Plant-based diet 101: What to consider before going vegetarian or vegan


by Jacie Slocum, RDN, LD

May 29, 2020

Your whole life you’ve been told to “eat your veggies.” As it turns out, mom and dad were right. Long gone are the days you nudge your broccoli to the edge of the plate with a sour pout.

Today, that expression takes on a whole new meaning.

The number of people shifting away from the traditional American diet built around meat is rising. Vegetarianism is booming — but why now?  

If you’re ready to hop on the bandwagon and quit that turkey cold turkey, you’ve come to the right place. If you haven’t quite mustered up the courage or just crave to learn more, you’ve also come to the right place.

It’s never too late to start a plant-based lifestyle.   

Why choose a vegetarian diet

Some people begin a vegetarian lifestyle for ethical reasons such as not wanting animals killed or harmed in the making of their food. Others may want to follow a vegetarian lifestyle because avoiding animal products is an effective way to lower their carbon footprint.

Religious beliefs can also play an important role in vegetarianism. For example, Hindus make up the largest population of vegetarians. They follow ahimsa, meaning “do no harm.” In addition to avoiding the consumption of meat, they also avoid certain vegetables such as onions, potatoes and garlic. Seventh-day Adventists and Buddhists practice a vegetarian lifestyle as well, and although they support the concept of ahimsa, some eat fish or meat.   

Last but definitely not least, health benefits play a key role. Vegetarian friendly food has been associated with improved health outcomes including lower levels of obesity, reduced risk of heart disease and lower blood pressure. Vegetarians consume a lower proportion of calories from fat and fewer overall calories, while simultaneously getting more fiber, potassium and vitamin C than non-vegetarians.

Related: Why a plant-based diet might be better for your kidneys

Types of vegetarians

This part can get tricky — there are many types of vegetarians, and while they all are slightly different, they all avoid eating meat. Some vegetarian diets include dairy foods, such as cheese or eggs, while others abstain entirely from any food product that comes from an animal.

Let’s break it down:

  • A Vegetarian consumes a variety of grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds but no meat or dairy.
  • A Lacto-vegetarian consumes a variety of milk and dairy products as well as grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds.
  • A Lacto-ovo vegetarian consumes a variety of milk and dairy products including eggs, as well as grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds.
  • A Pescatarian consumes a variety of fish and seafood, grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds.
  • A Vegan is similar to a vegetarian but stays away from all animal-based products entirely, including foods with ingredients from animal sources.

Keys to a healthy vegetarian diet

Meal planning

Planning ahead is crucial. Because of the restrictions of vegetarian meals, it is important to ensure you are still receiving a balanced diet and not putting yourself at risk of developing any micronutrient deficiencies.

Need some tasty vegetarian recipes inspo? We’ve got you covered!

Start with breakfast, the most important meal of the day:

  • Breakfast tacos: Fill with beans and tofu scramble, topped with avocado and salsa
  • Overnight oats: Add walnuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds and blueberries
  • Whole-grain toasted bagel: Top with nut butter, apple slices or banana slices

Next up, lunch. These are great vegetarian recipes for on-the-go:

  • Veggie burger: Add sautéed mushrooms, tomato and place on a whole-grain bun
  • Black bean chili: Tomato, onion, garlic, peppers, tofu or tempeh to your liking
  • Veggie sandwich: Stuff whole-grain pita with sliced tomato, peppers, avocado and hummus spread

Finish the day off strong with these delicious vegetarian dinner ideas:

  • Tofu and veggie stir-fry: Just add brown rice!
  • Whole-grain pasta: Toss with tomato sauce and peppers, eggplant, mushrooms and onions for flavor
  • Tacos: Fill with beans, tofu or tempeh, lettuce, onion, avocado and salsa; add Spanish rice on the side

Protein intake

Proteinacts as the building block in our body and is necessary to build, replace and replenish every cell. Proteins are made up of essential and non-essential amino acids — essential amino acids must be consumed through our diet, whereas non-essential amino acids are made by our bodies.

Soy is the only plant-based protein source that contains all of the essential amino acids. Other sources of plant-based proteins consist of nuts, seeds, dried beans, peas, lentils, grains and texturized vegetable proteins.

Consumption of several of these protein sources over the course of a day will ensure you’re getting adequate amounts.

Vitamin B12 supplements

Any time food groups are being left out of an eating pattern, it’s crucial to make sure we aren’t missing anything. Vitamin B12 is only produced by animals or animal products including fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk and milk products.

Vitamin B12 deficiencies can appear as symptoms of fatigue, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite, soreness of the mouth or tongue, difficulty with balance, confusion, poor memory and depression.

Therefore, it’s important to take a B12 supplement if you are following any of the vegetarian or vegan diets. The Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group (VNDPG) recommends the following in regards to Vitamin B12:

  • All vegetarians, regardless of type, should periodically be screened for B12 deficiency.
  • All women considering pregnancy and those already pregnant should take 250 mcg per day of a B12 supplement.
  • All vegans should take 250 mcg per day of a B12 supplement.
  • All lacto-ovo vegetarians should consider taking 250 mcg per day of a B12 supplement a few times per week.

So, is a plant-based diet right for you?

That’s completely up to you and what your own personal views and goals are. Changing your eating habits is a big decision, but it’s definitely doable with the proper resources and mindset.

Remember that little changes add up to big ones over time, so always move at your own pace. A well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can be nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of some chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.

If you’re ready to make a change or would like assistance switching to a vegetarian lifestyle, find a registered dietitian near you.

About the Author

Jacie Slocum, RDN, LD, is a registered outpatient dietitian on staff at Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center – Fort Worth.

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