The Vegetarian Diet: How to Know if It's Right for You
No longer a fringe diet, vegetarianism has legions of fans. Let's dive into the health benefits, FAQs, and easy, delicious recipes to try this week.
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Vegetarian diets have been popular for generations. Since the 1960s, mainstream Americans have become increasingly open to the idea of meat-free diets. Fad diets come and go, but interest in vegetarianism is now well established — and for good reasons. With several vegetarian diet types, there’s some flexibility to the plan. A well-balanced vegetarian diet is one of the most wholesome ways of eating there is, and the health benefits are many. Thanks to the connection between large-scale animal agriculture and climate change, environmentalists and animal rights advocates also become vegetarian for ethical reasons.
Here, we’ll explore the pros and cons of a vegetarian diet for weight loss and health, what exactly a vegetarian diet is, who it may be right for, and how to get started on a vegetarian program.
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Vegetarian diet FAQs
As with any new diet, you may have questions before you get started.
What is a vegetarian diet?
It’s actually more nuanced than it seems. There’s no one best vegetarian diet for everyone, and there are many ways to approach vegetarianism. The most common form of the vegetarian diet means you don’t eat beef, fish, or chicken. Instead, you pile your plate with plant foods. However, there are many different forms of a vegetarian diet. Here are a few common approaches:
Lacto vegetarian diet
This is also sometimes called a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, and it means you don’t ingest meat, but you do eat eggs, milk, cheese, and other dairy products. It’s what most people mean when they say “vegetarian.”
Mediterranean vegetarian diet
This is a marriage of the popular Mediterranean diet — a plan that otherwise includes fish and some dairy products but focuses heavily on vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and olive oil — and the typical vegetarian diet. It excludes the fish you might otherwise see on a Mediterranean program.
Keto vegetarian diet or vegetarian keto diet
This style of eating combines a meatless diet with the currently trendy keto diet. Keto is a high-fat, high-protein, and extremely low-carb diet. A vegetarian low-carb diet can be challenging. The usual vegetarian staples of beans and whole grains are rich in carbs.
Flexitarians aren't strictly vegetarian. They aim to eat plant food about 80 percent of the time, which can leave them free to enjoy non-vegetarian shared foods at social events or for other special treats. This can be another healthful way of eating.
Vegan vs. vegetarian diet
A vegan diet is a more extreme version of a vegetarian diet. Vegans eliminate all animal products, including eggs, dairy, and sometimes, even honey. Some people adopt a vegan diet as a form of healthy eating, and many are motivated by animal welfare and environmental concerns.
Where do you get protein in a vegetarian diet?
How to get enough protein is a common question for people considering a vegetarian diet, but the truth is most vegetarians have no trouble. Beans and whole grains are good sources of protein. Meat alternatives like tofu and tempeh are made from protein-packed soybeans. Store-bought veggie burgers and other packaged soy products all have plenty of protein. It’s actually easy to put together a high-protein vegetarian diet. In fact, many vegetarian athletes and even bodybuilders swear by it.
What are the benefits of a vegetarian diet?
You might be asking yourself, “Are vegetarian diets healthy?” They certainly can be. Are vegetarian diets healthier than alternative ways of eating? Not necessarily. Do vegetarian diets lead to weight loss? Maybe. It all depends on how you put your diet together. A well-balanced vegetarian diet is often lower in saturated fat than omnivorous diets. A vegetarian diet should contain plenty of vegetables, beans, whole grains, and healthy fats like olive oil. Eating this way has many proven health benefits. It’s associated with lower body weight and reduced risk of cancer and heart disease. You might also see improved blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and markers of inflammation.
Is a vegetarian diet safe?
For most healthy people, there are no health risks to going on a vegetarian diet, provided you take care to plan balanced meals that meet your nutritional needs. Junk food, like packaged snacks and french fries, should still be occasional treats and not mainstays of your diet, even if you aren’t eating animals. If you fall more toward the vegan end of the spectrum, a vitamin B12 supplement might be a good idea. You may also want to consider taking vitamin D and calcium supplements. Talk to your doctor or dietitian to make sure your nutritional needs are met. Vitamin deficiencies can be an issue for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.
Who is the vegetarian diet for?
A vegetarian diet is really a good choice for anyone who wants to try it. A well-planned meatless diet can meet all your nutritional needs and offer health benefits, too.
Who should not go on a vegetarian diet?
If the idea of giving up meat doesn’t appeal to you or makes you feel deprived, you should probably not go on a vegetarian diet. There are many ways to eat well and maintain or reach a healthy weight, and it’s important that you enjoy your way of eating. The best diet is one you're happy to stick with.
How to start a vegetarian diet
A vegetarian diet doesn’t need to be all or nothing, especially in the beginning. If you usually have bacon and eggs for breakfast, you could switch to a high-fiber cereal and start there. A high-fiber breakfast keeps you feeling full and can prevent midmorning snacking. Some beginners go meatless for one day a week by participating in Meatless Monday. Others have just one vegetarian meal a day. Both are good approaches for transitioning to a vegetarian lifestyle.
What do you eat during a vegetarian diet?
Vegetables should play a starring role in a vegetarian diet. Most produce is rich in nutrients, including vitamin C. Fill your grocery cart with kale, sweet potatoes, beets, broccoli, and other nutritious vegetables. Lentils, chickpeas, hummus, and whole grains such as quinoa or brown rice, all rich in fiber, are also staples. You may want to experiment with some non-dairy milk such as soy milk. You’ll also probably need to add some tofu, eggs, yogurt, nuts, flaxseeds, and cheese to get the full range of nutrients.
How long does it take to see results from a vegetarian diet?
As with any diet, weight loss is often the primary goal of giving up meat. But a vegetarian diet plan may or may not lead to weight loss. Some people go on a vegetarian diet only to find themselves gaining weight instead of trimming down. After all, if you'd been eating lean proteins like chicken and fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids most nights and replaced them with cheesy pasta dishes, you're unlikely to lose weight. On the other hand, if — instead of meatloaf and fried chicken — you have black beans and baked tofu, you're very likely to see your weight trending down. It’s all about the specific daily food choices you make.
Favorite vegetarian recipes
Vegetarian cooking is every bit as varied and delicious as meals revolving around meat. These recipes will keep you and your people feeling well fed, nourished but not deprived.
To keep energy up and to ensure you meet your protein needs, it’s a good idea for vegetarians to start the day with protein, and these quesadillas have eggs and black beans to help you power through the day.
This frittata is a recipe you’ll want to keep in your back pocket. It’s satisfying, filled with your favorite nutrient-dense vegetables, and it works for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
The base of these bowls, brown rice, is a fiber-filled alternative to the more common white rice. Topped with ingredients like avocado, which adds heart-healthy fat, and crisp romaine lettuce, it’s as satisfying as it is fun to eat. You could also add canned pinto beans to make the bowls even more substantial.
You can give almost any meat dish a vegetarian makeover, including meatballs. This version melds nutritious plant-based ingredients like cauliflower, quinoa, and oats into a satisfying version of the comfort-food classic.
Who says you need beef to make a stick-to-your ribs pot of chili? Red beans, black beans, tomatoes, and spices come together here for a healthy, filling meatless chili.
Usually, pork is what gives ramen its personality. Here, it’s umami-rich shiitake mushrooms lending the soup a big meaty flavor. They may also happen to help protect against cancer.
Not only is this recipe easy and fast — it’s full of protein-rich quinoa and black beans, plus two kinds of cheese, which makes it a good source of calcium, too.
An icon of 1970s-era vegetarians, nut loafs are actually delicious and every bit as satisfying as their beef-based cousins. Walnuts, one of this dish’s main ingredients, are a plant-based way to get omega-3s into your diet.
This dish proves a baked potato is more than a side dish. Topped with crowd-pleasing Mexican flavors and super satisfying black beans, this is a meal unto itself.
It’s more fun to eat your vegetables when they’re in a flavorful, spicy curry. This one rocks cauliflower, carrots, green beans, and chickpeas seasoned with spices, including turmeric, a natural anti-inflammatory.
Homey and familiar, these stuffed peppers are also simple enough for beginner vegetarian cooks. A whole-grain mixture of quinoa and bulgur, protein-packed beans, and marinara sauce makes for a savory filling for sweet bell peppers.
This twist on tortilla soup replaces the usual chicken with lentils and corn. It’s a flexible recipe with optional richer ingredients like heavy cream, for times when you want to splurge, and a range of possible toppings.
Break out this fast and flavorful recipe when you want a healthier homemade alternative to takeout. It’s plenty tasty, thanks to fresh garlic, ginger, and bell pepper. A rich peanut butter-based sauce contributes protein and healthy fat.
One surefire way to make pasta night healthier is to pair your noodles with tons of broccoli. Add some grated Parmesan and a little olive oil, and you’ve got a quick and craveable dinner.
Of course, you can buy veggie burgers, but they’re healthier and tastier if you make them. This patty gets protein from red quinoa and a meaty quality from plenty of savory cremini mushrooms.
Add vegetarian recipes to your Yummly Meal Plan
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Find out more about healthy, delicious diets
Whether you’re educating yourself on healthy lifestyles, researching the best diet options for yourself or a loved one, or just looking for tasty dishes to make, Yummly’s got your back. These next articles offer plenty of vegetarian food for thought and enjoyment.