Getting Started With a Vegetarian Diet

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A vegetarian diet is one in which no meat or seafood is consumed. Most vegetarians are lacto-ovo vegetarians and also consume eggs and dairy. But some choose to avoid eggs (lacto-vegetarians) and some choose to avoid dairy (ovo-vegetarians).

Depending on which plan you choose, adapting to this eating style can require some adjustment. Traditional western meals, also known as the standard American diet or SAD, rely heavily on meat, processed meat, butter, full-fat dairy products, eggs, fried foods, refined grains, and sugary beverages. Many nutrition experts suggest a gradual approach to a plant-based diet.

For example, some people find success by going meatless one day each week. Meatless Mondays are popular and it's easy to find online support, tips, and recipes. Once you are comfortable with a once-weekly plant-based diet, you can start to go meatless during other days of the week.

Others find it helpful to try a flexitarian diet first. A flexitarian diet is a modified vegetarian diet that allows you to eat meat on some limited occasions. Once you are comfortable with the flexitarian eating style, you can fully adopt a vegetarian diet if you choose.

Regardless of which strategy you choose, remember to give yourself time when first adopting this lifestyle. Experiment with new recipes, gather support from friends and family and take advantage of as many resources as possible to adjust to your new eating plan.

Nutrients of Concern

If you become a vegetarian who doesn't consume animal products or their by-products there are some nutrients of concern that need to be addressed.


Iron is a mineral that is necessary to form hemoglobin which carries oxygen in the blood and muscles. Iron from meat products, called heme iron, is absorbed best. Non-heme iron is iron from plants. If you're a vegetarian, non-heme iron is best absorbed into the body when paired with foods containing vitamin C, retinol, or carotene.


Calcium is a vital nutrient for bones, muscles, blood clotting, and nerves. Lactovegetarians and vegans are at risk for calcium deficiency, especially during the growth phase. Vegetarian foods that contain calcium include fortified milk alternatives, kale, white beans, and spinach.

Vitamin B12

This vitamin is responsible for nerve, red blood cell, and DNA health. Vitamin B12 can only be found in animal products. If you're not going to not consume any byproducts of meat then taking a supplement will be essential.

Calorie Goals

When you are making any dietary changes it's smart to check your calorie intake to make sure it is in line with your calorie needs.

Studies have shown that those who follow a vegetarian diet typically consume fewer calories than those who eat omnivore diets (diets that have no restrictions). This calorie reduction usually happens naturally because foods that are eliminated on a vegetarian diet are foods that tend to be higher in fat and calories, such as meat and (sometimes) dairy.

To make sure you are getting the right number of calories on your vegetarian diet, you can use a calorie calculator. Simply input your height, weight, and activity level and your goals regarding weight loss or weight gain. The calculator provides a personalized estimate of the number of calories you need.

Hydration Tips

You may find that staying hydrated is easier on a healthy vegetarian diet than it is on a traditional western diet because you consume more produce. Water makes up nearly 90% of the weight of many fruits and vegetables that we consume. In fact, studies involving children have shown that increasing your fruit and vegetable intake can promote a healthy water balance in the body. This is important as children are at greater risk for dehydration because a greater portion of their body is fluid.

Older adults, especially those age 65 years and older are also at risk. Fruits, fruit juices, and vegetables have been shown to play an important role in helping older adults to stay hydrated when residing in long-term care facilities.

If you're switching from a omnivore diet to a plant-based vegetarian diet, also note you will need to consume more fluids to compensate for an increased fiber intake to prevent constipation. Depending on the vegetarian diet that you choose, you may need to reconsider some of your regular beverage choices.

On an ovo-vegetarian diet, dairy products (including milk, cream and yogurt-based beverages) are not compliant. However, nut milks may be a suitable alternative. Most grocery stores carry milk alternatives such as soy milk, cashew milk, almond milk, coconut milk, and many others.

Grocery Staples

Changing your diet often requires you to change your grocery shopping habits. On a healthy vegetarian diet, you'll spend no time in the meat and seafood area, but much more time in the produce section. You might even consider trying a new type of market, such as a farmer's market, or health food store to get the foods you need to stay healthy.

To keep grocery costs lower and to support your local farmers, you may want to consider participating in a CSA, or community supported agriculture program. In a CSA you get fresh produce on a regular basis from a local farm. Some CSAs drop off produce bundles at your home while others require that you pick it up at particular location.

If budget is a concern, another option is to choose seasonal fruits and vegetables at your regular market. Not only does this help to keep costs down, but it's a great chance to experiment with new foods and flavors. For example, in the springtime try lychees or mangos. In the winter, try squash or sweet potatoes.

Bulk Foods

When buying grains, nuts, or seeds, consider buying in bulk. You can save money by purchasing only the amount that you need. Also, these foods are usually cheaper because packaging costs are eliminated. Look for these items in the bulk section:

Lentils, chickpeas, and beans are good sources of iron. You can find these in the bulk section or in the canned goods aisle. Some whole grains such as amaranth and oats also provide iron, so you'll want to stock up on these ingredients so you have them on hand for recipes.

You might also find nutritional yeast in the bulk section, although different stores carry it in other sections as well. Nutritional yeast can be added to your favorite recipes (such as soup or pasta dishes) and can be healthy for someone on a vegetarian diet because it provides B vitamins, especially B12 which is sometimes deficient in a vegetarian diet.

Produce Section

Choose fruits and vegetables that provide the vitamins and minerals that are likely to decrease when removing animal products from your diet. Choose calcium-rich fruits and veggies such as kale, figs, broccoli, broccoli rabe, or okra. And protein-rich produce, like spinach, alfalfa sprouts, or asparagus will help you maintain muscle mass.

Mushrooms are another food to stock up on in the produce aisle. If you are having a hard time removing beef from your meals, mushrooms provide a savory, meaty alternative.

Other nutritious fruits and vegetables to consider include:

You may also want to explore the fresh herb section of the produce department. Learning to flavor your food with basil, rosemary, dill, or other fresh herbs can help you to reduce your dependence on the salt shaker. Fresh ginger is also found in the produce section. Use it in veggie stir fry recipes, tea, or salad dressings.

Frozen Foods

You'll find a wide array of vegetarian microwavable meals, meat substitutes, and other quick fast-food style offerings in the freezer section. You'll also find many frozen treats that are made without dairy for those who follow an ovo-vegetarian diet. For example, coconut or nut-based ice cream can satisfy your sweet tooth and may even provide a little boost of protein.

Keep in mind that while these convenience foods are compliant on your new vegetarian eating plan, they don't always provide good nutrition. Some contain excess sodium, sugar, total fat, and saturated fat. They may be helpful to have on hand, but for optimal nutrition, consider stocking up on less processed frozen foods including:

  • Frozen soybeans (edamame)
  • Frozen vegetarian soups
  • Frozen berries, pineapple and other fruits for smoothies and recipes
  • Frozen vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, spinach, or peas
  • Frozen whole-grain waffles, bread, or other baked goods

Buying frozen produce can help cut costs at the market. Frozen fruits and vegetables are just as healthy as their fresh counterparts when they are packaged without additives and they stay fresh much longer.

Cereals, Canned, and Dry Goods

In the middle aisles of the grocery store, you'll find many nutritious vegetarian offerings, like beans and fortified cereal. When buying legumes, consider purchasing the dried variety rather than canned goods as some canned goods are high in salt.

  • White beans
  • Kidney beans
  • Black beans
  • Whole-grain cereal
  • Dried herbs and spices
  • Rolled oats
  • Tahini
  • Plant-based oils
  • Whole-grain crackers
  • Vegetarian soups such as bean soup or tomato soup
  • Protein powder made with soy, rice, or pea protein

When buying cereal, try to look for brands that are fortified with vitamin B12. This nutrient is often lacking in vegetarian diets because it is most commonly found in meat and seafood. But you can get your recommended daily intake by consuming foods like cereal that are fortified with it.

You might also want to look for Ezekial bread in the dry goods area (although sometimes it is sold in the freezer section). This bread is popular because it is made with sprouted grains and lentils. Each slice provides four grams of protein and other nutrients including B vitamins, zinc, calcium, and iron–nutrients particularly important for those who follow a vegetarian diet.

Refrigerated Section

If you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian, you'll stock up on dairy products and eggs in this section. Foods like Greek yogurt, cheese, milk, and cottage cheese help boost your calcium and protein intake.

If you don't consume dairy, look for these alternative foods in the refrigerated section:

  • Soy milk
  • Soy cheese
  • Coconut milk
  • Plant-based yogurt (such as coconut yogurt) 
  • Orange juice, fortified with calcium
  • Tempeh or tofu
  • Hummus
  • Kombucha
  • Fermented foods like sauerkraut or miso paste

When choosing soy milk or other milk alternatives, consider looking for a product that is fortified with calcium or other vitamins and minerals, such as B12.

Recipe Ideas

Because plant-based diets have blossomed in popularity, there is a wealth of resources that can help you learn to cook vegetarian dishes. Making your own meals at home gives you control over the ingredients, so you can include foods that boost nutrition and limit salt, sugar, and saturated fats.


Start your day with hearty breakfast foods that provide fiber and protein.

Lunch and Dinner

Replace meat-based meals, like sandwiches, steak, or burgers with filling savory dishes made to satisfy.


Boost your protein and fiber intake with healthy snacks.


Indulge and enjoy sweet treats with or without dairy

Cooking and Meal Planning

Cooking certain foods in advance will help you to stay healthy and satisfied on a vegetarian diet. Having nutritious plant-based meals and snacks ready to go will help you to rely less on processed microwavable foods.

  • Beans and lentils can be soaked and cooked ahead of time. Prepare a batch or two once each week, then keep them refrigerated so that you can grab a handful to toss on salads on top of grains, or into soups or stews. If you make too much, you can also freeze beans and lentils for about 6 months.
  • If you soak oats overnight, they take less time to prepare in the morning. Simply combine oats with your favorite add-ins (like fruit, seeds, or nuts), cover, and place in the refrigerator.
  • Keep single-serving containers of chopped fruits and vegetables on the front shelves of your refrigerator so they are the first thing you see when you're hungry and starting to graze.
  • Keep single-serving packets of peanut butter (either store-bought or make your own) in your pantry. Pack them in your day bag or briefcase so that you have an easy-to-eat snack during the day.

You might also want to learn to cook with tofu when you shift to a vegetarian diet. The food is not typically consumed by those who eat a standard western diet, but it is a staple in vegetarian and vegan kitchens.

Tofu can be purchased in different forms: firm, soft, or silken. The different consistencies make it a versatile addition to your recipes. Silken tofu can easily be added to smoothies and pudding. Stir fry or grill firm tofu as a meat alternative. Soft tofu can be added to soups or batters.

A Word From Verywell

Adopting a vegetarian diet can be challenging at first, so it's important to be patient with yourself as you remove meat and potentially dairy products from your meal plan. Take advantage of online resources, cookbooks, vegetarian magazines, and even the expertise of your local grocer to help make the process easier. The produce manager at your local market may be able to tell you about seasonal produce and even share recipes.

Also, remember that you have options when making the shift. Flexitarians enjoy an occasional meat or seafood meal and still gain benefits from eating primarily plant-based foods. Eventually, you're likely to find vegetarian eating can be satisfying and enjoyable. And if you make healthy vegetarian choices, you're likely to enjoy the health benefits of plant-based eating as well.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Clarys P, Deliens T, Huybrechts I, et al. Comparison of nutritional quality of the vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diet. Nutrients. 2014;6(3):1318–1332. doi:10.3390/nu6031318

  3. Montenegro-bethancourt G, Johner SA, Remer T. Contribution of fruit and vegetable intake to hydration status in schoolchildren. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;98(4):1103-12. doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.051490

  4. Marra, M. V., Simmons, S. F., Shotwell, M. S., Hudson, A., Hollingsworth, E. K., Long, E., … Silver, H. J. Elevated serum osmolality and total water deficit indicate impaired hydration status in residents of long-term care facilities regardless of low or high body mass index. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, (2016) 116(5), 828–836.e2. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2015.12.011

Additional Reading

By Malia Frey, M.A., ACE-CHC, CPT
 Malia Frey is a weight loss expert, certified health coach, weight management specialist, personal trainer​, and fitness nutrition specialist.