The variety of vegetarian diets: benefits, what to have in mind, and tips

A well-planned, plant-based diet can offer amazing health benefits. Explore vegetarian diet preferences and what to watch for when minimizing meat.

Vegan meal with lentils

Adapting a well-planned, plant-based diet can offer amazing health benefits. But lack of variation and knowledge, and focusing on the mainstream marketed products instead of eating a varied diet filled with whole food sources may leave you missing out on essential nutrients. 

From animal-free to fish-friendly, we’ll explore the variety of vegetarian diet preferences and what to watch for when minimizing animal products.

Vegetarian diet types 

There are many reasons why you may choose to adapt a more vegetarian lifestyle such as cultural trends, environmental concerns, animal welfare, and personal health. When it comes to vegetarian diets, the type varies depending on what animal-based foods you decide to exclude: 

  • Pescatarian: excludes meat and poultry but includes fish, dairy, and eggs. 
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: excludes meat, seafood, and poultry but includes eggs and dairy. 
  • Lacto-vegetarian: excludes eggs, meat, seafood, and poultry but includes milk. 
  • Ovo-vegetarian: excludes meat, seafood, poultry, and dairy but includes eggs.  
  • Vegan: excludes all animal products including meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy. Some people also choose to avoid honey (1). 

Some people may also follow a flexitarian diet which is mainly plant-based but may include small amounts of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or dairy on occasion. 

Benefits of vegetarian diets

Vegetarian diets have been shown to improve heart health, balance blood sugar levels, promote a healthy weight, and help prevent illness (2). This is because plant-based foods contain lots of nutrients such as dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid, vitamin C and E, and phytochemicals with less saturated fat and cholesterol (3). Additionally, the food is often less calorie dense on a plant based diet than on a diet that includes animal products, which can be both helpful and challenging depending on the individual goal. Using a tool such as Lifesum app will help you keep track of your calorie intake and guide you towards your goal.

Vegetarian diets: nutrients to focus on 

In most cases, a plant-based whole foods diet can fulfill your body’s nutrient needs without additional supplements. But this takes some awareness and planning. It’s best to focus on lots of vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans and lentils), whole grains, nuts and seeds. 

The more “strict” the diet, the greater the chance for missing out on nutrients. So if you’re avoiding all animal products, make sure to focus on adding these in your daily meals (3):

Omega-3 

Omega 3 fatty acid is important for brain function and heart health. Since the type of omega-3s found in vegan sources (ALA) are more difficult for your body to convert into the more beneficial forms (EPA and DHA) found in seafood, it’s recommended that vegans make sure to include plenty of these in their diet (4). 

  • Flax oil
  • Walnuts and walnut oil
  • Soy and edamame 
  • Chia seeds 

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is needed to regulate calcium in the body which helps with healthy bones, teeth, and muscles. It also helps with immunity and mental wellbeing (5). Vitamin D is found in eggs, fish and seafood so this nutrient is less of a concern if you include these kinds of food in your diet. Nowadays vitamin D is also found in fortified dairy products, and luckily for those who want to lower their intake of animal products- the alternative plant-based dairy products are commonly fortified as well. So if on a plant based diet including these to increase the intake of vitamin D: 

  • Fortified dairy alternatives (soy, oat, almond milk)
  • Sunlight
  • Fortified cereals 
  • Mushrooms (6)

Calcium 

Calcium is important for the health of bones, heart, muscle, and nerve function. This mineral is found in dairy products and some seafood so not a concern if you munch on those foods. Some plant-based dairy alternative products are also fortified with calcium. Here are some food rich in calcium, that are great to include in a plant-based diet: 

  • Green leafy vegetables (broccoli, cabbage) 
  • Fortified dairy alternatives (soy, rice, and oat milk)
  • Tofu with calcium
  • Sesame seeds
  • Whole grain bread (6) 

Zinc 

Zinc is essential for a healthy immune system, metabolism, and helps with wound healing. Zinc is less of a concern for pescaterians and lacto-vegetraians since some is found in dairy and lots is found in seafood. However, zinc can also be found in plant-based foods such as:

  • Whole grains
  • Tofu and tempeh
  • Legumes
  • Nuts and seeds

Absorption of zinc increases by using yeast-based breads, sourdough, sprouts, and pre soaked legumes (7). 

Iron 

Iron is a mineral which helps move oxygen and energy around the body (8). Iron is found in fish, seafood, meat, eggs and small amounts are found in dairy. For those who want to exclude all animal products, iron can also be found in these foods:  

  • Beans and lentils 
  • Edamame and tofu
  • Whole grains and fortified cereals
  • Nuts (cashews)
  • Dark leafy green vegetables (broccoli and spinach)

Adding vitamin C to vegetarian sources of iron helps increase the absorption (8). Vitamin C can be found in red bell pepper, oranges, limes, lemons, tomatoes, and strawberries. 

Here’s a great example of an iron optimized meal which includes lentils, eggs and tomato: Shakshuka with Lentils

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 helps contribute to energy and metabolism, healthy hair and skin, and digestion. It’s mainly found in animal products so for those who eat a strict plant-based diet and excludes all animal products, it is important to keep track of the levels of B12. Fortified foods or supplements might be necessary (9) such as:  

  • Fortified cereals
  • Fortified dairy alternatives (soy milk, nut milk, oat milk)
  • Fortified soy products 
  • Nutritional yeast 

What about protein? 

Protein is important for muscle building, repairing tissues, making enzymes, hormones, and building the structure of the body. It’s a long standing myth that you can’t get enough protein from vegetarian and vegan diets. The trick is to include lots of varied sources. Check out some plant-based protein sources here: Plant-based High-protein Eating

In most cases, a well planned plant-based diet can fulfill nutrient requirements. If you think you may be at risk for a nutrient deficiency and are considering a supplement, check with your physician.

Focus on whole foods 

Keep in mind that just because something is marketed as “vegan” or “vegetarian” doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Aim to limit processed and packaged meat alternatives as well as sugary foods and refined grains, since they might be filled with added sugars, saturated fats and have a high amount of sodium.

To get the best benefits of a vegetarian diet, focus on healthy plant-based foods such as whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. 

Not sure if you’re getting the nutrients you need? Enjoy hundreds of vegetarian friendly recipes with the Lifesum app.

All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice.

Read this next

Screenshot from the Lifesum app
  • Apple AppStore:
    4.6 average rating
    Google Play:
    4.4 average rating
  • Editors’ Choice, App Store 2018
  • Best of Google Play 2017 & 2018

Gain control of your nutrition intake and boost your health.

Learn more