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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