What Is the Vegetarian Diet?

vegetarian diet

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

What Is the Vegetarian Diet?

People who follow a vegetarian diet don't consume meat, poultry, or seafood, but they eat eggs, dairy, and other animal-derived foods like honey. Fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and soy-based products, among others, are all included.

Both environmentalists and health experts promote plant-based diets as healthier for our bodies and healthier for the planet. A plant-based eating lifestyle can provide substantial health benefits, but like any diet, it is essential to choose nutrient-rich foods and eat in moderation to get the benefits you're looking for.

The 2021 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the vegetarian diet number 9 in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 3.6/5.

What Experts Say

"The vegetarian diet limits animal products to varying degrees. Experts agree this can be an earth-friendly and healthful way of eating, but care should be taken to ensure that food variety provides nutrition and satisfaction and is not a restrictive weight loss diet in disguise."

Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

The 7-Day Diet Plan

A vegetarian diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and includes eggs and dairy in some variations. Most people eat the standard three meals a day with snacks as desired.

The 7-day meal plan laid out below is just one idea of what to eat for three meals per day. This is not an all-inclusive meal plan. If you are eating a vegetarian diet, you may find other meals that work well for you.

  • Day 1: California summer vegetable omelet, orange juice; baked potato with chickpeas, zucchini, squash, and cherry tomatoes sauteed in olive oil, kale salad with toasted nuts; Mediterranean quinoa stuffed peppers
  • Day 2: Whole-wheat toast with avocado, spinach, and everything-bagel seasoning; shredded Brussels sprouts and roasted lentil salad; spicy vegan tomato and plantain stew
  • Day 3: Charred white bean breakfast pizza; egg salad sandwich on a bagel with fresh fruit; Brown rice pasta with healthier Alfredo sauce
  • Day 4: Whole grain toast with eggs, sauteed kale, grapes; cabbage and white bean sauté with garlicky greens, brown rice; carrots, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, hummus; bean, quinoa, and cheese stuffed bell pepper, side salad
  • Day 5: Steel-cut oats with berries and almond milk, flaxseed, peanut butter; fruit and yogurt parfait; chickpea salad sandwich, cottage cheese, grapes; whole wheat pasta with seitan tomato vegetable sauce, garlic bread, green salad
  • Day 6: Egg, mushroom, and cheese omelet, asparagus, grapefruit; chickpea and lemon soup with greens; yogurt with berries and nuts; tofu stir fry with bell pepper, zucchini, and broccoli on rice
  • Day 7: Green smoothie with whey protein and coconut milk, peanut butter toast; strawberries, almonds; vegetable lasagna, side green salad; Asian tofu lettuce wraps, quinoa, broccoli

What You Can Eat

There are many different variations of the vegetarian diet. The main limitation is to avoid meat, poultry, and seafood. That means there are many compliant foods, including all plant-based foods (and other animal-derived foods, such as dairy products).

Grains

All grains are eaten on any version of the vegetarian diet.

  • Wheat
  • Rice
  • Oats
  • Amaranth
  • Quinoa
  • Barley
  • Rye

Beans and Legumes

Beans and legumes are important staples on any vegetarian diet, as they are a source of protein.

  • Black beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Kidney peans
  • Split peas
  • Lentils
  • Adzuki beans

Fruits and Vegetables

All fruits and vegetables are eaten on any version of the vegetarian diet.

  • Broccoli
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Carrots
  • Peas
  • Corn
  • Tomatoes
  • Avocado
  • Bananas
  • Apples
  • Berries
  • Grapes
  • Melons

Oils

Plant oils are used as healthy fats on any vegetarian diet

  • Coconut oil
  • Avocado oil
  • Olive oil
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Canola oil

Eggs and Dairy

The most common type of vegetarian diet is the lacto-ovo version, in which meat and seafood are avoided but dairy and eggs are included. Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but avoid dairy, meat, and seafood. Lacto-vegetarians consume dairy but avoid eggs, meat, and seafood.

What You Cannot Eat

Some people consider the pescatarian diet a variation of a vegetarian diet. Pescatarians eat plant-based foods and seafood. The flexitarian diet is primarily vegetarian but includes occasional meat or seafood-based meals. The vegan diet consists of no meat, dairy, eggs, or animal by-products, including honey.

Meat and Poultry

Most versions of the vegetarian diet avoid all meat and poultry, except the flexitarian diet, which is a hybrid version.

  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Lamb
  • Turkey
  • Pork
  • Venison

Seafood

Most vegetarian diets avoid seafood, except the pescetarian diet, which is considered by some a version of a vegetarian diet.

  • Fish (salmon, halibut, tuna, etc.)
  • Shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels, etc.)
  • Crustaceans (shrimp, lobster, crabs, etc.)

How to Prepare the Vegetarian Diet & Tips

On the lacto-ovo vegetarian and lacto-vegetarian diet, you consume foods in all food groups including vegetables, fruit, grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy, protein foods, and oils. Those who adhere to an ovo-vegetarian diet would not consume foods from the dairy group. But milk alternatives (such as nut-based products) are widely available.

Instead of meat and seafood, vegetarians consume protein-rich grains, soy products like tofu, and vegetables with protein. It is fairly easy to eat a balanced diet on a vegetarian plan and to get your recommended intake of nutrients.

You don't need to follow any specific meal timing when you begin a vegetarian diet. However, if you currently consume a traditional American diet, experts often recommend a gradual approach to make the transition easier.

Some people try going meatless one day each week before fully adopting the vegetarian diet. Others use the flexitarian diet and slowly eliminate meat from their diets.

Sample Shopping List

The main products to avoid on a vegetarian diet are meat, poultry, and seafood. There are many foods you can include with a vegetarian diet, and they don't have to break the bank. Fruits and vegetables can be purchased fresh, frozen, or canned, and organic or conventional. Beans are available dried or canned.

Keep in mind that this is not a definitive shopping list. If you are consuming a vegetarian diet, you may find other foods that work best for you.

  • Vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, zucchini, Brussels sprouts)
  • Fruits (apples, banana, pears, oranges, peaches)
  • Beans and Legumes (pinto, black, cannellini, kidney, chickpeas)
  • Grains (brown rice, quinoa, barley, oats)
  • Nuts and Seeds (almonds, cashews, peanuts, flax, chia)
  • Eggs
  • Tofu

Pros of the Vegetarian Diet

People following a vegetarian diet may enjoy several benefits documented by research.

  • Large variety of foods to choose from: Beans, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds are just the beginning of what you can eat as a vegetarian. You may even discover new foods you hadn't previously tried.
  • May aid weight loss: A vegetarian diet may help you reach and maintain a healthy weight, and some researchers even believe that a vegetarian diet can help you live longer. Whether you lose weight depends on how many calories you consume, not necessarily on the source of the calories, but fruits, vegetables, and legumes are a lower-calorie source of nutrients.
  • Better for the environment and animals: Many people follow a vegetarian diet to promote the ethical treatment of animals. While some animal products are consumed (if you consume eggs and dairy), this diet does not promote the farming of animals for slaughter. There is also evidence that a vegetarian diet is better for the environment.
  • Reduced risk of diseases: Several studies have shown that those who consume plant-based diets experience a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases, cardiometabolic risk factors, and some cancers. There is also evidence that a plant-based diet may have preventative effects against high blood pressure, diverticular disease, eye cataracts, kidney stones, and gallstones.

Cons of the Vegetarian Diet

While the vegetarian diet has many benefits, it also has a few drawbacks to consider.

  • Potential nutrient deficiencies: The main downside to this diet is that nutritional deficiencies are possible if you don't follow a well-balanced eating plan.
  • Processed vegetarian foods can be unhealthy: Vegetarian diets may minimize the risk for certain diseases. However, consuming too many processed vegetarian foods can be unhealthy and lead to unwanted weight gain.
  • Lack of certain vitamins: Nutrients that may be lacking in a vegetarian diet include vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, and zinc. In addition, without meat and seafood in the diet, it is possible (but not likely) that your protein intake may be lower than recommended. This can be avoided by consuming plenty of beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy.
  • Potential for dependence on processed foods: Processed vegetarian foods, such as meat alternatives, cheese-like products, microwavable meals, and other convenience foods can be high in calories, fat, added sugar, and excess sodium. If your meal plan includes many of these foods, you are less likely to gain health benefits while on a vegetarian diet. In fact, researchers have found that an unhealthy plant-based diet (including sweetened juices, refined grain products, fries, and sweets) is associated with a higher risk of coronary heart disease.

Is the Vegetarian Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

Vegetarian diets are abundant in healthy plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and more. They eliminate meat, poultry, and fish, and in some variations, dairy and/or eggs.

When properly planned, a vegetarian eating pattern can be a nutritious and delicious way to reduce disease risk and consume healthy, balanced meals. Some people may end up eating more processed vegetarian foods high in sugar and salt, which do not contribute to nutrient goals and may lead to excess weight gain.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services included a Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern as part of the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guide provides recommendations for the consumption of various food groups based on intake goals ranging from 1,000 to 3,200 calories per day.

On a well-balanced vegetarian diet, you are also likely to limit some foods in accordance with the USDA's advice. For example, most of the saturated fat consumed in a standard American diet comes from meat and dairy products. Most of these foods are eliminated or reduced on a vegetarian diet.

These healthy foods are recommended on a healthy diet:

  • Vegetables and dark, leafy greens (kale, spinach, broccoli, Swiss chard, green beans) 
  • Fruits (apples, berries, melon)
  • Grains (quinoa, brown rice, oats)
  • Lean meats (chicken breast, fish, turkey breast)
  • Beans and legumes (all beans, lentils, peas)
  • Nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds)
  • Dairy (reduced-fat milk, cheese, yogurt) 
  • Oils (olive oil, avocado oil) 

Healthy vegetarian diets can also include soy products and should include additional grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Everyone's calorie needs differ based on age, weight, sex, and activity level. Check out the following calculator to determine what yours are.

Per the USDA, vegetarian diets can meet nutrient requirements provided they include a large variety of plant-based foods, along with supplements as needed.

A Word From Verywell

If you're used to eating meat, shifting to a vegetarian lifestyle may take some time and effort. It might be easy to rely on meat alternatives and other foods that provide the same flavor and mouthfeel as meat.

But if you branch out and learn to cook with whole, nutritious plant-based foods, you'll enjoy satisfying filling meals in the short term and gain the long-term health benefits that this diet can provide.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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10 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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