How to Be a Vegetarian

Why become Veg­e­tar­i­an?

Peo­ple become veg­e­tar­i­an for a vari­ety of rea­sons. You may want to become a veg­e­tar­i­an to improve your health, for cul­tur­al rea­sons, reli­gious or eth­i­cal rea­sons.  What­ev­er your rea­son for choos­ing a plant-based diet, if planned appro­pri­ate­ly, it can improve your health, help you lose weight and pro­tect you against chron­ic dis­eases.

What is a Veg­e­tar­i­an?

A Veg­e­tar­i­an is some­one who eats a plant-based diet includ­ing fruits, veg­eta­bles, legumes, seeds, nuts  but avoids meat, poul­try and fish.

Types of Veg­e­tar­i­ans:

There are dif­fer­ent types of veg­e­tar­i­an­ism vary­ing in degree of restrict­ing ani­mal prod­ucts.

1.  Veg­ans: This is the strictest form of veg­e­tar­i­an­ism.  Veg­ans only eat foods of plant ori­gin and exclude all meats, meat prod­ucts, fish, dairy and eggs. Some health experts believe that the veg­an diet is the health­i­est of all veg­e­tar­i­an diets.  But it can also the most dif­fi­cult to adhere to.   It requires some plan­ning and  exper­i­ment­ing, and depend­ing on where you live, can be chal­leng­ing when eat­ing out.

2. Lac­to-Ovo Veg­e­tar­i­ans: These veg­e­tar­i­ans do eat “lac­to” or dairy prod­ucts, and “ovo”, eggs.  You can also be a Lac­to veg­e­tar­i­an, includ­ing only dairy prod­ucts and no egg, or Ovo Veg­e­tar­i­an, includ­ing eggs but no dairy.

3. Pesce Veg­e­tar­i­ans:  These veg­e­tar­i­ans include fish in their diets.

4.  Semi-veg­i­t­ar­i­an or flex­i­tar­i­an:  Some peo­ple call it “veg­e­tar­i­an with ben­e­fits”.  Tech­ni­cal­ly not a “real” veg­e­tar­i­an since flex­i­tar­i­ans eat meat or poul­try on occa­sion.


Ben­e­fits of a plant-based diet:

* low­er cho­les­terol lev­els

* low­er risk of heart dis­ease

* low­er blood pres­sure lev­els

* low­er risk of hyper­ten­sion

* low­er risk of type 2 dia­betes

* low­er body mass index (BMI, see post on BMI for more info)

* low­er over­all can­cer rates

Nutrients to consider:

When you fol­low a plant-based diet,  you need to make sure you get enough of the fol­low­ing nutri­ents:

Omega 3 fat­ty Acids: are polyun­sat­u­rat­ed fat­ty acids (PUFA) which are impor­tant for heart health and may reduce the risk of heart dis­ease.  In infants these fat­ty acids are also nec­es­sary for eye and brain devel­op­ment.

There are three types of omega-3 fat­ty acids:
1. DHA (doco­hexaenoic acid)- found in fish and shell­fish
2. EPA (eicos­apen­taenoic acid)- found in fish and shell­fish
3. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)- found in flaxseed, canola and soy­bean oil, wal­nuts, soy.

The body is able to make EPA and DHA from ALA but in small­er amounts and at a slow­er rate.  If you are veg­an or a veg­e­tar­i­an and don’t eat fish or seafood, boost your intake of good sources of ALA and or add a DHA sup­ple­ment made from microal­gae.

The Dietary Ref­er­ence Intakes rec­om­mends 1.6 g ALA for men and 1.1g for women per day but veg­e­tar­i­ans may need more if fish and seafood are avoid­ed.  It’s also impor­tant not too eat exces­sive amounts of omega 6 rich foods since they fur­ther decrease the con­ver­sion of ALA to DHA and ALA.  Omega 6 rich foods are found main­ly in veg­etable oils such as corn, sun­flower, soy and cot­ton­seed oils.

Iron: Iron helps trans­port oxy­gen in the blood.  There are two forms of iron: heme and non­heme iron.

Heme iron can be found in ani­mal sources such as meat, poul­try and fish.

Non­heme iron is found in plant sources such as beans, legumes, green leafy veg­eta­bles, soy foods, whole-grain and for­ti­fied foods.  The draw­back in get­ting iron by non-heme sources is that it’s less absorbable than heme iron, and it’s influ­enced by “enhancers” and “inhibitors” (see below).  On the plus side,  your body becomes bet­ter at detect­ing if you are in need of more iron and becomes more effi­cient in absorb­ing it, regard­less if it’s heme or non­heme.

Enhancers of Iron Absorp­tion: Try to include these when eat­ing iron rich foods.
•    cit­rus
•    toma­to
•    vit­a­min C enriched juices
•    cast-iron cook­ware

Inhibitors of Iron Absorp­tion: Try to avoid these when eat­ing iron rich foods.
•    dairy prod­ucts
•    black tea
•    cof­fee
•    cocoa
•    red wine

Zinc: Zinc helps your immune sys­tem, pro­motes wound heal­ing and plays a role in your abil­i­ty to taste.
Good veg­e­tar­i­an food sources of zinc: oys­ters, seafood, for­ti­fied cere­als, beans nuts, whole grains and dairy prod­ucts.  The Nation­al Insti­tute of Health rec­om­mends that veg­e­tar­i­ans  eat as much as 50% more zinc than nor­mal­ly rec­om­mend­ed for adults.

Cal­ci­um: Cal­ci­um helps build strong bones and teeth.  If you are a lac­to-ovo-veg­e­tar­i­an your cal­ci­um intake match­es that of non­veg­e­tar­i­ans but if you are veg­an you may not be get­ting enough of this bone build­ing min­er­al. See Cal­ci­um post for rec­om­mend­ed amounts.

Good veg­e­tar­i­an cal­ci­um sources: dairy prod­ucts, nuts, grains, bok choy, broc­coli, chi­nese cab­bage, col­lards,  kale, cal­ci­um-set tofu.  Veg­ans may find it eas­i­er to include cal­ci­um for­ti­fied foods and/or sup­ple­ments to get the rec­om­mend­ed amount.

Vit­a­min D:Vit­a­min D is need­ed for healthy and strong bones.  Veg­ans are more like­ly to be defi­cient in this min­er­al since many dairy foods are enriched in vit­a­min D.
Good sources of Vit­a­min D: for­ti­fied dairy prod­ucts, vit­a­min D sup­ple­ments, sun expo­sure (see post vit­a­min D)

Vit­a­min B-12:Vit­a­min B12 helps keep nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA.  It also pre­vents a type of ane­mia, which makes peo­ple feel tired and weak.
Good sources of Vit­a­min B12: Dairy foods, eggs, vit­a­min B12 for­ti­fied foods, Red Star Veg­e­tar­i­an Sup­port For­mu­la nutri­tion­al yeast or B12 sup­ple­ment.

Gen­er­al Rec­om­men­da­tions:

  1. Eat a vari­ety of plant-based pro­tein-rich foods.
  2. Avoid tea and cof­fee at meal­times.
  3. Avoid cal­ci­um and iron rich foods at the same meal.
  4. Eat foods high in vit­a­min C in com­bi­na­tion with iron-rich foods to boost iron absorp­tion.
  5. It helps to think out­side the box when plan­ning meals.  Instead of try­ing to find sub­sti­tutes for “typ­i­cal” break­fast foods, such as eggs and bacon for exam­ple, have lunch or din­ner foods for break­fast, such as a bean bur­ri­to, a sand­wich, rice with tofu and so on.

Bot­tom line: A veg­e­tar­i­an diet can be a healthy and sus­tain­able lifestyle choice if planned appro­pri­ate­ly and all nutri­tion­al needs are met.  How­ev­er, it is pos­si­ble to be a veg­e­tar­i­an and have an unhealthy diet, there­fore it’s impor­tant to pay care­ful atten­tion to sug­ar, starch­es and fats in the diet.


Rec­om­mend­ed web­sites:

The Veg­e­tar­i­an Resource Group.

North Amer­i­can Veg­e­tar­i­an Soci­ety.

Physi­cians Com­mit­tee for Respon­si­ble Med­i­cine (PCRM)





Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Dietet­ic Asso­ci­a­tion. Posi­tion of the Amer­i­can Dietet­ic Asso­ci­a­tion: Veg­e­tar­i­an Diets. July, 2009. Veg­e­tar­i­an diets. Amer­i­can Heart Asso­ci­a­tion. Accessed June 10, 2011.

Physi­cian Com­mit­tee for Respon­si­ble Med­i­cine. Your Health. Veg­e­tar­i­an Foods. Pow­er­ful Tools for Health. Accessed on June 10, 2011.

Amer­i­can Dietet­ic Asso­ci­a­tion. Veg­e­tar­i­an Diets. Accessed June 12, 2011. Nation­al Insti­tute of Health. Office of Dietary Sup­ple­ments. Accessed June 12, 2011.








  1. Red Raider

    In your arti­cle on veg­e­tar­i­an­ism you dis­cuss the ben­e­fits of that lifestyle along with nutri­tion draw­backs. Can you give some exam­ples of some well bal­anced vegetarian/pescatarian meals. I recent­ly changed to a veg­e­tar­ian diet and am now con­cerned that I am not get­ting all the nutrients/vitamins I need. Break­fasts are espe­cially dif­fi­cult.

    • Anna-Lisa

      Great ques­tion! Break­fast always seems to be the most dif­fi­cult meal to adjust when chang­ing to a veg­e­tar­i­an or veg­an diet. How about some steel-cut oat­meal with nuts and raisins or a smooth­ie made with non-fat yogurt and frozen fruit or a boiled egg sand­wich. I think part of the prob­lem is how we clas­si­fy cer­tain foods as “break­fast foods” such as bacon and eggs, milk and cere­al, pan­cakes and muffins. In Japan the con­ven­tion­al break­fast is steamed rice, miso soup and grilled fish. It might help to exper­i­ment with non-con­ven­tion­al break­fast foods such as a corn or whole wheat tor­tilla with beans and cheese or a turkey or PBJ sand­wich. Pos­si­bil­i­ties are end­less. Hope this helps.

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