A Picture Guide to a Vegetarian Diet

Tasty Choice

Vegetable stir-fry being served onto a plate.

Going vegetarian can be delicious. You have every fruit, vegetable, bean, and whole grain to choose from. The variety is endless. You can make it work for you, whether you choose to eat this way all the time or to include some vegetarian meals in your week.

How Far Do You Want to Go?

Different types of milk, cheese, and eggs.

When you eat a vegetarian meal, you don't eat meat, poultry, or fish. You may eat eggs or dairy. If it's a vegan meal, you'll skip anything that comes from animals, including milk, cheese, and eggs.

Pick Your Proteins

Vegetable and black bean rice bowl.

You can get all the protein you need from plant foods. Just make sure you're getting enough calories from a wide variety of nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains. Black beans and rice, with a salad, is one example of a classic vegetarian meal.

Tweak Your Favorite Recipes

A serving of vegetarian lasagna.

If you're used to eating meat, look for vegetarian versions of your favorite dishes. For example, you can make lasagna with spinach or tofu instead of ground beef.

Make Vegetarian Stuffed Peppers

Vegetarian bell pepper stuffed with couscous and vegetables.

Stuff bell peppers with a blend of rice and veggies. Instead of ground beef, add beans or meatless sausage crumbles. Season as usual.

Whip Up a Veggie Omelet

Tomato and cheese veggie omelet served with fruit and orange juice.

Eggs are a good source of protein. It's easy to substitute veggies for ham and cheese in an omelet. Try carrots, mushrooms, and spinach.

Shift Chicken Parmesan to Eggplant

Eggplant Parmesan.

If you're used to eating chicken Parmesan, use thin slices of eggplant instead of the chicken. If you also skip dairy, you can use a soy-based cheese substitute instead of Parmesan.

Change Your Chili

A bowl of vegetarian chili with beans and rice.

When you're craving a warm, spicy bowl of chili, make it with beans or tofu. You'll get the flavor without the meat.

Grill a Portobello Burger

Portobello mushroom burger topped with lettuce, onions, and tomatoes.

Forget the cheeseburger. A grilled portobello mushroom on a whole wheat bun can hit the spot. Top with lettuce, tomato, or cheese, just as you would a hamburger.

When You Want a Veggie Burger

A veggie burger with mushrooms, tomatoes, and lettuce.

If you're looking for something closer to the texture of a real hamburger, try a veggie burger. Most supermarkets carry several brands of frozen veggie burgers. These are often made with a blend of vegetables, soy, and grains, providing protein and fiber.

Substitute With Soy

A grilled tofu and vegetable kabob.

Soy products are a versatile source of protein. They work well as a meat substitute. Try making tofu kabobs the next time you fire up the grill. There are also plenty of other soy foods on the market today. Soy is in most meatless hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and breakfast sausages. Edamame are soybeans that aren't processed.

Reap the Health Benefits

A plethora of vegetables.

Because they are lower in or free of animal products, vegetarian diets are low in total and saturated fat and cholesterol. Many studies have shown that vegetarians are less likely to get certain diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. A vegetarian that is filled with fruits and vegetables benefits from antioxidants like lutein in broccoli and lycopene in tomatoes, which may help protect against cancer.

Get the Nutrients You Need

A man flipping vegetables in a wok.

Make sure you're getting enough iron, vitamin B12, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D, especially if you're on a vegan diet. A dietitian can give you tips or let you know if you need supplements.

Find Sources of Calcium and Vitamin D

A photo of different types of cheese, milk, and tofu.

If you eat milk, cheese, or yogurt, you probably get enough calcium to keep your bones strong. But if you decide to go vegan -- you don't any animal products -- you'll need other sources of calcium. These include fortified soy and almond milk and orange juice, with small amounts of calcium in seeds, nuts, and some green vegetables. People who avoid dairy products also miss out on vitamin D. Non-meat sources of vitamin D include fortified foods such as orange juice, cereals, and tofu made with calcium sulfate, and fortified milk alternatives like soy and almond milk.

Zero In on Zinc

Pita bread and a bowl of hummus.

Although zinc is found in many vegetarian foods, it is not as well absorbed as meat-based zinc. Eating plenty of zinc-rich foods can help you maximize the amount your body absorbs. Good sources include milk, cheese, whole-grain breads, nuts, soy foods, and legumes, such as chickpeas. Hummus on a whole-grain pita is one tasty snack that does the trick.

Keep Your Eye on Iron

Spinach salad topped with dressing, almonds, and mandarin oranges.

It's not just in red meat. You can also get iron from leafy green vegetables, cooked dry beans, tofu, and fortified cereals or grains. Like zinc, plant-based iron is not as well absorbed as iron from meat. The solution is to eat iron-rich foods regularly and in combination with foods that have vitamin C, which helps your body absorb iron.

Put Omega-3s on Your List

An assortment of nuts and seeds.

Omega-3 fatty acids are good fats that may help lower blood pressure, improve heart health, and stave off age-related dementia. There are two kinds. Most of the health benefits are linked to docosahexaenioc acid (DHA), found mainly in fatty fish, as well as fortified foods like eggs. If you don't eat either of these foods, you might want to consider a supplement. Pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, and canola oil are all good sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid beneficial for heart health.

Are You Getting Enough Vitamin B12?

Vitamin B12 supplements.

Low levels of vitamin B12 can cause muscle weakness and fatigue. This vitamin is found only in some fortified foods and in foods made from animals, such as meats, eggs, and milk products. So if you eat a vegan diet, you need to either eat foods fortified with vitamin B12 or take supplements.

Is a Vegetarian Diet OK for Kids?

A young child happy about being a vegetarian.

A vegetarian diet can be safe for kids, and it's probably good for them. Just be sure kids get enough fats to meet their needs. Nuts, peanut butter, avocado, milk products, and eggs are all good sources. When in doubt, ask your child's doctor or a dietitian.

Go Vegetarian Part Time

Part time vegetarians reading a menu in a restaurant.

You don't need to be a vegetarian 7 days a week to reap many of the benefits. Doing it 1 or 2 days a week can help you cut back on saturated fats and cholesterol, and give you more fruits and vegetables. Try it, and you might find you want to do it more often than you think.

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REFERENCES:

  • American Heart Association: "Vegetarian Diets."
  • Vegetarian Resource Group: The Market for Vegetarian Foods.
  • WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: "Healthy Eating -- Vegetarian Diets and Organic Foods," "Vegetarian Diets -- What is a vegetarian?" "Vegetarian Diets -- How can vegetarians eat a balanced diet?"
  • United States Department of Agriculture: "Vegetarian Diets."
  • WebMD Medical Reference: "The Good Protein Chart," "Vitamin B-12."
  • WebMD Weight Loss Clinic: "Eating Well the Veggie Way," "The Part-Time Vegetarian."
  • WebMD Feature: "Best-Tasting Vegetarian Foods."
  • WebMD Expert Commentary from DrGreene.com: "Vegetarian Kids."
  • Craig, W. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, July 2009.
  • Cabo, J. British Journal of Nutrition, June 2012.
  • Denis, I. Ageing Research Reviews, March 2013.
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