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Vegetarian diet: A healthy alternative

By Mayo Clinic staff

Are you considering a vegetarian diet but not sure where to begin? Adopting a plant-based diet may be as easy as making a few substitutions. Before you know it, tofu dogs, black bean burgers and sausage made from textured vegetable protein may replace old favorites such as hot dogs, hamburgers, roast beef and bacon.

Some people choose a vegetarian diet for religious, ethical or environmental reasons. Others switch to a plant-based diet for health reasons. A vegetarian diet generally contains less total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol and includes more dietary fiber. And vegetarians have lower rates of some cancers, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

Adopting a healthy vegetarian diet isn't as simple as scraping meat off your plate and eating what's left. Find out what you need to know about a plant-based diet and how you can meet your daily nutritional needs.

A vegetarian eating plan

Vegetarians don't eat meat, chicken and fish. Their diets consist mostly of plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Vegetarians fall into groups defined by the types of animal-based foods they eat:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians omit red meat, fish and poultry but eat eggs, milk and milk products, such as cheese and yogurt, in addition to plant-based foods.
  • Lacto-vegetarians eat milk and milk products along with plant-based foods. They omit eggs as well as meat, fish and poultry.
  • Vegans eliminate all foods from animals, including meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs and cheese. They eat only plant-based foods.

An eating plan can help you decide what foods to eat and how often to eat them. One way to create a healthy eating plan is to use a vegetarian food pyramid. This pyramid outlines various food groups and food choices that, if eaten in the right quantities, form the foundation of a healthy diet.

The triangular shape of the pyramid shows what foods to emphasize and limit. The large base of the pyramid is comprised of foods to eat more often. The smaller tip shows foods to eat sparingly.

Vegetarian Diet Pyramid
Vegetarian Diet Pyramid Many vegetarian eating plans exist. At the very least, they exclude red ...

As you build your vegetarian-eating plan, consider including meatless products, such as tofu dogs, soy burgers, nut loaves or texturized vegetable protein. These products, found in many grocery stores and health food markets, simulate the taste and texture of meat and usually have less fat and calories. Many of the meatless products, such as tofu or tempeh, are made from soybeans.

People who follow a vegan diet may need to find alternatives for eggs and dairy products. Try these suggestions when meal planning or cooking:

  • Milk. Drink soymilk, rice milk or almond milk in place of cow's milk.
  • Butter. When sauteing, use water, vegetable broth, wine or nonfat cooking spray instead of butter. In baked goods, use canola oil.
  • Cheese. Use soy cheese or nutritional yeast flakes, which are available in health food stores.
  • Eggs. In baked goods, try commercial egg replacers — a dry product made mostly of potato starch. Or use 1 tablespoon milled flaxseed and 3 tablespoons water to replace each egg. For an egg-free omelet try using tofu instead of eggs.

Plant-based diet: Ensuring adequate nutrition

The more you restrict your diet, the more difficult it is to get all the nutrients you need. A vegan diet, for example, eliminates food sources of vitamin B-12 and one of the best sources of calcium — milk products. Other nutrients, such as iron and zinc, are available in a meatless diet, but you'll need to make an extra effort to ensure they're in yours.

Here are several nutrients that may be deficient in a vegetarian diet and how you can get these nutrients from nonmeat sources:

  • Protein. Your body needs protein to maintain healthy skin, bones, muscles and organs. Vegetarians who eat eggs or dairy products have convenient sources of protein. Other sources of protein include soy products, meat substitutes, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
  • Calcium. This mineral helps build and maintain strong teeth and bones. Low-fat dairy foods and dark green vegetables such as broccoli, kale and collard are high in calcium. Tofu enriched with calcium and fortified soymilk and fruit juices are other healthy choices.
  • Vitamin B-12. Your body needs vitamin B-12 to produce red blood cells and prevent anemia. This vitamin is found almost exclusively in animal products, including milk, eggs and cheese. Vegans can get vitamin B-12 from some enriched cereals, fortified soy products or by taking a supplement that contains the vitamin.
  • Iron. Like vitamin B-12, iron is a crucial component of red blood cells. Enriched cereals, whole-grain products, dark, leafy green vegetables, legumes and prune juice are good sources of iron. To help your body absorb iron, eat foods rich in vitamin C — such as strawberries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, cabbage and broccoli — at the same time you consume iron-containing foods.
  • Zinc. This mineral is an essential component of many enzymes and plays a role in cell division and in the formation of proteins. Good sources of zinc include whole grains, soy products, nuts and wheat germ.

The key to a healthy vegetarian diet, or any diet, is to enjoy a wide variety of foods. Since no single food provides all of the nutrients that your body needs, eating a wide variety helps ensure that you get the necessary nutrients and other substances that promote good health.

Making the switch: Start with what you know

If you're thinking of switching to a vegetarian diet but aren't sure how to begin, start with what you already know. Make a list of meals you prepare on a regular basis. Some of these may already be meat-free, such as spaghetti or vegetable stir-fry. Next, pick out dishes that could easily become meat-free with a couple substitutions. For example, you can make vegetarian chili by leaving out the ground beef and adding a can of black beans or soy crumbles. Or make fajitas using extra-firm tofu rather than chicken. You may be surprised to find that some dishes require only simple substitutions.

Once you have compiled a list of vegetarian meals, add new meal ideas. Buy or borrow vegetarian cookbooks. Scan the Internet for vegetarian menus or for tips on making meatless substitutions. Check out ethnic restaurants and sample vegetarian cuisine. You may find that making the switch is easier — and more enjoyable — than you thought.

No matter what your age or situation, a well-planned vegetarian diet can meet your nutritional needs. Even children and teenagers can benefit from a plant-based diet, as can older people, and pregnant or breast-feeding women. If you're unsure whether a vegetarian diet is right for you, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian.

January 16, 2022


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