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How to Eat Healthy as a Vegetarian

People adopt a semi- or total Vegetarian diet for many reasons. You may choose to refrain from eating meat, seafood, dairy, and/or eggs to improve health; for ethical or religious reasons; to cut down on the environmental effects livestock has; to cut costs; or just to experiment. Following a vegetarian diet may even reduce the risk of developing certain chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.[1] However, adopting a vegetarian diet does not simply mean removing meat from your plate and eating what's left. Changing your diet means changing your lifestyle. Further, eliminating significant food groups can place you at risk for developing nutritional deficiencies, including iron, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and riboflavin.


EditPlanning to Become a Vegetarian

  1. Reflect on the motives for changing your lifestyle. What attracts you to a vegetarian diet? Health benefits? Compassion for animals? Religious or spiritual beliefs? The first step in making a drastic lifestyle change is to understand your reasons for wanting change, which will help keep you motivated during the transition.
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  2. Identify which type of vegetarian diet you want to follow. Different types of vegetarians follow varying degrees of food restrictions. Selecting a type that suits your motives and is practical will make changing and maintaining your new diet easier. The different types of vegetarians include:[2]
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    • Vegan - Avoids all animal products, including meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, and gelatin. Many also do not eat honey. Some may avoid consumer animal products, such as fur, leather, silk, or certain cosmetics.
    • Lacto vegetarian - Eats dairy products, but avoids meat, poultry, fish, and eggs.
    • Ovo vegetarian - Eats eggs, but avoids meat, poultry, fish, and dairy.
    • Lacto-ovovegetarian - Eats dairy and eggs, but avoid meat, poultry, and fish. This category is the most common type of vegetarian in the United States.
    • Pesco-vegetarian - Eats fish, dairy, and eggs, but avoids meat and poultry.
    • Flexitarian – Follows an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet and does not eat meat at most meals, but will occasionally eat meat, poultry, or fish.
  3. Build a support system. Discuss your intentions and motivations with your friends and family and ask for their support. A strong support system will make the process of changing your lifestyle habits less difficult and can help you fight the temptation to lapse. Engaging with a vegetarian community by participating in online forums and reading magazines or blogs can help you find advice, tips, and helpful resources.
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EditUnderstanding Your Nutritional Needs

  1. Research your nutritional needs. Whether you talk to vegetarian friends or comb the internet, there is a lot of advice about eating vegetarian. But, to eat healthy as a vegetarian you must understand your nutritional needs in terms of daily calorie and nutritional recommendations, which differ according to age, gender (nutritional needs differ not only for men and women, but also for pregnant women), and lifestyle (e.g., your needs will be different if you exercise rarely or you’re training for a marathon).
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    • Seek out and read information that is specific to your age group, your gender, your health status, and your lifestyle.
    • Utilize the Vegetarian Food Pyramid, which provides recommendations for amounts and types of food that form a daily, well-balanced, plant-based diet.
    • Consult your doctor and/or a registered dietitian. Registered dietitians are credentialed through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Commission on Dietetic Registration.
  2. Eat a variety of foods. Whether vegetarian or omnivore, variety is the key to a healthy, well-balanced diet.[3] Any time you cut a food group out of your diet, you may put yourself at risk of a nutritional deficiency. The nutritional benefits of the missing food group must be made up in other places in your diet. Vegans, with the most limited diets, may be at the most risk.
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  3. Consume plenty of protein. Protein is foundational to the human body, present in every cell. It is essential for growth and maintaining healthy organs, bones, and muscles.
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    • Recommended daily amounts of protein differ according to age, gender, and physical activity.[4] Most adults need of protein per kilogram of body weight. For example, a 140 pound woman (63.6 kg) would need 51 g of protein per day (kg x 0.8).
    • Good sources of meatless protein include eggs and dairy. Plant-based foods can also provide enough protein if you eat a great enough variety every day. These can include meat substitutes, legumes like beans, lentils, seeds, nuts, and whole grains.
  4. Ingest enough calcium. Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body.[5] It is necessary for building and maintaining strong bones and teeth.
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    • Children and teenagers have higher recommended daily amounts of calcium than young adults. Aging women must also be careful to get enough calcium to prevent osteoporosis, which weakens bones. A calcium calculator can help you determine if you're getting enough calcium.
    • Dairy products provide the most calcium, but dark leafy vegetables, like kale, broccoli, and collard greens, are also good sources if eaten in sufficient amounts. You can also meet your daily calcium requirement by consuming calcium-enriched and –fortified products like plant-based milk and yogurt, juices, and cereal.[6]
  5. Include plenty of vitamin B-12 in your diet. This vitamin is required for red blood cell production and the prevention of anemia.
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    • Unfortunately for vegetarians, vitamin B-12 is found almost exclusively in animal products. Vegetarians may rely on dairy products, eggs, foods fortified with the vitamin, including breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast, and soy products, and vitamin supplements.
    • Vegans should be particularly careful about monitoring their intake as the vegan diet is rich in the vitamin folate, which can mask a B-12 deficiency. If you are vegan, ask your doctor to check your B12 level regularly. Your doctor may prescribe a B12 shot.
  6. Replenish your body's supply of riboflavin every day. Riboflavin, also known as vitamin B-2, aid growth and red blood cell production by working with the other B vitamins in the body. The body cannot store it because it is water soluble; it must be ingested every day.[7]
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    • Sources of riboflavin for vegetarians include dairy products, eggs, dark leafy green vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fortified breads and cereals.
  7. Eat enough iron. Iron is a mineral found within red blood cells; it is found in the protein hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood.[8]
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    • Iron deficiency is known as anemia, a condition where your body is not getting enough oxygen from your blood. It is also possible to get too much iron. Daily recommended amounts differ for adults and children.
    • Vegetarians can get iron by eating legumes, lentils, enriched breakfast cereal, whole grains, dark leafy green vegetables, and dried apricots, prunes, and raisins.[9]
    • It is more difficult to absorb iron from plant-based sources, so vegetarians’ daily recommended intake of iron is double that for omnivores. Consuming foods rich in vitamin C, such as citrus, strawberries, and tomatoes, at the same time you eat iron-containing food aids the body’s absorption of iron.[10] For example, if you eat red peppers (good source of vitamin C) with your beans and rice, you will absorb the iron from the beans more effectively.
  8. Get your daily recommended amount of zinc. Zinc, a mineral, supports a healthy immune system and is necessary for cell division and producing proteins.
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    • As with other vitamins and minerals, your recommended daily intake of zinc is based on your age and gender.
    • Zinc is best absorbed from animal sources, so dairy products are a good source for vegetarians. It can also be found in whole grains, soy, legumes, nuts, wheat germ, and zinc-fortified breakfast cereal. However, the zinc in plant based foods is less available to your body for absorption.[11]
  9. Eat food rich in omega-3s. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats in the human body. They maintain the health of the heart and may help fight heart disease.[12] Unlike other fats that the body can make, people must get these fatty acids from food.
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    • Getting plenty of omega-3s may help fight various illnesses, from allergies to asthma, from cancer to bipolar disorder.[13]
    • Fish and eggs are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, as are canola and soy oil, walnuts, ground flaxseed, and soybeans. If you are relying solely on plant-based sources of omega-3s, fortified products or supplements may help you reach daily recommended amounts.[14]
  10. Consider a vitamin D supplement. Vitamin D supports calcium absorption and thus is important for healthy bones. It occurs naturally in few foods, but the human body also produces it through exposure to sunlight.
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    • Rich food sources of vitamin D include fatty fish like herring and mackerel. Vitamin D-fortified foods for vegetarians avoiding seafood include dairy products, soy and rice milk, breakfast cereals and margarine. Consumers should check food labels for amounts.
    • Those who have limited sun exposure or don’t eat enough foods containing vitamin D may need to take a plant-derived supplement.[15]
  11. Mind your portion sizes. Getting enough of your nutritional requirements from a vegetarian diet requires eating enough of a given food. However, just because you’re not eating meat does not mean you can eat as many French fries and cheese pizza as you’d like.
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    • The Vegetarian Food Pyramid and food labels provide helpful information about recommended serving sizes to monitor your calorie intake and nutritional requirements.[16]
    • You may find it useful to visualize your portion sizes, such as a tennis ball for a cup of pasta or fruit.[17]

EditLiving a Vegetarian Lifestyle

  1. Start small and ramp up. Choosing to not eat certain food groups means changing the way you live. While you can quit that food group “cold turkey,” you may find greater success maintaining your new lifestyle if you begin by incorporating one meatless meal a day into your routine, then increasing the number of meatless meals you eat every week.[18]
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  2. Explore and practice substitutions. If you cook, try some of your favorite recipes without meat, such as making spaghetti sauce without meat or with a vegetarian meat substitute or making your morning smoothie with almond or soy milk instead of dairy. At your favorite restaurant, try your mainstay without meat: order a bean burrito with grilled vegetables instead of your regular beef and cheese burrito. Alternatives for various food groups can be single or processed plant-based foods:
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    • Plant-based meat and poultry alternatives include beans, tofu, tempeh, textured soy protein, and Quorn products, which are made from Mycoprotein.
    • Milk alternatives may be made from soy, rice, coconut, flax, hemp, almonds, and sunflowers.
    • Alternatives for other dairy products, like cheese and sour cream, are made from a combination of plant-based materials.
    • Egg substitutes include commercially-processed products and single foods like silken tofu, flaxseed meal, pureed fruit such as bananas or apples, buttermilk or yogurt, etc.
  3. Avoid boredom in your diet. Being a vegetarian doesn’t mean eating salad at every meal. Variety makes it not only more likely that you are getting enough nutrients, but also helps you stick to a lifestyle change.
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    • Subscribe to a vegetarian cooking magazine or blog.
    • Check out a vegetarian cookbook from the library.
    • Shop at your local farmers’ market and ask the vendors for vegetarian recipe recommendations.
    • Visit an ethnic restaurant in your neighborhood that you’ve never tried and sample some vegetarian dishes.[19]
    • Purchase prepared foods from your local health food store’s deli or simply peruse them for inspiration.
  4. Follow general scientific guidelines for good health. Researchers agree that healthy diets, whether they are plant-centric or not, consist of preparing more of your own meals so you know what goes into them; avoiding processed food and beverages; drinking enough water; and being mindful of how much you eat and how your food makes you feel.[20]
    Eat Healthy as a Vegetarian Step 19.jpg


  • Keep in mind that the basis of a vegetarian diet should be vegetables. Not all vegetarian foods are healthy, so make sure that you include plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
  • When buying fresh vegetables, be mindful of how much you can eat and/or prepare for storage to minimize food waste.
  • Consider taking a multivitamin.
  • Shop at your farmers' market and buy produce that is in season. Vegetables that come from local sources are more likely to retain their nutritional sources than produce transported over long distances.[21]
  • Gelatin is made from animal bones. Read product labels carefully if you are avoiding gelatin.
  • Check the ingredients in food.
  • Check soup labels and ingredients if you are avoiding meat/bone broth as well.


  • Don't presume that a vegetarian diet makes you immune to food-borne illness. A 2013 CDC report notes plants are almost as likely to be the source of food-borne illness as meat. Practice food safety.[22]

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How to Eat Healthy as a Vegetarian


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