Being a Vegetarian

Did you know these facts?

  • Vegetarian foods are a major source of nutrition for most people in the world.

  • Vegetarians have lower rates of heart disease and some forms of cancer than non-vegetarians.

  • Vegetarian diets can be simple and easy to prepare. 

What is a vegetarian?

Broadly defined, a vegetarian is a person who does not eat meat, poultry, and fish. Vegetarians eat mainly fruit, vegetables, legumes, grains, seeds, and nuts. Many vegetarians eat eggs and/or dairy products but avoid hidden animal products such as beef and chicken stocks, lard, and gelatin.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) classifies vegetarians more specifically in the following ways:

  • Vegans or total vegetarians exclude all animal products (e.g. meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, and other dairy products). Many vegans also do not eat honey.
  • Lactovegetarians exclude meat, poultry, fish, and eggs but include dairy products.
  • Lacto-ovovegetarians exclude meat, poultry, and fish but include dairy products and eggs. Most vegetarians in the US are lacto-ovovegetarians. 

Why are people vegetarians?

People are vegetarians for many reasons, including concern for personal health and the environment, economic and world hunger concerns, compassion for animals, belief in nonviolence, food preferences, or spiritual reasons. People may become vegetarians for one reason, and then later on adopt some of the other reasons as well. Vegetarian diets are somewhat more common among adolescents with eating disorders than in the general population. According to the AND position paper on vegetarian diets, however, "recent data suggest that adopting a vegetarian diet does not lead to eating disorders, rather that vegetarian diets may be selected to camouflage an existing eating disorder." Be sure you fully understand your own reasons for choosing vegetarianism. 

What are the health benefits of a vegetarian diet?

According to the AND, vegetarians are at lower risk for developing:

  • Heart disease

  • Colorectal, ovarian, and breast cancers

  • Diabetes

  • Obesity

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)

This is because a healthy vegetarian diet is typically low in fat and high in fiber. However, even a vegetarian diet can be high in fat if it includes excessive amounts of fatty snack foods, fried foods, whole milk dairy products, and eggs. Therefore, a vegetarian diet, like any healthy diet, must be well planned in order to help prevent and treat certain diseases. 

Are there any health risks in becoming a vegetarian?

Some vegetarains and vegans may be deficient in iron, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and occasionally riboflavin. 

Do vegetarians get proper nutrition?

The key to any healthy diet is to choose a wide variety of foods, and to consume enough calories to meet your energy needs. It is important for vegetarians to pay attention to these five categories in particular.

Protein is found in both plant foods and animal foods. Vegetarians should be aware that while there are plenty of plant-based protein options, many of these foods contain less protein per serving compared to animal foods. Therefore, combining one or more protein sources at a meal is helpful. Adequate intake with a wide variety of foods from all food groups should fulfill your protein needs. Good sources of protein include lentils, beans, tofu, soybeans (edamame), soy products (veggie burgers, "chik'n" strips, etc), textured vegetable protein (TVP), low-fat dairy products, nuts, seeds, tempeh, and eggs.

The AND recommends that adults 19 to 50-years-old consume at least 1000mg of calcium per day -- the equivalent of 3 cups of milk or yogurt. Vegetarians can meet their calcium needs if they consume adequate amounts of low-fat and fat-free dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. Calcium is also found in many plant foods including dark, leafy greens (e.g. spinach, kale, mustard, collard and turnip greens, and bok choy), broccoli, beans, dried figs, and sunflower seeds, as well as in calcium-fortified cereals, cereal bars and some fortified juices.

Vegans (people who don't eat any animal products) must strive to meet their daily calcium requirements by regularly including these plant sources of calcium in their diets. Many soy milk products are fortified with calcium, but be sure to check the label for this. Although almond milk may also be calcium-fortified, it is lower in protein so soy milk may be a better alternative to dairy.

Calcium is best absorbed by the body when it comes from food, so it's best to include calcium-rich foods in your diet on a regular basis. If these foods are not part of your typical diet, then you may consider a calcium supplement. Look for one that has 500 mg calcium or more per serving AND contains vitamin D. It's important to take this supplement with a meal, rather than on an empty stomach. Calcium supplements are available at the pharmacy in Health Services.

Vitamin D
Vitamin D helps your body absorb and use calcium. There are few foods that are naturally high in vitamin D, though. Therefore, dairy products in the US are fortified with vitamin D. Many soy milk products are also fortified with vitamin D. Your body can make its own vitamin D, but only when the skin is exposed to adequate sunlight (but that can have its own risks). A person only needs about 10 minutes of sunlight exposure for an adequate dose of vitamin D; then it's important to apply sunscreen. People who do not consume dairy products and who do not receive direct exposure to sunlight regularly should consider taking supplemental vitamin D. The recommended intake of Vitamin D for college students is 600 international units (IU) per day. Despite research suggesting that higher intakes of vitamin D may be protective against a variety of diseases, intakes above 2000 IU per day can result in vitamin D toxicity. Both multivitamin supplements and calcium supplements with vitamin D are available at the pharmacy in Health Services

Iron-fortified breads and cereals, dark green vegetables (e.g. spinach and broccoli), dried fruits, prune juice, blackstrap molasses, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and soybean nuts are good plant sources of iron. Consuming foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits or juices, tomatoes, and green peppers helps your body absorb iron from these plant sources. Cooking food in iron pots and pans will also add to your iron intake.

Vitamin B-12
Vitamin B-12 is produced in animals and by bacteria in the soil. Vegetarians who consume dairy products and/or eggs usually get enough B-12 since it is found in these foods. Vegans, however, should add vitamin B-12 fortified soy milk to their diets. Regularly taking a broad-spectrum multivitamin and mineral supplement (available at the pharmacy in Health Services) will also supply the necessary amount of B-12. 

What about athletes?

Being both an athlete and a vegetarian can be challenging, especially for vegans. It can be difficult to eat a volume of food high enough to meet an athlete's high caloric needs. Vegetarians who participate in sports should be aware of their increased energy needs, and should make a concerted effort to consume sufficient calories. Click for info on sports nutrition

What are some options for a tasty vegetarian meal?

Becoming a vegetarian can be as easy as you choose to make it. Whether you enjoy preparing elaborate meals or choose quick and easy ones, vegetarian meals can be very satisfying. In order to make meal preparation easier, the AND suggests having the following foods on hand:

  • Ready-to-eat, whole-grain breakfast cereals, and quick-cooking whole-grain cereals such as oatmeal

  • Whole-grain breads and crackers, such as rye, whole wheat, and mixed grain

  • Other grains such as barley and bulgur wheat

  • Canned beans, such as pinto, black beans, and garbanzo beans

  • Plant-based proteins like tofu, tempeh, and seitan

  • Milk, yogurt, and fortified soy substitutes

  • Rice (including brown, wild, etc.)

  • Pasta (now available in whole wheat, spinach, and other flavors) with tomato sauce and canned beans and/or chopped veggies

  • Corn or flour tortillas

  • Vegetarian soups like lentil or minestrone

  • Plain frozen vegetables

  • Nut spreads (e.g. peanut or almond butter)

  • Canned and frozen fruit 

Related Links

Vegetarian Resource Group
This reliable source on vegetarian diets was given the top rating by the Tufts University Nutrition Navigator, a nutrition web site rating guide. Recipes, games and information on nutrients such as protein, calcium and iron included.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics   
Daily Tips and Feature Topics often have articles of interest. By sending an email, you can ask questions directly of registered dietitians in your area. Nutrition Network is a national referral service for registered dietitians in their areas nutrition. Award winning web site.
Your online guide to vegetarian restaurants around the world

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