This post may contain affiliate links. Please read our disclosure policy.
Amongst the ever-growing plethora of diets in today’s modern world, the vegetarian diet is possibly the most commonly understood. Though, there are a few variations, the main characteristic of vegetarianism is the absence of meat. With the vegetarian diet based on dairy, eggs, and plants, the overarching philosophy is that no animal is killed for food to be obtained. Dairy and eggs are acceptable in a vegetarian diet because no animal is directly killed in those agricultural industries.
Vegetarianism has been around for centuries, with roots both in Western and Eastern traditions. For example, Buddhist and Hindu scriptures promote the practice of non-violence against all living beings while, in Ancient Greek, prophets believed eating meat prohibited spiritual growth.
More modern Western beliefs have people turning to vegetarianism to reduce their personal impact on the environment. It has been proven that animal agriculture is one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions and the overall climate crisis. Therefore, choosing not to eat meat will reduce an individual’s carbon footprint significantly.
Regardless of your personal reason to consider vegetarianism, we hope this guide may offer you some answers and advice on the best way to transition to a healthy meat-free diet.
Food Allowed on a Vegetarian Diet
- Dairy products: eg. milk, butter, cheese, cream, yogurt
- Eggs (ideally free-range eggs)
- Fruit and vegetables
- Legumes and beans
- Nuts and seeds
- Grains and sugars
- Spices and herbs
- Tofu, tempeh and other meat alternatives
Foods Avoided on a Vegetarian Diet
- Red meat: eg. beef, pork, lamb
- Poultry: eg. chicken, turkey, duck
- Fish and seafood
- Other animal-derived ingredients including gelatin, rennet, isinglass and lard
Video by LLUHealth on Youtube
DIFFERENT TYPES OF VEGETARIAN DIET
When choosing to go vegetarian, many people interpret the diet differently allowing it to fit around their lifestyle and personal values. Here are a few common types of vegetarianism that people choose to adopt.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian: no meat, poultry, or fish, but does include dairy and eggs. This is the most common way of interpreting the vegetarian diet.
- Lacto-vegetarian: no meat, poultry, or fish, and no eggs, but does include all dairy products. This diet is common within Hindu and Jain religions.
- Ovo-vegetarian: no meat, poultry, or fish, and no dairy products, but does include eggs. This may be the choice of vegetarians who are allergic to dairy or who are lactose-intolerant.
- Pescetarian: no red meat or poultry but does include fish, seafood, dairy, and eggs. This does give a source of healthy lean protein and fatty acids while also reducing the amount of meat consumed.
- Flexitarian: also known as a semi-vegetarian diet, this diet is focused on plant foods but the occasional meat dish may still be consumed on a weekly or monthly basis. This diet is normally embraced by people who are wanting to reduce their meat consumption due to environmental, ethical, or health reasons, but still want to occasionally enjoy eating good-quality meat.
VEGETARIAN VS PLANT-BASED VS VEGAN. WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?
Plant-based Diet vs Vegetarian Diet
"Plant-based" is a diet focused more on healthier whole-food eating but is open to interpretation. The main focus of the diet is health, focusing on natural wholefood plant ingredients and avoiding any highly-processed food. With the majority of the diet coming from plants, fruits, and vegetables, some people choose to include small portions of dairy, eggs, and even lean meats in their definition of a "plant-based diet".
Vegan Diet vs Vegetarian Diet
The vegan diet eliminates all animal-derived products including dairy, eggs, and even honey. People choose a vegan lifestyle for health, ethical, or environmental reasons with animal rights and climate change being drivers for people to completely remove themselves from supporting any form of animal agriculture. Studies have also shown that people have improved their health by removing dairy and eggs from their diet. If you are vegetarian, you can eat anything that is considered vegan as it is guaranteed to contain no meat.
Photo by Ella Olsson from Pexels
HEALTH BENEFITS OF THE VEGETARIAN DIET
When looking at personal benefits for going vegetarian, eliminating meat has shown to reduce the risk of many lifestyle diseases such as cancer and heart disease, as well as being an aid to help people lose weight.
Reducing meat consumption is known to help people lose weight because they consume less calorie-dense foods, meaning you are less likely to overeat. As an example, one ¼ pound beef burger patty is 260 calories while a ¼ pound veggie bean burger averages at about 200 calories. This means, if you eat a balanced vegetarian diet focused on whole foods, fruits, and vegetables, you could continue to eat 3 meals a day and still potentially lose some weight.
A vegetarian diet is also lean on fats, meaning that it can potentially assist people in lowering their bad LDL cholesterol, reducing the risks of heart disease. Studies have also shown that reducing red meat in your diet will help stabilize and reduce high blood pressure. Eliminating meat from your diet has also been linked to reducing diabetes by stabilizing blood sugar levels as well as reducing the chances of particular cancers such as colon, stomach, and breast.
Swapping meat for more plant-based foods will also provide you with a higher intake of nutrients and vitamins because you are swapping low-nutrient meat for high-nutrient plants. Fiber, vitamin C, and magnesium are abundant in plant foods and are known to improve overall health if consumed regularly.
All these health benefits are more likely to occur if you replace the meat you are no longer consuming with healthy whole foods, good-quality meat substitutes, and more vegetables. Though some highly-processed junk food may still technically be vegetarian, the lack of nutrients and high levels of fat and sugar it contains doesn’t assist you in achieving a healthy lifestyle.
MEAT-FREE PROTEIN SOURCES & MEAT SUBSTITUTES
When considering a vegetarian or more plant-focused diet, many people are concerned that they won’t be able to eat enough protein. It is true that meat is an easy efficient source of protein, but you may be surprised to find out that quite a few plant foods naturally contain protein as well. For example, a large variety of nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes as well as dairy and eggs can provide sufficient levels of protein if consumed regularly. However, if you are looking for a direct protein substitute or something to replace the texture of meat, then here are a few suggestions.
Made from soybeans and a traditional staple in many Asian cuisines, tofu is naturally high in protein and a healthy alternative to meat. Though it may have an acquired texture for some people, it is a perfect base for seasoning and does a great job of soaking up flavorsome marinades and spice rubs. With different types of tofu available, silken tofu is great for sauces and creamy desserts while firm tofu is sturdy enough to withstand frying, baking, and poaching, making it a versatile and suitable meat substitute in a range of dishes.
Also soy-based, tempeh is made from fermented whole soybeans giving it a distinct texture and nutty flavor. Seasoned well, it can be a great meat alternative for breakfast sandwiches or as a crispy topping for baked potatoes or nachos.
Often believed to have a similar texture to chicken, seitan is made from wheat protein making it a direct source of protein for a vegetarian diet. Many brands use seitan as a base for their meat alternative products meaning you can find many chicken, bacon, sausage, and burger substitutes made from this unusual protein source. If you are feeling adventurous, you can also buy vital wheat gluten and make your own seitan at home, though it is quite labor-intensive.
Releasing their first "plant-based meats" back in 2012, Beyond Meat has been one of the few companies to develop a meat alternative that actually tastes like meat! With its range of burger patties, ground mince, and "pork-style" sausages, you cook their products the same way you would cook the real meat versions. This makes Beyond Meat a less intimidating substitute for those still experimenting with going vegetarian. Beyond Meat is also soy and gluten-free, making it a great alternative if tofu, tempeh, and seitan don’t work for you.
|Very similar to Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods has created a meat alternative that is extremely similar to the real thing. Claiming that their burgers and mince alternatives even "bleed" like meat, as well as contain exactly the same amount of protein as conventional meat, Impossible Meat is a perfect substitute if you are still struggling to give up meat and are craving that savory meaty taste and texture.|
Jackfruit is a large Asian fruit that can be found in cans in American supermarkets. It has become a popular substitute for pulled pork and shredded chicken because it has a similar texture and can be easily seasoned or marinated. Though because there is no protein in jackfruit, it should be seen as a good source of fiber rather than a substitute for meat.
Gardein is a product line of meat-free foods made by Conagra Brands. They creates meat-like fibers from vegetables. Ingredients include proprietary formulations of proteins (slow-cooked soy, wheat and pea), organic flours (kamut, amaranth, millet, quinoa), potato starch, modified vegetable gum, organic beet fibers, and carrot fibers.
Gardein have a large variety of products and are great substitute if you are still struggling to give up meat. Despite being healthier than eating meat and being cholesterol, trans and saturated fat-free, their are still processed food products and should not be eaten excessively.
SAMPLE VEGETARIAN MEAL PLAN
To help you get started and show the variety of foods available on a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet, here is an example of a basic week-long menu to inspire you.
- Breakfast - Chocolate buttermilk pancakes with homemade chocolate sauce & fresh berries
- Lunch - Falafel wrap with baba ganoush, lettuce & fresh tomato
- Dinner - Homemade macaroni & cheese
- Breakfast - Gourmet avocado toast with confit onions, cherry tomatoes and soft boiled egg
- Lunch - Creamy avocado soup with garlic croutons
- Dinner - Jackfruit & red bean chili with baked potato & grated cheese
- Breakfast - Greek yogurt, nut & seed granola, banana slices & honey
- Lunch - Quinoa salad with bell pepper & dill
- Dinner - Beyond meat burger with american cheese, homemade coleslaw & crispy baked french fries
Tip: We love to use Manuka honey for its incredible health benefits. For more information, check out our detailed article: "The Surprising Benefits of Manuka Honey".
- Breakfast - Omelette with smoked tempeh, mushrooms & cheese
- Lunch - Spicy kale salad with sesame vinaigrette
- Dinner - Sweet potato, chickpea & spinach coconut curry with brown rice
- Breakfast - Soaked oats with chia seeds & baked cinnamon apples
- Lunch - Hummus, balsamic-roasted onions, tomatoes & arugula sandwich
- Dinner - Lasagna made with Impossible mince, served with whole wheat garlic naan bread & crunchy green salad
- Breakfast - Blueberry pancakes with fresh blueberry syrup
- Lunch - Grilled halloumi & lentil salad with watermelon & cucumber
- Dinner - Homemade vegetable pizza with vegetarian pepperoni
- Breakfast - Scrambled eggs, Beyond Meat breakfast sausages & hash browns
- Lunch - Miso soup & vegetable sushi rolls
- Dinner - Stuffed red bell pepper with Gardein beefless ground
AVOIDING MEAT WHEN EATING OUTSIDE YOUR HOME
Even though you might have vegetarianism nailed at home in your own kitchen, it can be hard to maintain it when out in the world. The omnivore, meat-eating diet is still the most common diet in the Western world, so more often than not vegetarian food is an afterthought in most establishments.
When going out to a restaurant or when ordering a takeaway, check out their menus online or call ahead to see what their vegetarian offering is before you arrive. When at the restaurant, don’t be afraid to ask the waiting staff to point out what vegetarian options they have; with vegetarianism becoming more popular, you will find that most restaurants will have at least one vegetarian option on offer. You may also find that some places are happy for you to alter or swap out the meat items in certain dishes.
It is also best to be prepared whenever you are on the road or traveling. Bring some snacks or a packed lunch with you if you are unsure of what vegetarian food you may find on your journey. Bringing your own food will give you some comfort in not going hungry if you can’t find anything meat-free and tasty at airports or gas stations.
At social gatherings, vegetarians tend to be the minority when it comes to food preferences, unless you find yourself surrounded by vegetarian friends of course. If invited to a meat-centered dinner party, just politely remind your host of your dietary requirements ahead of time and maybe even offer to bring a vegetarian dish with you if it's a buffet or potluck style event.
RISKS OF A VEGETARIAN DIET
The main risk of a vegetarian diet is whether people can sufficiently substitute meat while still reaching recommended levels of protein and micronutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, iron, selenium, vitamin B12, and zinc which are available in abundance when including meat in your diet.
Eliminating meat may also encourage people to eat larger quantities of dairy and eggs which isn’t ideal. Eggs have high levels of cholesterol so should be consumed in moderation while dairy is often high in fat and so not an ideal protein substitute.
It may also be tempting to reach for the easy soy-based processed vegetarian products in the supermarkets, but these should really only be eaten occasionally. Many of these products contain additives, preservatives, and are often high in refined sugar or hydrogenated fats while containing minimal nutritional value.
A healthy vegetarian diet needs to focus on natural whole foods. To minimize the risks that may come with this diet, you need to incorporate a wide range of fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and beans, as well as good sources of healthy fats and protein into your daily meal choices.
SUPPLEMENTS TO CONSIDER ON A VEGETARIAN DIET
As mentioned above, a vegetarian diet can lack natural sources of certain nutrients, the most notable being vitamin B-12, omega-3 fatty acids, and iron. Often, you can find vegetarian food that has been fortified with these nutrients. For example, you can find margarine fortified with omega-3 fatty acids or breakfast cereals with added minerals. However, a more reliable way to keep these nutrients in your diet is through supplementation. Just make sure that the supplements you buy are vegetarian-approved as many conventional capsules will be made from animal-derived products.
Here are some supplements we recommend:
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
- How do I start being a vegetarian?
Don’t feel like you have to go cold-turkey and throw out the contents of your fridge on day one. It is often best to have a transition period to allow you, your body and your taste buds to get used to not having meat. Maybe start by going vegetarian for breakfast and lunch, and then having meat for dinner. You may also join in on "Meatless Monday", which encourages people to simply not eat meat on Mondays. Starting small makes the whole thing less intimidating and, before you know it, you won’t even notice the lack of meat on your plate.
- Is this diet safe for children during pregnancy while breastfeeding?
Many studies and scientists had proven that vegetarianism is a safe diet to be on if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. The main thing is that your diet is healthy and contains a diverse range of whole foods, vegetables, and sources of protein. Children can also have a vegetarian diet if they are being given healthy options and as little processed food as possible.
- Is being vegetarian expensive?
It is very easy to make vegetarian food on a budget. You don’t need to buy all the expensive superfoods and protein powders to have a healthy diet. Cans of beans, dried legumes, and simple grains are often the cheapest things you can buy at the supermarket. You may also find buying frozen vegetables or focusing on seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables will help you stay within your ideal budget.
- Can I be a vegetarian if I don’t have time to cook or if I don’t like to cook?
Ok, so you may have to get a bit more savvy in the kitchen if you are looking to move to a healthy vegetarian diet. Have a look through our selection of vegetarian recipes. Some only taking a maximum of 30 minutes to prepare. One-pot dishes and tray bakes are also a great place to start if cooking isn’t really your thing.
- Is it ok to have an occasional cheat day?
The best thing about your diet is that it is yours! So, if you feel like you want to indulge over the holiday season or at the occasional dinner party, then that is your choice. Being a flexitarian is still a healthy diet to adopt, reducing your meat intake to once or twice a month is still a great accomplishment as well as significantly reducing your carbon footprint and improving your health.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If going vegetarian is a choice you want to make, you may be surprised at how easy it is to make the transition. With the world becoming more aware of the impact meat has on our health and environment, and with the growing abundance of meat-free alternatives on supermarket shelves, vegetarianism is more acceptable and achievable than ever before.
The information provided in this article is not nutritional or medical advice. Please read our disclaimer.