Vegetarian Diet Basics

by in Healthy Recipes, May 2, 2009

edamame burger
These days, more and more folks are ditching meat from their diets for eco- and health-friendly reasons (or both). There are many different types of vegetarians — the strictest being vegan. If you or your loved one is going veg, here are some basic things to remember.

Vegetarian Diets 101
All vegetarians choose from these basic food groups: grains, fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts and seeds. A vegan is the strictest type (look for a separate post on that soon); however, different folks may mix it up and allow some foods but not others — usually it depends on religious, ethical or dietary choices.

    The basic types:

  • Pesco-vegetarians – include seafood and fish
  • Lacto-vegetarians – include dairy (milk, cheese and yogurt)
  • Ovo-vegetarians – include eggs
  • Ovo-lacto-vegetarians – include eggs and dairy
  • Vegan – no foods containing animal products (including dairy, eggs and even sometimes honey)

Here’s a quiz: can you figure out what a pesco-lacto-ovo-vegetarian eats? Yep, fish, dairy and eggs but no meat.

Minding Nutrition Needs
Eliminating fish, dairy or eggs from your diet significantly drops your protein intake. For optimum health, we should all take in about 2 sensible servings of protein a day. If you ditch the meat, there are other options. You might try 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, an egg, half a cup beans or lentils or 3 ounces of tofu.

Of course, alternate protein sources such as tofu, seitan (a thick, textured meat replacement made from wheat gluten), quinoa or amaranth are always good choices. Try to combine various foods that complement each other — maybe you have peanut butter on whole wheat bread or prep up some brown rice and beans.

Iron and zinc deficiencies are two other biggies. Many people, meat-eaters and not, lack iron in their diets. It’s important for vegetarians to include various iron sources: green leafy veggies (like kale, spinach and broccoli), almonds, lentils and beans.

One thing to remember: iron from plant sources isn’t easily absorbed. Combining them with vitamin C-rich foods helps increase absorption. That means, squeeze fresh lemon juice on your spinach or follow your rice and beans plate with a fresh, fruit salad. Cooking with cast-iron pots can also increase iron consumption, but limit that to once a week because iron is potentially toxic. There are supplements available, but check with your doctor on those first.

As for zinc, you can get that from fish, eggs or dairy — as long as you eat enough. Nuts are another good source.

A Day in the Life…
To get an idea for a balanced daily diet, here’s what I’d suggest for a lacto-ovo-vegetarian.

Breakfast: try a frittata or some buckwheat pancakes with a glass of freshly squeezed juice.

Snack: opt for yogurt, a handful of nuts, fruit or a slice of cheese.

Lunch: add PB&J to whole-wheat bread, chased with a glass of milk and fresh fruit.

Dinner: you can’t go wrong with these rice and corn cakes, served with a side of sautéed spinach. Most vegetarians (not vegans) can wash this meal down with a light beer! (Yep, not all beer is animal-free.)

P.S.: We spotlight vegetarian recipes on this site along with meat-friendly ones (after all, Kristine, our editor, is a vegetarian herself), but there are tons of vegetarian-only sites out there. Vegetarian Times is one good one to check out — just be mindful that not all recipes may not meet our usual calorie and fat parameters.

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Comments (438)

  1. Mo says:

    This is great stuff! Very informative. I just wanted to say that there are plenty of vegan beers available. lists vegan alcohol…it’s a great resource for vegans and vegetarians alike.

  2. Danae says:

    Thank you so much for this informative & concise article. I’m a person who recently decided to try a vegetarian diet. Until I read your article, I was disappointed that I couldn’t find simple answers to my questions about which vitamins & nutrients I may need to increase & how to do it. I look forward to reading more vegetarian articles & also vegan articles.

  3. Kim Ryan says:

    I have been a vegetarian for more than 20 years, and have recently moved to being a vegan. I have NO problem finding enough nutritional and tasty things to eat – it’s a shame more people can’t see what an animal-centric diet is doing to their bodies and the environment.

  4. Debbie Lear says:

    I am thinking about going vegetarian. I have alot of stomach pain and mostly eat fruit and veggies now. I do eat some turkey, chicken and fish. I can’t eat nuts,dairy, beans or breads nothing fried because of my stomach problems should I go vegetarian?

  5. Laurie says:

    We touch on vegetarian and veganism often, like in our article, Veganism and the Environment. Great for those who need the facts about how it saves our Earth!

    Great post, thanks!
    Check us out at

  6. Jean says:

    We dont eat red meat. We have fish , chicken lots of fruit and veggies. There are lots of vegetarian and bean and lentil recipes I experiment and we enjoy them.

  7. shalini says:

    MY family is mainly lacto vegetarian n i think this is the best n easy option.Including milk n its products in diet rules out some extent of calcium n protein deficiency.If one is lactose intolerant or want to be pure vegan,they can go for soy milk n its products.Indian cusine has vast vareity of vegetarian dishes and great combinations which naturally increase the protein quality.

  8. Deb Ryan says:

    I guess I am a Pesco Vegetarian since December ’08 both my husband and I decided it was time to get health and loose weight, stop the aches and pains. We don’t use or eat any fat in out diet also. Since December we have both last a significant amount of weight me 50 pounds and my husband around 35. But most of all we feel great, we also use supplements for additional calcium and vitamin B-12. It really works!

  9. cjfergie23 says:

    As a new vegetarian, I sure do need the basics. Thanks for the info. I do recommend that anyone planning a major change in their diet, consult with their physician. I am under the supervision of 2 doctors, my pc and my diabetic dr.

  10. It’s onerous to find knowledgeable folks on this matter, but you sound like you understand what you’re speaking about! Thanks

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