the benefits of going vegetarian

Debbie J., MS, RD contributed this article –

Why shy away from animal foods?  To lower blood cholesterol levels, better digestion and reduce the risk of certain cancers, hypertension, obesity and diabetes. Whew!  Diets composed primarily of grains, legumes (dried beans, peas, lentils), fruits, nuts and seeds are generally high-fiber and low-fat, accounting for these benefits.

How to Do It Right

Vegetarian diets should provide a balanced intake of all essential nutrients including Vitamin B-12, riboflavin, calcium, Vitamin D, iron and zinc which are generally derived from meat, egg and/or milk products.  Some vegetarians do include dairy and egg.  Diets for children, pregnant or lactating women must be carefully planned to prevent deficiencies and ensure adequate growth and development.

Here Are The Basics For Adults:

Choose at least six servings of these daily:

  • Bread, Cereal, Rice and Pasta:  4 of which should be whole-grains

Choose at least three servings of each of these daily:

  • Vegetables
  • Calcium sources: milk & dairy products, tortillas, some nuts, sesame seeds, self-rising flour, dark leafy greens (ex: mustard, collard & turnip greens), broccoli, bok choy, beans, dried figs, calcium-fortified soy products and calcium-enriched fruit juice, breads or cereals.
  • Vitamin B-12 sources: Eggs, dairy products, fortified soymilk, fortified cereal or meat analog. For vegans, if fortified foods do not include sufficient amounts, Vitamin B-12 may need to be taken as a dietary supplement.

Consume at least two servings of each of these daily:

  • Fruits
  • Iron sources:* eggs, legumes, nuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds, spinach, dried fruit, prune juice, blackstrap molasses and iron-fortified breads and cereals.
  • Omega-3 Fat sources: 1 teaspoon flaxseed oil, 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed, 3-4 tablespoons walnuts, 3-4 teaspoons canola or soybean oil.
  • Protein sources: soy foods, legumes (ex: beans, lentils, peas), nuts, and seeds.  High quality proteins (containing essential amino acids) are obtained from a variety of the above sources. Whole grains contribute additional protein. Meat substitutes used in dishes include seitan (wheat gluten), bulgur wheat (cracked, rolled wheat) and soy products including tofu (soybean curd) and tempeh (cultured soybeans, and textured soy protein.

                  To note: plant foods offer an average of 4-6 gms Protein per 100 Calories, an amount sufficient to meet protein needs for healthy adults.



*Include a good source of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) with each meal to enhance the absorption of plant iron. For example: citrus fruits & juices, cantaloupe, strawberries, potatoes, broccoli, tomatoes, green pepper.

If you don’t consume milk products, get 10-15 minutes of sunlight exposure daily for natural Vitamin D production in your skin.

Zinc is obtained from low-fat milk products, whole grain cereals and beans.

Riboflavin is found in low-fat milk products, eggs, whole grains, enriched breads and cereals, green leafy vegetables, and lentils.

Fats and oils may be added to provide enough calories if milk products, nuts, seeds, olives or avocados are not regularly consumed.

Sample Menu

Take this 2,000 Calorie menu for example:


    • 1 cup cooked oatmeal w/ 2 Tbsp. wheat germ, 10 pecan halves
    • small banana


    • 1 cup low-fat coleslaw
    • medium baked potato w/ 1 cup vegetarian chili


    • 2 cups spinach w/ 1 tomato, 3 mushrooms, ½ cup artichoke hearts, slice red onion, 2 Tbsp. pine nuts, 1 Tbsp. dressing
    • 3 oz. grilled tempeh
    • 6 multigrain crackers w/ 1oz. soy cheese


    • 1 cup soy yogurt w/ ½ cup mixed berries, 1 Tbsp. flax seed, 1 Tbsp. granola
    • slice whole grain bread w/ 1 Tbsp. peanut butter

Regardless of the type of vegetarian diet, it is essential to understand basic nutrition principles. The guidelines provided make it easier to choose a balanced diet so you can reap the benefits of plant-based eating.  After all an apple a day keeps the doctor away, right?!

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Debbie James is a registered dietitian. Any views or opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or recommendations of Fitness International, LLC.



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