Vegetarian and Vegan Nutrition

Whether for ethical reasons or health-related issues, vegetarians choose to eat a predominantly plant-based diet. Many carnivores assume that a plant-based diet cannot possibly provide all the nutrients that one needs, but, in fact, every plant has protein. While some plant proteins are not as readily absorbed as animal-based proteins, eating a wide variety of foods ensures adequate nutrition.  Vegetarians and vegans rely mostly or entirely on plant-based sources of protein. A vegetarian diet can easily meet the recommended protein needs of adults and children.


Vegetarian is a broad term used to describe a person who does not consume meat, poultry, fish, or seafood. This grouping includes vegans and the various sub-categories of vegetarian; however, it generally implies someone who has fewer dietary restrictions than a vegan.

Vegan is the strictest subcategory of vegetarian. Vegans do not consume any animal products or by-products. Some do not consume honey and yeast and do not wear any clothing made from animal products (such as leather or wool).

Lacto-ovo vegetarian refers to a person who does not consume meat, poultry, fish, and seafood, but does consume eggs and dairy products. This is the largest group of vegetarians.

Ovo-Vegetarian is a term used to describe someone who would be vegan if they did not consume eggs.

Lacto-Vegetarian is a term used to describe someone who would be a vegan if they did not consume dairy.

Debunking the Myths

There are many myths surrounding vegetarianism, which generally center on nutritional adequacy. The ADA emphatically states that “vegetarian diets are healthful and nutritionally adequate when appropriately planned.”

Myth: Vegetarians don't get enough protein.

Vegetarians easily meet their protein needs by eating a varied diet, as long as they consume enough calories to maintain their weight. It is not necessary to plan combinations of foods. A mixture of proteins throughout the day will provide enough essential amino acids. See this page for more information. Common sources of protein include beans, lentils, tofu, nuts, seeds, tempeh, chickpeas, peas, while whole grain bread, greens, potatoes, and corn.

Myth: Vegetarians are anemic because they don't get enough (usable) iron.

There are numerous vegan sources of iron, which include dried fruits, baked potatoes, mushrooms, cashews, dried beans, spinach, chard, tofu, tempeh, bulgur, and iron-fortified foods (such as cereals, instant oatmeal, and veggie "meats"). To increase iron absorption, combine iron-rich foods with foods that contain vitamin C, such as citrus, tomatoes or broccoli. Using iron cookware also increases iron intake.

Myth: Vegetarians can't get enough calcium, B12 and Omega-3s.

Calcium Good sources include broccoli, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, tofu prepared with calcium, low-fat dairy products, fortified soymilk, and fortified orange juice.

Vitamin B12 While this vitamin is primarily found in animal-derived foods, the adult recommended intake for B12 is very low. A diet containing dairy products or eggs provides adequate B12. Fortified foods, such as some brands of cereal, nutritional yeast, soy, offer non-animal sources. Tempeh and sea vegetables are not a reliable source of vitamin B12. Check labels to identify other products that are fortified with vitamin B12. If you are vegan, it is recommend you take a B12 supplement to be on the safe side.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids To maximize production of DHA and EPA (omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and made by our bodies) include good sources of alpha-linolenic acid in your diet. Alpha-linolenic acid is found in flaxseed, flaxseed oil, canola oil, tofu, soybeans, and walnuts. You can also obtain DHA directly from foods fortified with DHA from microalgae (in some brands of soymilk) and supplements containing microalgae-derived DHA.

Vegetarianism and Health: A Weapon Against Disease

According to the American Dietetic Association, the medical community realizes that there is a positive correlation between a vegetarian lifestyle and risk reduction for chronic degenerative diseases, such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, colon cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, constipation, diabetes, diverticular disease, fatigue, gallstones, osteoporosis, premenstrual syndrome, stroke and more.

Additionally, vegetarians generally maintain a healthier body weight than non-vegetarians. Studies show that body weight increases as frequency of meat consumption increases. Vegetarians' lower body weight correlates with their high intake of fiber and low intakes of fat. Since obesity impairs health in many ways, this gives vegetarians a health advantage.

Vegetarians also tend to have lower blood pressure and rates of hypertension, fewer incidences of heart disease and related deaths, and significantly lower rates of cancer than non-vegetarians. Appropriate body weight helps to maintain a healthy blood pressure. The dietary factor most directly related to heart disease is saturated animal fat, and in general, vegetarian diets are lower in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than typical meat-based diets. Lower cancer rates may be due to their high intake of fruits and vegetables.

Vegetarianism and the Environment

What we choose to eat is one of the biggest factors of our environmental impact. Becoming vegetarian is one of the most profound and effective actions you can take to ease the strain on the Earth's limited resources, protect the planet from pollution, and prevent climate change.

Did you know?

  • The business of raising animals for food (with its continuing heavy waste stream of methane and nitrous oxide-leading global warming gases) is responsible for about 18% of global warming.
  • Animal agriculture takes up an incredible 70% of all agricultural land, and a whopping 30% of the land surface of the planet.
  • As a result, farmed animals are probably the biggest cause of slashing and burning of the world's forests.
  • The United States' most influential environmental group, Environmental Defense Fund, has calculated that if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as if the nation removed more than 500,000 cars from U.S. roads.
  • A person prevents more climate change pollution by going vegetarian than by switching to a hybrid car.
  • It takes, on average, more than 10 times as much fossil fuel to make one calorie of animal protein as it does to make one calorie of plant protein.

The above is an excerpt from Veganist by Kathy Freston, 2011.

Making the Switch

  1. Have Your Reasons Some people are able to make the switch with ease, but for others the process may seem a bit overwhelming. The first thing to do is to fully understand why you wish to switch to a plant-based diet. Animal cruelty? Weight loss? Environmental impact? Improved health? Have your reasons, and go meat free slowly.
  2. Phase Out One Animal at a Time Start referring to your animal protein as just that: an animal. Making the connection that pieces of meat actually come from animals may help the transition. After you choose your animal, find veggie alternatives. There are an abundance of wonderful vegetarian and vegan products in the dining halls and at grocery stores. There are also many surprisingly good veggie “meats."
  3. Start with Two Days a Week To start, opt for veggie meals two days a week. As you gain confidence and familiarity with your new lifestyle, gradually move to several times a week.
  4. Make the Switch with a Friend! Sharing this experience and lifestyle change with a friend will more likely keep you interested and motivated.
  5. Get Support Check out these websites to get some great info, and to help answer any further questions you may have:

College is a great time to go veg! The dining halls offer numerous vegan and vegetarian options, all of which are clearly labeled. Frank and Frary each have a Veg Station.