A vegetarian diet is a meal plan made up of foods that come mostly from plants. These include:
A vegetarian diet contains no animal proteins. A semi-vegetarian diet is a meal plan that contains little animal protein. Vegetarians DO NOT eat:
Many also do not eat products containing gelatin or rennin (an enzyme found in calf's stomachs that is used to produce many cheeses).
Here are the different types of vegetarian diets:
Benefits of a vegetarian diet
A well-planned vegetarian diet can give you good nutrition. It often helps you have better health. Eating a vegetarian diet may help you:
Compared to non-vegetarians, vegetarians usually eat:
Plan to get plenty of nutrients
If you follow a vegetarian diet, you need to make sure you get proper nutrition. You need to eat a variety of foods to get all the calories and nutrients needed for growth and good health. Certain groups of people may need to plan carefully, such as:
Vegetarian diets that include some dairy products and eggs have all the nutrition you need. But the more restrictive your diet, the harder it can be to get certain nutrients.
If you choose to avoid most or all animal foods, pay close attention to make sure you get all of the following nutrients.
Vitamin B12: You need this vitamin to help prevent anemia. Eggs and dairy foods have the most B12, so vegans may have a hard time getting enough. You can get B12 from these foods:
Vitamin D: You need this vitamin for bone health. You can get vitamin D from sun exposure. But you should limit sun exposure due to skin cancer concerns. Depending on where you live and other factors you most likely will not be able to get enough from sun exposure. You can get vitamin D from these foods:
Zinc: Zinc is important for the immune system and cell growth, especially in teens. Your body does not absorb zinc from plant foods as well as from meat and other animal foods. You can get zinc from these foods:
Iron: You need iron for red blood cells. Your body does not absorb the type of iron found from plant foods as well as from the type found in meat and other animal foods. You can get iron from these foods:
Eating foods that are high in vitamin C at the same meal as iron-rich foods increase iron absorption. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron. Foods high in vitamin C include, tomatoes, potatoes, citrus fruits, bell peppers, and strawberries.
Calcium: Foods high in calcium help keep bones strong. Dairy products have the highest amount of calcium. If you do not eat dairy, it can be hard to get enough. Oxalates, a substance found in plants, animals, and humans, inhibits calcium absorption. Foods that are high in both oxalates and calcium are not good sources of calcium. Examples include, spinach, Swiss chard, and beet greens.
You can get calcium from these foods:
Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3s are important for your heart and brain health. You can get omega-3s from these foods:
Protein: It is easy to get plenty of protein even if you do not eat any animal products. If you eat fish and/or eggs and dairy getting enough protein will not be a concern for most people. You can also get protein from these foods:
You do not need to combine these foods at the same meal to get enough protein.
Teens and pregnant women should work with a registered dietitian to make sure they are getting enough protein and other key nutrients.
Dietary tips for vegetarians
When following a vegetarian diet, keep in mind the following:
Lacto-ovovegetarian; Semi-vegetarian; Partial vegetarian; Vegan; Lacto-vegetarian
American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109:1266-1282.
Craig WJ. Nutrition concerns and health effects of vegetarian diets. Nutr Clin Pract. 2010;25:613-620.
National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets. Available at: ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/list-all. Accessed November 11, 2014.
Stettler N, Bhatia J, Parish A, Stallings VA. Feeding healthy infants, children, and adolescents. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW III, Schor NF, Behrman RE, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 42.
Thedford K, Raj S. A vegetarian diet for weight management. J Am Diet Assoc. 2011;111:816-818.
United States Department of Agriculture. Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 2010. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. 2010.
Updated by: Emily Wax, RD, The Brooklyn Hospital Center, Brooklyn, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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