Some people who want to stay healthy and enjoy eating lots of fruits and vegetables choose to follow a vegetarian diet. This means they eat mostly plant-based foods (grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds). There is more than one form of vegetarian diets.
Facts about the Vegetarian’s diet:
- Vegans, or total vegetarians, eat only plant foods and do not eat meat, milk, eggs, or animal foods.
- Lacto-vegetarians drink milk and eat milk products, such as cheese and yogurt.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians include eggs and milk products in their diets.
- Semi-vegetarians may include fish and/or chicken in their diets, but they do not eat red meat.
- Macrobiotic vegetarians emphasize whole grains, especially brown rice, in their diets and include vegetables, soy, legumes, and fruits. White-meat fish may be included. This diet avoids meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy.
If properly planned, vegetarian diets are healthy and can provide all the nutrients, a person needs.
Did you know that vegetarians are less likely to?
- Develop high cholesterol
- Die because of coronary artery disease (CAD)
- Develop high blood pressure
- Develop prostate or colorectal cancer
- Develop type 2 diabetes
- Be overweight
When considering a vegetarian diet, many people are concerned that
Plant foods contain the essential amino acids in varying amounts, so vegetarians need to eat a variety of plant foods to make sure they get enough of all nine essential amino acids. For example, legumes (cooked dried beans, dried peas, and lentils) are low in sulfur-containing amino acids (such as methionine), but they are high in another amino acid called lysine. Grains are just the opposite, so when grains and legumes are eaten together, the amino acid patterns “complement” one another. By eating both foods, vegetarians improve the overall protein quality of what they eat.
Some typical examples of foods that contain complementary proteins are:
- Beans and tortillas
- Black beans and rice
- Chili and corn bread
- Pita bread with hummus (ground garbanzo beans and
You do not need to combine these foods at every meal. Eating them throughout the course of a day will provide your body with adequate protein.
Protein is not the only nutrient of concern in a vegetarian diet. Vegetarians also need to make sure they are getting the following nutrients in their diets.
Vitamin B12 – Vitamin B12 is found only in foods from animal sources, such as milk, eggs, and meat. Vegans need to eat foods fortified with either vitamin B12 (such as fortified soymilk) or take a supplement that contains vitamin B12.
Iron – Iron from plant foods is not absorbed as well as iron from meats. It is important to use legumes and leafy, green vegetables in the diet and not to rely too heavily on cheese (a very poor source of iron) for protein. Eating foods that contain vitamin C will improve the absorption of iron from a meal.
Calcium – Vegetarians who do not use milk or milk products need to get calcium from other sources. Soymilk fortified with calcium is a good source. There are
Zinc – Zinc from plant foods is poorly absorbed, and vegetarians should take care to get enough zinc in their diets. Good sources of zinc include leavened whole grains (such as whole-wheat bread), legumes (beans and lentils), soy foods, and vegetables.
Vitamin D – Vegetarians who do not use milk or milk products may not get enough vitamin D. However, soymilk usually is fortified with vitamin D, as are some cereals. Your body can also make vitamin D when exposed to sunlight on a regular basis. Supplements may be necessary if you do not consume a source of vitamin D and do not get adequate sunlight.
As a vegetarian, you can still use the food guide pyramid to plan your diet. Use the following guidelines.
In the meat and meat substitutes group, use the following as a substitute for 1 oz of meat ([a serving is 2 oz to 3 oz):
- 0.5 cups cooked dry beans
- 1 egg or 2 egg whites
- 2 Tbsp nuts or seeds
- 4 oz tofu or
- 2 Tbsp peanut butter
In the milk and milk products group, use the serving sizes listed in the food guide pyramid. If you do not use milk, use soymilk fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. (Count 1 cup as one serving). Fortified soy cheese also may be used.