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Vegetarian Diet
What is it? Overview Usage Side Effects and Warnings

Vegetarian Diet Overview

Written by ColleenO, ritasharma.

A vegetarian diet excludes meat, poultry, fish, and foods containing these products. There are many different variations of the vegetarian diet, including a Vegan Diet. This article focuses on the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, which is based on plant foods, but also includes eggs and dairy. This is probably the most common kind of vegetarian diet, at least in the United States.

Why Follow a Vegetarian Diet?

There are many health benefits associated with following a vegetarian diet. In general, vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and provide higher amounts of many vitamins and minerals than traditional Western diets. Moreover, a well-balanced vegetarian diet may help:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve cholesterol profile
  • Reduce body mass index
  • Reduce the risk of certain diseases, including hypertension, type 2 diabetes, prostate cancer, and colon cancer

People choose to follow a vegetarian diet for many different reasons, including health benefits, cultural or religious influence, personal preference, concern for the environment, and concern for animal welfare.

Eating Guide for a Vegetarian Diet

This guide is based on the current US food guide, MyPyramid. More information on the types of food included in each food category and serving sizes is available at


  • Daily amount: 6 ounces (1 ounce = 1 slice bread, ¼ bagel, ½ cup cooked pasta or rice, 3 cups popcorn)
  • Tips:
    • Consume at least ½ of your grains as whole grains
    • Whole grains include: whole wheat products, oatmeal, brown rice, barley, bulgur, popcorn
  • Key nutrients provided:
    • Vitamin B12 (fortified breakfast cereals)
    • Zinc-fortified breakfast cereals, wheat germ
    • Iron-fortified breakfast cereals


  • Daily amount: 2½ cups (1 cup = 1 cup raw or cooked vegetables, 2 cups raw leafy vegetables)
  • Tips:
    • Eat a variety of different vegetables every day.
    • Eat more of the following:
      • Dark green vegetables (eg, broccoli, spinach, bok choy, romaine lettuce)
      • Orange vegetables (eg, carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash)
      • Dry beans and peas (chickpeas, black beans, lentils, split peas, kidney beans, tofu)
  • Key nutrients provided:
    • Antioxidants
    • Calcium (collard greens, turnip greens, bok choy, and mustard greens)
    • Iron (spinach, turnip greens, peas)


  • Daily amount: 2 cups (1 cup = 1 cup fresh fruit, 1 cup fruit juice, ½ cup dried fruit)
  • Tips:
    • Eat a variety of fruit
    • Choose fresh fruit over fruit juices
  • Key nutrients provided:
    • Antioxidants
    • Calcium (fortified orange juice)
    • Iron (raisins, prunes, dried apricots)


  • Daily amount: 3 cups (1 cup = 1 cup milk or yogurt, 1 cup soy or rice milk, 1½ ounces natural cheese)
  • Tips:
    • Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products; limit intake of full-fat cheese
    • Milk alternatives include calcium-rich or calcium-fortified foods and beverages
  • Key nutrients provided:
    • Protein
    • Calcium (all milk products, fortified milk alternatives)
    • Vitamin D (fortified milk and milk alternatives)
    • Vitamin B12 (milk products and fortified milk alternatives)

Legumes, Nuts, Eggs, and Other Protein-Rich Foods

  • Daily amount: 5½ ounces (1 ounce = ¼ cup cooked, dry beans; ½ cup tofu, ¼ cup tempeh, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon peanut butter, ½ ounce nuts)
  • Tips:
    • Eat a variety of protein sources
    • Nuts and nut butters can also be counted as oils
  • Key nutrients provided:
    • Protein
    • Zinc (white beans, kidney beans, and chick peas)
    • Iron (kidney beans, black-eyed peas, lentils)
    • Omega-3 fatty acids (eggs, ground flaxseed, walnuts)


  • Daily amount: 6 teaspoons
  • Tips: Choose healthful oils such as those found in canola and olive oil, fish, and nuts
  • Key nutrients provided: Omega-3 fatty acids (flaxseed oil, canola oil)

Fats & Sweets

  • Daily amount: less than 265 calories from these foods
  • Tips:
    • Limit or avoid solid fats such butter, stick margarine, lard, and shortening
    • Limit foods high in added sugar or solid fats
  • Key nutrients provided: Few, if any

Vegetarian Diet Basics

A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet is based on plant foods such as grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, and nuts, in addition to dairy and eggs. To make sure that you meet all your nutrient needs on this diet, be sure to eat a variety of each of these types of foods. Nutrients that deserve extra attention to make sure they are eaten in sufficient amounts include: protein, iron, calcium, zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids.

General Suggestions

  • Eat a variety of foods from each of the food groups every day.
  • Limit your intake of cheese and other high-fat dairy products.
  • If you are new to this diet, do not just continue eating your usual diet minus the meat. Be sure to replace the meat with other protein-rich foods, such as milk, beans, and nuts.
  • Consider meeting with a nutritionist or dietitian to make sure you are meeting all your nutrient needs on this diet. A nutritionist or dietitian can create a meal plan for you.


American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. J Am D Assoc. 2009;109:1266-1282.

American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada. Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: Vegetarian diets. J Am D Assoc. 2003;103:748-765.

Messina V, Melina V, Mangels AR. A new food guide for North American vegetarians. Can J Diet Prac Res. 2003;64:82-86.

Vegetarian diets. website. Available at: Accessed May 9, 2007.



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