A vegetarian diet is a meal plan made up of foods that come mostly from plants. These include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts. A vegetarian diet has little or no animal products.
Types of vegetarian diets include:
Vegan: Diet consists of only plant-based foods.
Lacto-vegetarian: Diet consists of plant foods plus some or all dairy products.
Lacto-ovovegetarian: Diet consists of plant foods, dairy products, and eggs.
Semi- or partial vegetarian: Diet consists of plant foods and may include chicken or fish, dairy products, and eggs. It does not include red meat.
A well-planned vegetarian diet can give you good nutrition. A vegetarian diet often helps you have better health. Eating a vegeterian diet can help you:
Reduce your chance of obesity
Reduce your risk of heart disease
Lower your blood pressure
Lower your risk of type 2 diabetes
Compared to non-vegetarians, vegetarians usually eat:
Fewer calories from fat (especially saturated fat)
Fewer overall calories
More fiber, potassium, and vitamin C
Getting enough nutrients
Anyone following a vegetarian diet needs to make sure to get enough important nutrients. This is because it may be hard to get all the calories and nutrients needed for growth and development and to maintain good health. Careful planning may be needed for certain groups of people such as:
Young children and teens
Pregnant or breast-feeding women
People with cancer, more severe lung problems, and other illnesses
Vegetarian diets are usually high in fiber. High-fiber diets may lack calories, which can lead to:
Growth and development problems in infants and children
Poor growth of a baby while still in a mother’s womb
Weight-loss in those who are ill or older
Vegetarian diets often lack certain vitamins and nutrients. You may want to pay attention to the following:
Sources include eggs, milk products, and foods that have B12 added to them (fortified).
This vitamin is found in fatty fish, egg yolks, and foods that are fortified with vitamin D, such as soymilk and cereals.
Zinc: Sources of this mineral include beans and foods fortified with zinc, such as milk and cereals.
Iron: This mineral is found in beans, green vegetables, and foods fortified with iron such as cereals.
Eating foods that are high in vitamin C at the same meal as iron-rich foods increase iron absorption. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron.
Calcium: Sources of this mineral include milk, seeds, beans, nuts, green vegetables, and foods fortified with calcium such as fruit juices.
Protein: Sources of protein include fish, eggs, beans, soy products, nuts and nut butters.
If you eat fish, eggs, and dairy, getting enough protein should be easy. Even if you do not, proteins from plants can still provide a healthy diet:
Soy protein, such as soy nuts, tofu, veggie burgers, chicken substitute, and soy cheese
Legumes and beans, such as navy beans, split peas, chickpeas
Nuts, peanut butter and other nut butters, almond milk
Vegetarian diets that include some dairy products and eggs are nutritionally sound.
You may want to work with a dietitian to ensure that your nutrients are adequate.
When following a vegetarian diet, keep in mind the following:
Eat different kinds of foods, including vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and dairy and eggs if your diet includes these.
Limit foods that are high in sugar, salt (sodium), and fat.
Do not make up for a missing nutrient by overeating another. For example, do not eat a lot of high-fat cheese to replace meat.
Instead, choose protein sources that are low in fat, such as beans.
If needed, take supplements if your diet lacks certain vitamins and minerals.
Learn to read the Nutrition Facts Label on food packages. The label tells you the ingredients and nutrition contents of the foodproduct.
American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109:1266-1282.
Craig WJ. Nutrition concerns and health effects of vegetarian diets. Nutr Clin Pract. 2010;25:613-620.
Thedford K, Raj S. A vegetarian diet for weight management. J Am Diet Assoc. 2011;111:816-818.
United States Department of Agriculture. Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 2010. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. 2010.
Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.