Becoming a vegetarian: how to keep healthy
An overview of information and tips for planning and maintaining a healthful vegetarian diet.
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Becoming vegetarian is a growing trend in America, particularly among teens and young adults. Many people believe that eating a vegetarian diet is inherently healthy, but without adequate information and planning this may not be the case. It is important to understand both the risks and benefits of vegetarianism before making any drastic change in your diet.

Benefits of Vegetarianism

There are many reason people may decide to live a vegetarian lifestyle. Some are simply raised in vegetarian households, or become vegetarian to match the lifestyle of a loved one or spouse. People may choose to become vegetarian for environmental, spiritual, economic, or social reasons. Others may choose a vegetarian lifestyle for health reasons.

A typical healthy vegetarian diet is high in fiber and low in fat. According to the ADA, vegetarians are at lower risk for developing:

• Heart disease

• Colorectal, ovarian, and breast cancers

• Diabetes

• Obesity

• High blood pressure

Risks Involved in Becoming a Vegetarian

Like any other restrictive diet, a vegetarian diet must be balanced and well planned in order to maintain health. The trick to any healthy diet is to eat a wide variety of foods, and to pay attention to meeting all your nutritional needs. In addition, there are certain nutritional areas in which vegetarians must take extra care.


Protein is the most common nutritional deficiency in an unbalanced vegetarian diet, but with careful planning it is very possible to get all the protein you need without meat sources. Healthy vegetarian protein sources include whole grains, beans, peas, lentils, tofu (soy), eggs, low-fat dairy products, nuts, tempeh, and seeds.


The ADA recommends eating a minimum of 1300 mg of calcium per day (a significantly larger amount than the average American eats). Calcium is a vital component of any healthy diet – it keeps our bones healthy, and can even help aid weight loss. Vegetarian sources of calcium include low-fat and fat-free dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese. Calcium can also be found in spinach, kale, broccoli, figs and some sunflower seeds. While there are many calcium fortified cereals, bars, and juices now available on the market, these generally provide a less healthy alternative.

Fat Intake

Some common vegetarian protein sources (like nuts and seeds) can be high in fat, and dairy foods like eggs, butter, whole milk products and cheese can contain both high fat and unnecessary calories. Vegetarians must pay particular attention to their fat and calorie intake when eating these foods.


Vegetarians who do not maintain a balanced diet may be in danger of anemia resulting from iron deficiency. Symptoms of anemia include pale skin, exhaustion, and frequent bruising. Good vegetarian sources of iron include dark green vegetables (like spinach and broccoli), dried fruit, prunes and prune juice, seeds, soy, molasses and iron-fortified breads and cereals. Cooking in iron pots and pans will help increase your iron intake, and maintaining a healthy intake of vitamin C will help your body absorb iron.

Healthy Eating Tips

• Choose fat-free or low-fat versions of all soy and dairy products to help avoid increasing your fat and calorie intake.

• Make tofu, tempeh, and beans your main source of protein. These options have a higher fiber content and lower fat and calorie content than any other choice.

• Be very careful to monitor portion sizes when eating nuts and seeds. These can be extremely healthy, but only in small amounts. Limit your intake to a maximum of one handful per day.

• Lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, mustards, and spices are all healthy flavoring alternatives to butter, salt, and mayonnaise.

• Always avoid fried and battered foods in favor of baked, grilled or steamed options.

• Make sure you always eat a wide variety of foods (many vegetarians can fall into the habit of eating a very limited diet). Portions of each of each major food group (whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and dairy) should be eaten every day.

• Don’t fall into the trap of eating large quantities of processed, highly refined, or sweetened foods. Choose whole, unrefined foods, and fresh fruits and vegetables instead.

• The majority of your fat sources should be unsaturated (nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil). Limit all mono and poly saturated fats to a very small amount.

A Basic Vegetarian Grocery List

There are a wide variety of food options available within the vegetarian lifestyle, and meal options can be just as varied and interesting for vegetarians as for meat eaters. Here is a list of the basic foods suggested by the ADA for all vegetarian eaters:

- Whole grain breakfast cereal (ready-to-eat, or hot)

- Whole grain bread (rye, whole wheat, mixed grain) and crackers

- Barley or bulgur wheat

- Beans (raw or canned)

- Brown or wild rice

- Whole wheat pasta and tomato sauce (pay attention to the sugar amounts in spaghetti sauce – choose a healthy option)

- Corn or whole wheat tortillas

- Vegetarian soups

- Fresh and frozen vegetables and fruit

- Nuts, seeds, nut spreads (like peanut or almond butter)

- Olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice, fresh and dried herbs

- Tofu, tempeh

Vegetarian Food “Pyramid”

The Vegetarian Food Pyramid should be used to plan a balanced vegetarian diet. In order to maintain good health, foods from each food group should be eaten. Remember that no single group is more important than the others – each food group provides some but not all of your necessary daily nutrition.

- Fats, Oils & Sweets: Use sparingly

- Milk, Yogurt, Cheese: 2-3 servings daily

(serving sizes: 1 cup milk or yogurt, 1.5 ounces cheese)

- Beans, Nuts, Seeds, Eggs, Meat Substitutes: 2-3 servings daily

(serving sizes: 1 cup soy milk, ½ cup dry beans, 1 egg, 2T nuts or nut products, Ό cup tofu or tempeh)

- Vegetables: 3-5 servings minimum daily

(serving sizes: 1/2 cup cooked or raw vegetables, Ύ cup juice, ½ cup beans, 1 cup leafy greens)

- Fruits: 2-4 servings daily

(serving sizes: 1 medium whole fruit, Ύ cup juice, Ό cup dried fruit)

- Whole grains, rice, cereal, pasta: 6-11 servings daily

(serving sizes: 1 slice bread, 5-6 crackers, ½ cup cooked cereal, pasta, rice, or noodles)