What You Need to Know Before You Go Vegetarian or Vegan - Virtua Article

What You Need to Know Before You Go Vegetarian or Vegan

By Gale Cohen, RD, Registered Dietitian—Virtua Nutrition & Diabetes Care

It may seem trendy to “go” vegetarian or vegan. But it might be a lifestyle choice to follow since it has some valuable health benefits. Plant-based diets can be lower in calories, cholesterol, added sugar, salt and fat—but that’s IF you’re making healthy food choices and controlling portions. They are also high in fiber, phytochemicals and minerals such as potassium and magnesium. And, a plant-based diet can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease—and can play an important role in weight management and digestive health.

If you’re thinking about going vegetarian or vegan, here are a few important things to consider before changing to a plant-based lifestyle.

Know your goals

The first step in choosing a plant-based diet is setting a goal for what you want to achieve through this dietary change. Some people choose to adopt a plant-based diet for environmental, ethical or religious reasons. Other people adopt a plant-based diet to help them lose weight or manage their weight, improve digestive health or prevent a health problem or event, such as diabetes or a heart attack.

Choose the right plant-based diet for you

Regardless of whether you’re looking to make a temporary or permanent lifestyle change, you and your primary care provider or registered dietitian can discuss your goals, and choose a diet that best meets your needs. And when it comes to plant-based diets, there are many variations to choose from. 

Vegetarians, for example, don’t eat any meat (beef, pork, poultry, lamb, and game meat), fish or seafood. One major distinction among vegetarians is whether they eat milk or eggs. Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat both milk and eggs, while ovo vegetarians eat eggs, but not milk. A pescatarian diet includes seafood and fish, but excludes meat.

A vegan diet—the strictest plant-based diet—contains no meat, seafood, fish, dairy, eggs or honey. Many vegans also don’t wear clothing made from animals, such as leather, or eat animal-derived food additives such as gelatin.

Within your chosen diet, your registered dietitian can help you choose foods that provide maximum nutritional value and help you meet your health goals. For example, if you’re trying to reduce your risk of heart disease, your registered dietitian can help you plan a diet rich in low-sodium, low-fat foods that are high in soluble fiber and potassium.

Plan for your health

Getting the nutrients that your body needs while following a plant-based diet is possible—it just takes a bit more planning.

Before you make the switch to a plant-based diet, consult with a registered dietitian, who can help you figure out how to meet your body’s requirements for several important nutrients, including the following:

  • Protein: Every food group except for fruit contains some protein, so it’s possible for vegans and vegetarians to get the protein their body needs. Vegans can eat grains, beans, soy-based foods (tofu, veggie burgers), nuts, seeds, bread, nut butters, lentils and oatmeal. Vegetarians can eat eggs, Greek yogurt and cheese to meet their protein needs.
  • Iron: Greens, beans and fortified cereals contain iron. To maximize iron absorption, vegetarians and vegans also should eat fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamin C.
  • Calcium: Although vegetarians usually can meet their body’s need for calcium because they still consume dairy products, vegans can boost their calcium intake by eating dark leafy greens and almond or soymilk that’s fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
  • Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is a mineral that is only found in animal products, so your doctor or dietitian may recommend that you take a supplement to help meet your body’s needs. Vegetarians can have milk, yogurt, cheese and eggs, which all contain significant levels of vitamin B-12. For vegans, some foods are fortified with vitamin B-12, such as some brands of rice or soy milk, breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast.

If you’re following a plant-based diet for longer than a few months, ask your primary care provider to order blood tests to ensure your body is getting the nutrients it needs. If your blood tests show that you are deficient in any nutrients, a registered dietitian can help you increase your intake of nutrient-rich foods. Although it’s best to get your nutrients from food whenever possible, your doctor also may recommend that you take a dietary supplement.

In addition to your primary care provider and registered dietitian, there are reliable online resources that provide information to optimize your plant-based diet. The Vegetarian Resource Group and the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetics Practice Group offer plant-based recipes, information and tips based on research.

For information on Virtua's plant-based lifestyle program or to make an appointment with a Virtua registered dietitian, call 1-888-VIRTUA-3. 

Updated February 2, 2018

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