Nutrition & Health Info Sheets contain up-to-date information about nutrition, health, and food. They are provided in two different formats for consumer and professional users. These resources are produced by Dr. Rachel Scherr and her research staff. Contributions by Rachel Evtuch, BS, Aneeta Vedula, BS, Solveig Adalsteindottir, BS. Produced by Terence Woo, BS, Michelle Chellino, Gina Plessas, Rachel Scherr Ph.D., Anna Jones Ph.D., Sheri Zidenberg-Cherr Ph.D., Center for Nutrition in Schools, Department of Nutrition, University of California, Davis, (2016).
What is a vegetarian diet?
Vegetarian diets are plant-based eating patterns that focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. These diets are often considered to be meatless, but not all vegetarian diets need to exclude meat. There are many variations of vegetarian diets and some of the more common ones are semi-vegetarian, pescatarian, and vegan (1). By recognizing the benefits and nutrients that a vegetarian or plant-based diet provides, it is possible to gain a better understanding about what a vegetarian diet is.
Vegetarian diets are plant-based eating patterns that focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Types of Vegetarian Diets
- Vegetarian: A diet that does not include meat or fish, but often includes eggs, dairy, or both.
- Semi-vegetarian: A diet that includes small amounts of poultry, eggs, dairy, or fish.
- Pescatarian: A diet that includes fish, but not other types of meat.
- Vegan: A diet that does not include products derived from animals
What are some potential health benefits of a vegetarian diet?
Vegetarian diets have many potential health benefits. Research shows that vegetarians have a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer (8). This may be because vegetarian diets often have more fiber and lower saturated fat compared to diets with meat (9). This is possible because vegetarian diets have more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
The American Institute for Cancer Research, the American Heart Association, and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute all recommend consuming a diet high in fruits and vegetables (10, 11, 12).
Research shows that vegetarians have lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer (9).
5 Tips for Planning Healthful Vegetarian Meals (3):
- Build your meals around protein: Use sources that are naturally low in fat such as: beans, lentils, and rice. Avoid overloading meals with high-fat cheeses to replace meat.
- Use calcium-fortified, soy-based beverages such as soy milk: These can provide calcium in amounts similar to milk, and also be lower in saturated fat.
- Turn meat-based foods vegetarian: Dishes that are made to contain meat can be adapted to be vegetarian. This method is great for eating more vegetables.
- Try ethnic cuisines: Indian, Middle Eastern, Hispanic, and Asian foods have many plant-based dishes that have plenty of protein from beans, nuts, and high-protein grains
- Choose complementary foods: Complementary foods such as beans and rice, tofu and tempeh, or even eggs and dairy allow the right combinations of essential protein to be included in the diet.
Can a vegetarian diet meet all my nutrient needs?
Like all diets, a vegetarian diet should be nutritionally balanced through variety and moderation of foods. Table 1 provides recommendations from the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans following a 2000-calorie diet for adults on a vegetarian diet (7).
Meat-based diets and plant-based diets provide different amounts of essential nutrients. Nutrients that are common in meat-based diets may be low-in plant based diets and vice versa. Vegetarians should obtain the nutrients that would normally be easy to get from animal foods from different sources (2).
The stricter a plant-based vegetarian diet is, the more that specific nutrients must be found from other sources.
Vegetarians should obtain the nutrients that would normally be easy to get from animal foods from different sources.
What is Fortification?
Fortifying foods with nutrients means that more is added to the original amount. For vegetarians, fortified foods are important because excluding certain food groups may make it difficult to obtain certain nutrients. For example, vegetarians who exclude dairy from their diets should get calcium from a combination of foods that are calcium fortified, such as orange juice or cereal. In some cases, fortified foods are the only option for nutrients such as Vitamin B12 which may be inactive in plants foods. Know which nutrients you may need a fortified source of, and always remember to check food labels to meet your nutritional requirements.
What Are Some Nutrients I Need and Where Can I Get Them? (3, 4, 5, 6)
- Protein: Beans, nuts, quinoa, tofu and other soy-based protein foods.
- Iron: Dried or fortified beans and cereals, spinach, chard, dried fruit
- Calcium: Collard greens, spinach, almonds, soybeans. Calcium-fortified orange juice, fortified cereal, fortified soymilk, and tofu
- Zinc: Whole grains, nuts, legumes
- Vitamin B12: Vitamin supplements, fortified foods (commercial breakfast cereals, soy beverages, nutritional yeast)
- Vitamin D: Fortified dairy products, egg yolks, liver, and fatty fish. Also consider breakfast cereals, soymilk, and supplementation.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fish, walnuts, and ground flaxseeds.
|Food Group||Daily Amounds||Examples of Serving Size Equivalents||Examples of Calcium-rich Non-dairy Food Sources*|
|Vegetables||2 1/2 cups||
1 cup equivalent of vegetables:
1 cup equivalent of fruit:
|Grains||6 1/2 oz-
1 oz equivalent of grains:
1 cup equivalent of milk:
|Protein Foods||3 1/2 oz-eq||
1 oz equivalent of protein foods:
1 tsp equivalent of oils:
Note: The information in this table is adapted from Appendix 5 – Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern of the 2015-2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans
*Foods in this column are in 1 serving size equivalents. For those following vegan or ovo-vegetarian diets, the dairy group, except for soymilk, will be omitted.
†Ounce Equivalents (oz eq): Cup and ounce equivalents identify the amounts of foods from each food group with similar nutritional content
- Dinu M, et al. Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: a systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2016 Feb 6:0. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2016.1138447
- Mangels, R. “Protein in the vegan diet.” Simply Vegan. 5th Edition. The Vegetarian Resource Group, Nutrition. (1999).
- Karabudak E, et al. A comparison of some of the cardiovascular risk factors in vegetarian and omnivorous Turkish females. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2008 Feb;21(1):13-22. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-277X.2007.00831.x.
- National Institute of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin B12 Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/. Accessed Aug. 13, 2016
- Holick MF, et al. Vitamin D2 is as effective as vitamin D3 in maintaining circulating concentrations of 25-hydroxyvitamin D. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2008 Mar;93(3):677-81. Epub 2007 Dec 18.
- Lane K, et al. Bioavailability and potential uses of vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids: a review of the literature. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2014;54(5):572-9. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2011.596292
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Appendix 5, 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/appendix-5/. Accessed Aug. 13, 2016.
- Chang-Claude J, et. al. Lifestyle determinants and mortality in German vegetarians and health-conscious persons: Results of a 21-year follow-up. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2005 Apr;14(4):963-8.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Accessed Aug. 13, 2016.
- American Heart Association Nutrition Committee, et al. Diet and lifestyle recommendations revision 2006: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. Circulation. 2006 Jul 4;114(1):82-96.
- Chobanian AV, et al. Seventh report of the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure. Hypertension. 2003 Dec;42(6):1206-52.
- American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada. Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: Vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003 Jun;103(6):748-65.
- “Calcium Content of Common Foods.” International Osteoporosis Foundation. International Osteoporosis Foundation, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.
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