9 January 2018Vegetarian Diet
What is the Vegetarian Diet?
People who follow a vegetarian diet avoid eating animal flesh. In other words, no meat, poultry or fish and no food products that contain any of those. Unlike vegans, vegetarians typically do include dairy foods (milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream) and eggs, although some vegetarians follow variants of the diet. They may avoid dairy but eat eggs, or vice versa. Some vegetarians also include fish, although this is unusual.
Vegetarian diets are not new. They’ve been around for centuries in different forms, and continue to be the norm in certain countries, such as India. Seventh Day Adventists in the U.S. also follow a vegetarian diet. People adopt vegetarian diets for different reasons, such as:
- Concerns about animal welfare
- Health concerns
- Cultural norms and traditions
In Western developed countries, vegetarian diets were uncommon until relatively recently. In a meat-centric culture, vegetarians may have been viewed with suspicion by some people. Certainly there were few resources for people who avoided meat. They were on their own in restaurants and sometimes in their own homes. Thanksgiving dinner without turkey?
Over the past 2-3 decades, thanks to research on health concerns about heavy meat consumption, vegetarian diets have grown in popularity and acceptance. Now meatless options are widely available in grocery stores and, to a certain extent, in restaurants. Food companies have jumped into the alternative meat market, manufacturing meat-like foods out of soy and other plant products. But despite the increasing acceptance, misconceptions are common, even among vegetarians themselves.
- One common misconception is that becoming vegetarian is simply a matter of switching to meat-like foods manufactured from plants. Technically this diet might be defined as vegetarian. However, if the rest of the diet is highly processed, high sugar, high salt and high fat foods, this won’t be any healthier than a typical meat-heavy diet of processed foods. Soft drinks, chips, cookies, candy and doughnuts are all vegetarian.
- Another misconception is that vegetarians have to eat unusual foods that taste boring or strange and are hard to prepare. In fact, most vegetarians eat everyday foods, from breakfast cereals to bread to fruit, vegetables, pasta, yogurt and desserts. Pizza, burritos and sandwiches can all be prepared without meat and still be delicious.
- A widespread misconception is that vegetarian diets are low protein. This is far from the truth, although some people may make poor choices and end up eating a low protein diet. Dairy foods and eggs have plenty of high quality protein, so including those in meals everyday can guarantee adequate protein. And when you give up meat, you can add more high protein plant foods like legumes and nuts to your diet.
Diet for a Small Planet, first published in the 1960’s, popularized the idea of complementary proteins as a way to boost protein quality in meatless meals. The idea is simple. Different plant foods have different quality proteins, due to differing amino acid content. If you combine different plant foods in one meal – say beans and a grain – the proteins in those foods “complement” each other. The protein from the meal is higher quality than if you ate just beans or just a grain. While the concept is valid, subsequent research shows that you don’t need to obsess about combining the exactly correct amount of beans with the correct amount of grains. Also, you don’t even need to eat those foods at the same meal, as long as your overall diet has a wide variety of protein sources throughout the day. In any event, vegetarians can include high protein foods like eggs and dairy, so protein should not be a concern. Optimizing protein quality from plant food sources is more a concern for vegans, who eat no dairy or eggs.
- Dairy foods – milk, cheese, yogurt
- Whole grains
- Foods made from grains (breads, pasta, noodles, tortillas)
- Oils, butter and butter substitutes
- Processed foods that do not contain meat, including desserts, snacks, soft drinks and meatless varieties of pizza, burritos and frozen meals
- Red meat: beef, pork, lamb, bison, game meats
- Poultry: chicken, turkey, duck
- Fish: all finfish and shellfish
- Cured meat products: hot dogs, sausage, deli cold cuts
- Health benefits: This might be one of the biggest reasons people adopt vegetarian diets. Research shows over and over that meat-centric diets are associated with higher risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer. And done properly, a vegetarian diet would be loaded with vegetables, fruit and grain-based foods that provide additional health benefits.
- Cost: depending on what foods you use in your vegetarian diet, you can decrease your food bill significantly, since meat can be very expensive.
- Nutritious: An emphasis on dairy foods ensures significant intake of calcium and protein, along with other key minerals and vitamins. The increased volume of plant foods means better intake of other nutrients like potassium, fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and other minerals.
- Wide variety of flavors: Vegetarian cooking can involve many different types of seasonings and preparation techniques. Adopting a meatless diet can force you to expand your culinary horizons.
- It’s entirely possible to eat a very unhealthy and unbalanced vegetarian diet. If you avoid vegetables, legumes, grains and fruit and instead rely on fake meat substitutes and processed foods you won’t get the health benefits of a plant-based whole foods diet. Planning and knowledge are essential.
- Many restaurants do not offer good quality vegetarian options. You can probably find pasta or a salad or some other stand-bys, but creativity in meatless meals is frequently lacking. Fast food restaurants are particularly lacking in meatless options. So a vegetarian diet could restrict your choices.
- More time-consuming food preparation. Many vegetarian recipes require more cooking time.
- You might miss the chewy texture and unique flavors of meat.
- Possible awkward effect on social life, if you’re invited to dinner. Holiday meals can be especially troublesome, especially if the meat-eating host feels obliged to accommodate a meatless guest, but is not well-versed in vegetarian cookery.
- If you are controlling carbs for any reason (e.g. for diabetes), then vegetarian diets will require some planning so that carb content of meals and snacks are not excessively high.
As you can see, the ‘Cons’ are mostly logistical issues. There are no drawbacks in terms of health or food selection. Here are some sample meals:
Breakfast: eggs, toast, juice
Lunch: yogurt, fruit, muffin
Snack ideas: nuts, fresh fruit or fruit salad, hummus and vegetables, cheese, or granola bar
Dinner: potato frittata with sautéed vegetable medley or meatless lasagna and salad or meatless chili and cornbread.
Here are some lower-carb meal ideas:
Breakfast: Omelet stuffed with sauteed vegetables and 1 piece of fresh fruit
Lunch: Nonfat plain yogurt with chopped nuts and 1 cup berries, side salad with chickpeas
Snack ideas: nuts, fresh fruit (especially berries), hummus and veggies, cheese
Dinner: Lentil soup (high fiber carbs), roasted non-starchy veggies, side salad
As noted above, the grocery bill for a vegetarian diet is likely to be lower than for a meat-centric diet. You might spend more if you purchase more exotic prepared foods or ingredients.
Vegetarian eating is commonplace, so social support doesn’t seem necessary. However, if you live in a location dominated by more traditional meat-based cuisine, you might run into some raised eyebrows, or find that there are few food choices and resources for you to stick to this diet.
Vegetarian Diet – Summary
Does it work?
A vegetarian diet can be a lifestyle choice or a health strategy. As a health strategy, it is associated with lower risk for numerous chronic diseases. But much of the data on health benefits has been gathered from people who consume more traditional whole food vegetarian diets. Processed plant-based meat analogs haven’t been widely available for long, so the health benefits of a diet that relies on these products isn’t clear.
While vegetarian diets can be associated with easier weight control, this isn’t a given. You can eat a high calorie and even high fat/high sugar vegetarian diet, depending on your choices. The term “vegetarian” does not guarantee healthful choices.
Who would most benefit from this diet?
People who are concerned about animal welfare and environmental impacts of livestock agriculture will feel that this diet helps them live according to their beliefs. People who want to eat a healthier diet may benefit from going vegetarian, but as noted above, you still need to plan a balanced diet and make good choices.
Is it viable long term?
Yes. Many cultures and religions have been using vegetarian diets for a very long time. If properly planned, vegetarian diets are nutritionally complete.
Do I like this diet?
Yes I do. While I am not a strict vegetarian, I eat many vegetarian (and even vegan) meals by default or by choice. Eating meatless meals forces me to investigate different types of cuisines and recipes that feature delicious flavors. I like to explore new foods.
I am not a fan of fake meat products, and while these foods may be useful to some extent in a vegetarian diet, they should not be the basis of the diet. Unfortunately for plenty of people, becoming vegetarian is simply a matter of switching to soy burgers and plant-based hot dogs. They can easily end up eating a highly processed junky diet.
Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group
The Vegetarian Resource Group
Vegetarian Times magazine
Plant Powered Diet book series
Oldways Preservation Trust
USDA Vegetarian resources
The Vegetarian Society
If you search on “vegetarian diets” you’ll find plenty of other resources.
Donna P Feldman MS RDN
Food and nutrition journalist and consultant
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