What to Know About Vegetarian Diets

Skipping meat? Learn about the different types of vegetarians and which food combinations will ensure you're eating a well-balanced diet.

May 18, 2022

Related To:

Food Network Kitchen's Broccoli-Walnut Pesto With Pasta

Photo by: Tara Donne ©2012, Food Network, Television Food Network, G.P.

Tara Donne, 2012, Food Network, Television Food Network, G.P.

These days, more and more folks are opting for a more plant-based diet. There are many different types of vegetarians — the strictest being vegan. If you or a 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 diet is the strictest type, however, different folks may mix it up and allow some foods but not others — it usually depends on religious, ethical, environmental or dietary preferences.

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.

Vegetarian Nutrition Needs

Eliminating fish, dairy or eggs from your diet can impact your protein intake, but those gaps can be filled with plant-based sources including beans, lentils and tofu. Additional high-protein foods like quinoa or amaranth are also good choices. Try to combine various foods that complement each other — maybe you have peanut butter on whole-wheat bread, or prep 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 Daily Meal Plan on a Vegetarian Diet

To get an idea for a balanced daily diet, here's a stellar plan that is lacto-ovo-vegetarian friendly.

Breakfast: Frittata or some buckwheat pancakes with a glass of freshly squeezed juice to help absorb that iron

Snack: Yogurt, a handful of nuts, fruit or a slice of cheese

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

Dinner: Broccoli-Walnut Pesto with Pasta (pictured above) served with a side of sautéed spinach

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. She is the author of four cookbooks First Bites: Superfoods for Babies and Toddlers, The Healthy Air Fryer Cookbook, The Healthy Instant Pot Cookbook and Healthy Quick and Easy Smoothies.

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