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 the health benefits afforded by a plant-based diet may make it a lifestyle choice worth following.
Plant-based diets can be lower in calories, cholesterol, added sugar, salt, and fat—as long as you’re making healthy food choices and controlling portions. They are high in fiber, phytochemicals, and minerals such as potassium and magnesium.
A plant-based diet also 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.
Know Your Goals
The first step in choosing a plant-based diet is setting a goal you want to achieve. Some people choose to adopt a plant-based diet for environmental, ethical, or religious reasons. Others adopt a plant-based diet to help them lose or manage their weight, improve digestive health, or prevent future health problems, 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.
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:
- Protein: Every food group except for fruit contains some protein, so it’s possible for vegans and vegetarians to get the protein your 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 your 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 the 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 B-12: Vitamin B-12 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, your health care provider or 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 provider 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.
Get Started with Your Diet
A Virtua registered dietitian can help you achieve your healthy eating goals. Call 888-847-8823 to schedule an in-person or telehealth appointment.
Updated January 14, 2022