What Is the Vegetarian Diet?

vegetarian diet

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff

Are you considering a vegetarian diet for weight loss or wellness? Many people choose to give up meat for ethical reasons, because of environmental concerns, or to improve their health.

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

The modern vegetarian movement began in the mid-1800s with the formation of the Vegetarian Society in England. Vegetarian diets became popular in the United States in the early 1970s when "Diet for a Small Planet" was published by Francis Moore Lappé and became a bestseller.

In the book, Lappé discusses the damaging impact of meat production on the environment and cites meat-based diets as a contributor to global food scarcity. She suggests a vegetarian lifestyle as a more humanitarian approach and introduces the concept of food-combining to address concerns about inadequate protein intake.

In more recent times, both environmentalists and health experts continue to promote plant-based diets, such as the vegetarian diet, as healthier for our bodies and healthier for the planet. But as these diets have become commonplace, processed vegetarian foods have become more popular, making it easier to follow an unhealthy plant-based diet.

A plant-based eating lifestyle can provide substantial health benefits, but like any diet, it is important to choose nutrient-rich foods and eat in moderation to get the benefits you're looking for.

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

What Can You Eat?

There are many different variations of the vegetarian diet. The most common type is the lacto-ovo vegetarian—someone who avoids animal products and seafood but consumes dairy and eggs. Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but avoid dairy, meat, and seafood. Lacto-vegetarians consume dairy but avoid eggs, meat, and seafood.

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

What You Need to Know

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 "milk" 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.

What to Eat
  • Fruits

  • Vegetables

  • Beans/Legumes

  • Grains

  • Oils

  • Eggs (sometimes)

  • Dairy (sometimes)

What Not to Eat
  • Meat

  • Poultry

  • Seafood

  • Eggs (sometimes)

  • Dairy (sometimes)

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, organic, frozen, or canned. 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

Sample Meal 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 three-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

Day 2

Day 3

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Many proven health benefits

  • Large variety of foods compliant with diet

  • May aid weight loss efforts

  • Better for the environment and animal welfare

Cons
  • Possibility for nutrient deficiencies, such as B12

  • Processed vegetarian foods can be unhealthy

Pros

Proven Health Benefits

Vegetarian diets offer multiple health benefits, such as the reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases and certain cancers.

Plethora 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.

Better for the Environment and Animals

There are also many people who 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.

Cons

Potential Nutrient Deficiencies

The downside to this diet is that it is possible to have nutritional deficiencies if you don't follow a well-balanced eating plan.

Processed Vegetarian Foods Can Be Unhealthy

Vegetarian diets are great for staying healthy and minimizing the risk for certain diseases. However, consuming too many processed vegetarian foods can be unhealthy and lead to unwanted weight gain.

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.

When properly planned, they 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 well 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 their 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 promote 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 sans meat, poultry, and fish products if the person eats a large variety of plant-based foods and supplements as needed.

Health Benefits

There are a plethora of benefits when following a vegetarian diet.

Reduced Risk of Diseases

You have the opportunity to gain substantial health benefits if you shift to a vegetarian diet. 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 it may have preventative effects against high blood pressure, diverticular disease, eye cataracts, kidney stones, and gallstones.

Can Help Weight Loss Goals

If you go vegetarian, you may lose weight. But weight loss isn't a slam dunk simply because you give up meat. Whether or not you slim down depends on how many calories you consume, not necessarily on the source of the calories.

However, if you shift to a vegetarian diet you may naturally consume fewer calories. Meat and dairy products are often high in fat and calories. Research has shown people following a typical vegetarian diet consume fewer calories daily than their meat-eating counterparts.

If you do want to lose weight on a vegetarian diet, focus on eating nutrient-rich complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are starchy, fiber-rich foods that are naturally low in fat and calories. Examples of complex carbs are legumes and other vegetables and whole grains.

Controlling portions sizes, choosing low-fat dairy, and cutting back on sugary sweets will help as well. Try to avoid foods that are heavily processed as these junk foods often provide too many empty calories and don't boost weight loss results.

Is An Overall Healthy Diet

Any reduction in meat and dairy products is bound to lead to some health benefits. However, if you want to take it one step further, researchers have compared the vegetarian diet to other diets, including the vegan diet, pescatarian diet, and flexitarian diet using the Healthy Eating Index and other nutrient intake comparisons.

They concluded that even though a balanced vegetarian diet fares well, a vegan diet is the most healthy.

Health Risks

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.

Too Many Processed Foods Can Be Unhealthy

Processed vegetarian foods, such as meat alternatives, cheese-like products, microwavable meals, and other convenience foods can be high in calories, high in fat, added sugar, and excess sodium. If your meal plan includes more 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, sweets) is associated with a higher risk of coronary heart disease.

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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Article Sources
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