wealth of vegetarian-friendly options on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus makes being a vegetarian today much easier and more delicious than it has been in the past.
Here, let’s dive into what it means to be a vegetarian and the effect it could have on your health.
What Is a Vegetarian?
Common Questions & Answers
Types of Vegetarian Diets
Here are seven:
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarians?eat both?eggs?and dairy but no meat, poultry, or fish.
- Lacto-vegetarians?eat dairy products but no eggs, meat, poultry, or fish.
- Ovo-vegetarians?eat eggs but no dairy, meat, poultry, or fish.
- Pescatarians?eat fish but no meat or poultry.
- Semivegetarians?don’t eat red meat but do eat chicken and fish.
- Flexitarians?stick to a vegetarian diet most of the time but eat meat, poultry, or fish on occasion.
- Vegans, the strictest type of vegetarian, refrain from all animal products and animal byproducts, including dairy, eggs,?honey, and things made with gelatin.
Vegetarian Diet Food List: What to Eat and Avoid
As a vegetarian, you’ll avoid meat (and whatever else goes along with the type of vegetarian you’ve chosen to be). Instead, you’ll load up on plant-based foods (ideally, those that are whole and unprocessed).
What to Eat
What to Avoid
Strict vegetarians will avoid poultry, fish, and meat, but there’s some flexibility based on the type of vegetarian you decide to be. You’re able to eat eggs as an ovo-vegetarian, for instance, or fish as a?pescatarian.
Eating Vegetarian: A 7-Day Sample Menu for Meal Inspiration
Lunch:?Avocado toast with whole-wheat bread, cherry tomatoes, and feta cheese crumbles
Snack:?Apple slices with peanut butter
Dinner:?Black bean tacos with shredded lettuce, sauteed veggies, reduced-fat cheddar, and fresh salsa
Breakfast:?Bran-and-blueberry muffin with low- or nonfat yogurt
Lunch:?Bean-and-veggie soup using low-sodium vegetable broth
Snack:?Roasted chickpeas made with extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt
Dinner:?Caprese sandwich (with tomato; low-fat, part-skim mozzarella; olive oil; and basil) on whole-wheat bread
Breakfast:?Tofu scramble on a bed of brown rice with sauteed peppers
Lunch:?Quesadillas with low-fat, part-skim cheddar cheese; black beans; and sweet potatoes
Dinner:?Vegetable stir-fry with tempeh on a bed of brown rice
Breakfast:?Strawberry smoothie made with kefir
Lunch:?Mixed green salad with crispy chickpeas and slices of grilled portobello?mushrooms
Snack:?Carrot sticks and hummus
Dinner:?Quinoa?bowl with roasted vegetables and kimchi
Breakfast:?Low- or nonfat Greek yogurt with cinnamon and?berries
Lunch:?Vegetable and cheese panini on whole-wheat bread
Snack:?Kale?chips made with extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt
Dinner:?Zucchini noodles (“zoodles”) with marinara sauce and low-sodium meatless meatballs (preferably homemade)
Breakfast:?Overnight oats with walnuts, sliced peaches, and cinnamon
Lunch:?Arugula-and-veggie-topped pizza with whole-grain dough and reduced-fat, part-skim mozzarella
Snack:?Handful of raw, no-salt almonds
Dinner:?Portobello?mushroom sliders with romaine, Swiss cheese, and tomato, on whole-wheat buns
Lunch:?Veggie burger on a whole-wheat bun
Snack:?Veggie spring rolls
Dinner:?African curry with rice and seitan.
Desserts are naturally vegetarian, so whatever you enjoy now will likely work on a vegetarian diet, too.
Potential Health Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet
Eating this way, whether for a few meals or for decades, can be beneficial to your health in loads of ways:
- Heart Help?Without meat, your diet will be lower in?saturated fat?and cholesterol, which ends up reducing your?risk of heart disease.Vegetarians tend to have lower levels of?LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.Sticking with a vegetarian diet can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease mortality and risk of heart disease by 40 percent.
- Hypertension Management?Eating a plant-based diet may help lower high blood pressure.
- Improve Insulin Response?Going vegetarian won’t cure type 2 diabetes, but it may help stabilize your blood sugar and make your body more responsive to insulin as long as you’re eating a balanced diet. It could also reduce your risk of other?complications related to type 2 diabetes.
- Cancer Protection?Vegetarians have lower cancer rates than nonvegetarians, suggesting an association between following a plant-based diet and a lower risk of certain?types of cancer.
- Lower Metabolic Syndrome Risk?Some studies suggest that people who fill their plates with plants also tend to have lower rates of metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that may raise your risk of chronic conditions, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Possible Weight Loss Effects of a Vegetarian Diet
To see these weight loss benefits, vegetarians need to stick to healthy whole foods and avoid overeating, says?Julieanna Hever, RD, the Los Angeles–based author of?Plant-Based Nutrition (Idiot's Guides). “With all of the new animal-free junk food on the market, it’s become increasingly easier to eat hyperpalatable [vegetarian] foods to the point of weight gain,” she says.
Drawbacks of a Vegetarian Diet
- Protein?is found in nuts, peanut butter, grains, legumes, eggs, dairy, tofu, tempeh and seitan.
- Iron?is found in legumes, spinach, whole grains, fortified cereals, seeds, and tofu.
- Calcium?is found in milk, yogurt,?cottage cheese, and fortified nondairy milk.
- Zinc?can be sourced from legumes, fortified cereals, nuts, seeds, dairy, and nutritional yeast.
- Vitamin B12?is found in dairy, fortified breakfast cereal,?soy milk, eggs, and nutritional yeast.
- Vitamin D?is most easily found in cow’s milk.
Vitamin D Supplements for Vegetarians
Potential Challenges of Being a Vegetarian
The biggest challenge many vegetarians run into is resisting meat-filled foods they’ve enjoyed in the past, such as turkey at Thanksgiving or a hot dog at a baseball game. You’ll likely need to drastically rethink your meals. “Most of us were raised with meat at the center of the plate, and having to recalculate that requires a transition period,” Hever says.
6 Beginner Tips for Vegetarians
Here are some ideas for how to do so successfully:
- Cut meat from your diet gradually.?Rather than going vegetarian overnight, try adding a few meatless meals to your menu each week until you slowly phase out meat.
- Work with a professional.?Be aware of the potential nutritional deficiencies and plan your meals accordingly with help from a registered dietitian (you can?find one at EatRight.org). “With all drastic dietary changes, there are health risks,” Jaelin says, adding that it’s important to pay close attention to those potential deficiencies.
- Meal prep!?Choose your meat-free foods wisely and keep your fridge stocked with healthy vegetarian options. Meal prepping by chopping up vegetables to toss in a salad or making batches of quinoa or farro to have on hand is also a good idea.
- Experiment with different flavors.?Try out different spices and seasonings to make your meals interesting.
- Make small tweaks to your favorite dishes.?If you’re feeling stuck, try to put a vegetarian spin on your favorite meals. For instance, try vegetarian chili filled with beans instead of chili made with ground beef.
- Source new recipes.?Hever suggests referring to websites, cookbooks, and social media to find recipes you love. Then tweak them and add them to your weekly menu. “It becomes second nature rather rapidly,” she says.
Resources We Love
Forks Over Knives has everything you need to feel like a knowledgeable and empowered vegetarian. There are recipes, meal planning help, and a cooking course to teach you how to start creating plant-based meals in your own kitchen. You can also subscribe to the company’s weekly newsletter to get meal ideas delivered straight to your inbox or the print magazine for more food inspiration.
This page from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers useful ideas for vegetarians to source nutrients they may be at risk of being deficient in, including calcium, iron, protein, vitamin B12, and vitamin D.
Worried about getting into a food rut? Have food inspo delivered to your social media feed by following @CookieandKate. Her account posts glamour shots and how-to videos of delicious vegetarian dishes. When you find one that makes your mouth water, you can head over to her blog for the full recipe.
Your refrigerator and pantry shelves will look different once you adopt a plant-based diet. This comprehensive list of kitchen basics from EatingWell gives you a list of items to have on hand so you’re prepared to cook healthy, balanced meals and don’t need to resort to processed foods.
The Vegetarian Resource Group is a nonprofit that educates the public on issues related to vegetarianism, such as the environmental benefits, health perks, and practical matters such as how to stick to your diet when dining out.
When you’re first starting out on a meat-free life, you may want to work with an expert who can help you meal plan to confirm you’re taking in the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals you need to be healthy. The?Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics?website offers this registered dietitian search tool, so you can locate someone in your area.
A vegetarian diet that’s filled with whole grains and vegetables offers loads of health benefits, from weight control to disease prevention.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Digging a Vegetarian Diet.?National Institutes of Health. July 2012.
- Being a Vegetarian.?TeensHealth. January 2021.
- Vegetarian Diet.?MedlinePlus. December 7, 2021.
- Vegetarian Diet: How to Get the Best Nutrition.?Mayo Clinic. August 20, 2020.
- Vegetarian Diet: Can It Help Me Control My Diabetes??Mayo Clinic. November 19, 2020.
- Turner-McGrievy G, Harris M. Key Elements of Plant-Based Diets Associated With Reduced Risk of Metabolic Syndrome.?Current Diabetes Reports.?2014.
- Kahleova H, Klementova M, Herynek V, et al. The Effect of a Vegetarian vs. Conventional Hypocaloric Diabetic Diet on Thigh Adipose Tissue Distribution in Subjects With Type 2 Diabetes: A Randomized Study.?Journal of the American College of Nutrition.?June 2017.
- Nearly One in Four in U.S. Have Cut Back on Eating Meat. Gallup. January 27, 2020.
- Medawar E, Enzenbach C, Roehr S, et al. Less Animal-Based Food, Better Weight Status: Associations of the Restriction of Animal-Based Product Intake With Body-Mass-Index, Depressive Symptoms, and Personality in the General Population. Nutrients. May 2020.
- Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. December 2016.
- Kim H, Caulfield LE, Garcia-Larsen V, et al. Plant‐Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All‐Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle‐Aged Adults. Journal of the American Heart Association. August 2019.
- Kahleova H, Levin S, Barnard ND. Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and Cardiovascular Disease. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases. May-June 2018.