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Vegetarian Diet


What is a vegetarian diet? A vegetarian (vej-e-TAR-e-an) diet has no meat, fish, seafood, or poultry (such as chicken or turkey). Vegetarians eat mostly grains, vegetables, fruits, dried beans, nuts, and seeds (plant foods). A vegetarian diet is often low in fat. It is lower in fat if low-fat milk products are used, and if it does not have too many nuts and seeds. Vegetarian diets are also high in fiber. Fiber is the part of fruits, vegetables, and grains not broken down by your body. Vegetarian diets may help you control your weight and may prevent some cancers. This diet may also help to lower the cholesterol (ko-LES-ter-ol) in your blood. There are four types of vegetarian diets:

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: This diet includes dairy products, eggs, and plant foods.

  • Lacto-vegetarian: This diet includes dairy products and plant foods.

  • Ovo-vegetarian: This diet includes eggs and plant foods.

  • Vegan (VEE-gun): This diet includes only plant foods.

What can I do to make a vegetarian diet part of my lifestyle?

  • Changing what you eat and drink may be hard at first. Think of these changes as "lifestyle" changes, not just "diet" changes. You may need to make these changes part of your daily routine. Following a vegetarian diet may help you feel better.

  • Choose a variety of different foods allowed on this diet so that you do not get tired of having the same items every day.

  • Carry a list of foods allowed on this diet with you to remind you about the diet when you are away from home.

  • Many foods suggested for this diet are "fortified" (FOR-ti-fide). If a food is fortified, it has had nutrients added that it does not have naturally. For example, vitamin D fortified milk has vitamin D added to it before it is ready to be sold at a store.

  • Ask your caregiver, a dietician (di-uh-TISH-in), or a nutritionist (noo-TRI-shun-ist) any questions you may have about your diet plan. A dietician or nutritionist works with you to find the right diet plan for you. Dieticians and nutritionists can also help to make your new diet a regular part of your life.

Serving sizes:

  • One cup (eight ounces) of food is the size of a large handful.

  • One-half cup (four ounces) of food is about half of a large handful.

  • One tablespoon (Tbsp) is about the size of the tip of your thumb (from the last crease).

  • One teaspoon (tsp) is about the size of the tip of your little finger (from the last crease).

  • Two tablespoons is about the size of a large walnut.

  • One and one-half cups (12 ounces) of liquid is the size of a soda-pop can.

  • A serving size refers to the size of food after it is cooked. Three ounces of cooked meat is about the size of a deck of cards.

  • A serving of vegetables is one-half cup (one-half of a handful) cooked or one cup (one full handful) of raw vegetables.

What other diet guidelines should I follow? It may be difficult to get enough of some vitamins and minerals while on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Diet supplements (pills or liquids bought at a grocery or drug store) may be needed. Adding servings of the following to your diet may also help:

  • Vitamin B-12: Dairy products and eggs have vitamin B-12. If you follow a vegan diet, you may need supplements or foods with added B-12. Some foods high in B-12 are fortified ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, and fortified soy milk. Vegetarian meat substitutes, such as burgers or hotdogs made with soy may also have vitamin B-12.

  • Calcium: If you do not include dairy products in your diet, you need to be sure to get enough calcium from other foods. Foods high in calcium include broccoli, tofu, soybeans, collard greens, turnip greens, and calcium-fortified juice.

  • Vitamin D: Vitamin D fortified cow's milk or soy milk can help you get enough vitamin D. Being in the sun for five to 15 minutes every day can also give your body enough vitamin D. When you are in the sun, be sure your hands, arms, and face are exposed to sunlight.

  • Zinc: Foods that are high in zinc include almonds, bran flakes, wheat germ, and chickpeas.

  • Iron: Foods that are high in iron include bran flakes, sea vegetables, lentils, legumes (beans), and oatmeal.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Linolenic acid may help increase the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in the body. Foods that are high in linolenic acid include flax seed, linseed oil, and walnuts.

What can I eat and drink while on a vegetarian diet? Beans, peas, nuts, seeds, eggs, and meat supplements: You should eat two to three servings each day from this food group. (If you are pregnant, you should eat three to four servings a day.) One serving is the same as:

  • Three Tbsp peanut butter or Tahini paste (sesame butter).

  • One cup cooked dried beans, split peas, or lentils.

  • One-half cup grated Parmesan cheese.

  • Two eggs, four egg whites, or one-quarter cup egg substitute.

  • One cup cooked soybeans.

  • One-quarter cup soy grits or vegetable protein.

  • One-half cup soy tofu or tempeh.

  • One-quarter cup sesame or sunflower seeds.

  • One cup soy milk.

  • Three ounces vegetarian meat substitute.

  • One vegetarian hot dog.

Milk, dairy products and milk alternatives: You should eat two to four servings each day from this food group. One serving is the same as:
  • Two slices American cheese.

  • One-one-half ounces semi-hard cheese, such as cheddar, mozzarella, colby, or longhorn.

  • One-half cup lowfat cottage cheese or lowfat ricotta cheese.

  • One-half cup tofu.

  • One cup skim, one percent, or two percent lowfat milk.

  • One cup lowfat buttermilk.

  • One cup lowfat or fat-free yogurt.

  • One cup (cooked) broccoli.

  • One cup (cooked) collard, mustard, or turnip greens.

  • One cup (cooked) navy or kidney beans

Breads and starches: You should eat six to eight servings each day from this food group. One serving is the same as:
  • One slice of bread.

  • One-half cup cooked pasta, rice, or hot cereal.

  • One-half bagel, English muffin, or sandwich bun.

  • One ounce dry cereal.

  • One six-inch tortilla.

  • One medium (two-and-one-half-inch square) dinner roll.

  • Three cups air-popped popcorn.

  • One-half cup cooked corn, sweet peas, or green lima beans.

  • One small (three-inch) potato or one-half cup cooked mashed potato.

Fruits: You should eat two to four servings of fruit each day. One serving is the same as:
  • One medium apple, peach, pear, or orange.

  • One-half cup applesauce or canned fruit.

  • Three-quarters of a cup fruit juice.

  • One-half grapefruit.

  • 15 grapes.

  • One small banana or one-half of a nine-inch banana.

  • One kiwi fruit.

  • One and one-quarter cup melon cubes.

Vegetables: You should eat three to five servings of vegetables each day. The daily servings should include one dark green, orange, or yellow vegetable. One serving is the same as:
  • One-half cup cooked broccoli, squash, green beans, tomatoes, peppers, onions, carrots, or sweet potato.

  • One cup any raw vegetable.

  • One cup salad greens, such as lettuce, spinach, or romaine.

  • Three-quarters of a cup of vegetable juice.

Fats: You should eat two to four fat servings each day. One serving is the same as:
  • One tsp olive, corn, canola, sunflower, sesame, safflower, or other liquid oil.

  • One tsp regular butter, margarine, or mayonnaise.

  • Two Tbsp cream (half and half cream or sour cream).

  • One Tbsp regular salad dressing.

  • Eight large, or 10 small olives (black or green).

  • One-eighth of a medium avocado.

Sample vegetarian diet for one day:

  • Breakfast: Scrambled eggs, toast and jam, an orange, and a cup of tea.

  • Mid-day meal: Bean burrito with cheese, rice, chopped lettuce and tomato, guacamole, mixed vegetables, and melon or other fruit.

  • Evening meal: Spaghetti with pesto, steamed broccoli, garlic bread, ice cream with nut topping.

Sample vegan diet for one day:

  • Breakfast: Whole-grain toast, oatmeal, soymilk, and fresh fruit.

  • Mid-day meal: Lentil stew (with onions, carrots, celery, and potatoes); crackers, lettuce, tomato, and cucumber salad with oil and vinegar dressing; and a pear or other fruit.

  • Evening meal: Vegetarian chili, cabbage salad (cole slaw), whole grain roll, sorbet, and calcium-fortified juice.


  • You may not receive enough nutrients on a vegetarian diet. A dietician can tell you if your diet is too low in vitamins and minerals. She will also tell you what to do to correct your diet if it does not have enough vitamins and minerals. Some nutrients you may not get enough of include vitamin B-12, iron, calcium and vitamin D, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. Talk to a dietician if you do not eat eggs and milk, especially if you are pregnant or breast feeding. When you are pregnant or breast feeding, your body needs more nutrients to support both you and your baby.

  • Talk to a dietician if you have children less than five years old who eat a vegetarian diet. Children younger than five are rapidly growing and developing in all areas. Because of this, they may need more and different nutrients than this diet can give them. Talk with your caregiver or dietician if you are losing too much weight on a vegetarian diet.

Call caregivers if:

  • You have questions about the serving sizes in this vegetarian diet.

  • You have questions about how to prepare or cook foods on this list.

  • You have questions about how or where to buy foods on this list.

  • You have questions or concerns about this food list, your illness, or medicine.


You have the right to help plan your care. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment.

© 2013 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of the Blausen Databases or Truven Health Analytics.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

References and sources