A strict vegetarian diet eliminates all meat. There are a few other variations:
A well-planned vegetarian diet can provide a powerhouse of beneficial plant compounds and nutrients that contribute to your overall health. Check out some of the health benefits of going vegetarian below.
Weight loss: The most prominent benefit associated with the vegetarian diet is weight loss. Numerous studies show that vegetarians tend to have lower body mass indexes and body weights than non-vegetarians.1,2 Vegetarian diets tend to reduce your caloric intake without actively cutting your calories, which ultimately promotes weight loss.
Nutrients: Relying on more plant-based foods also invariably means a higher intake of specific vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Several studies report that vegetarian diets offer more fiber and antioxidants than the traditional Western diet.3 Plant-based diets are richer in vitamins, including folate, potassium, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E.
Diabetes: Studies show that vegetarians tend to have lower blood sugar levels and higher sensitivity to insulin, which can help lower your risk of developing type-2 diabetes.4,5
Heart health: Eating more fruit, vegetables, and beans as well as a plant-based diet has reduced the risk of heart disease.6,7 Other studies show that vegetarian and vegan diets can help regulate blood sugar, LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol that collects in the walls of your blood vessels, potentially causing blockages), and blood pressure compared to other diets.5,6,7
Appreciation for food: Many vegetarians anecdotally say they notice a difference in how they experience food, reporting a heightened sense of taste. Science shows this isn't just vegetarian imagination. Removing junk food and animal products high in fat, salt, and sugar, even for only a few weeks, actually modulates your taste buds and their sensitivity to fats.
Although it may seem restrictive, the vegetarian diet offers plenty of options for every meal. Thanks to new improvements in food products, it's easier than ever to find food substitutes that are vegetarian-friendly. The key to a vegetarian diet is avoiding animal products and by-products (except lacto-, ovo-, or lacto-ovo vegetarian diets). Otherwise, the world is your (vegetarian) oyster! Vegetarian foods include:
The main thing to keep in mind when eating vegetarian is proper planning. Going headlong into a vegetarian diet will not only leave you unsatisfied with every meal but may also lead to some health problems. Plant-based foods are packed with nutrients but can be lacking in specific essential vitamins and minerals. Without a plan, people are often left eating the same few meals, potentially resulting in nutrient deficiencies. Creating a meal plan keeps you on track and allows you to take advantage of the full spectrum of foods and flavors in the world. This inevitably means cooking for yourself more often, which can be plenty of fun in and of itself.
It's also important to eat from a diverse range of foods, which will keep you satisfied while ensuring that you get all your essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients throughout your day. Diets of any kind can be hard when you think of them as a form of subtraction. True, you can't have a steak or a beef patty, but filling your fridge and pantry with tofu, spinach, potatoes, apples, berries, tomatoes, and beans means you have many more food choices.
iHerb makes it easy to plan your meals and reach for vegetarian supplements when you need a boost to your diet.
The main foods that vegetarians can't eat include:
Animal oils and fats, such as lard, butter, and fish oil, are harder to spot and often sneak into foods that may appear vegetarian, particularly baked goods. Even beverages that seem like they shouldn't have any animal products can be deceptive. Take wine, for example. Although grapes are still the predominant ingredient, some winemakers use gelatin, egg whites, and milk proteins in their wine to break down tannins and create a smoother texture and taste. Some winemakers also use isinglass, a type of fish bladder used to make Guinness beer, to filter out particulates.
Other sneaky foods you should keep an eye out for include:
Checking labels is the best way to make sure your foods don't contain any animal products. Most brands will mention the use of eggs, milk, and other allergens. Be aware of specific terms, including whey, lactose, casein, castoreum, and rennet, which refer to thickening agents, proteins, preservatives, and other additives that come from animals. When you go out to eat, don't be afraid to ask ahead if the restaurant has vegetarian options or if they can make modifications or substitutions to accommodate your diet.
Essential vitamins refer to those vitamins that your body cannot make on its own – meaning you can only get them from dietary sources. Vegetarian diets offer a wide range of nutrients thanks to high fruit and veggie intake. Still, they can lack specific vitamins and minerals. The most common nutrients that vegetarians tend to miss out on include:
Protein: Protein is a vital nutrient responsible for many body functions, including building tissues, muscles, and cells. Getting enough protein can be challenging with a vegetarian diet. According to an article by Dr. Mehmet Oz, too little protein can result in fatigue, weakness, and muscle loss, in addition to slowing down metabolism. "It also weakens your immune system. That's why everyone should have at least 25 grams of protein at every meal or around 75 grams of protein per day," he says. Supplementing with protein powders to add to smoothies is an excellent option for ensuring adequate intake. Whey protein powder is a suitable option for those who consume dairy. There are also vegan protein powders that utilize pea, pumpkin, soy, or rice protein sources.
Vitamin B12: Naturally found in animal products (meat, dairy, and eggs), vitamin B12 plays a vital role in protein metabolism, red blood cell synthesis, and nervous system health. Many experts routinely recommend vitamin B12 supplementation to vegetarians, and especially vegans, given that levels are generally low in these diets and vitamin B12’s critical role in human health.8,9,10 Methylcobalamin is the most active form of vitamin B12.
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids: ALA is an omega-3 fatty acid easily found in walnuts, flax seeds, and soybeans. However, you also need DHA and EPA, known as long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, to maintain general health and reduce inflammation. These are primarily found in fatty fish and seafood, but fortunately, these essential fatty acids are now algal sources.
Iodine: Iodine maintains a healthy thyroid, which regulates your metabolism. Iodine is most easily found in dairy products and anything grown in proximity to the ocean. If you are not regularly eating seaweed, you're missing out on iodine.
Iron: Iron is critical in transporting oxygen on red blood cells and is also required for energy production. Women in their reproductive years are significantly at risk due to blood loss during menstruation. Iron deficiency occurs in 35-58% of young, healthy women, with numbers being even higher in women who are vegetarians.
Zinc: Necessary to immune functions, metabolism, and cell repair, zinc is generally not standard in plant foods, except for nuts and seeds. Low zinc levels are widespread in vegetarians, especially vegans.9,10References: