Vegetarian Diet Overview

Scorecard

Overall
Weight Loss Short-term
Weight Loss Long-term
Easy to Follow
Nutrition
Safety
For Diabetes
For Heart Health

Scores are based on experts' reviews

Pros & Cons

  • Nutritionally sound
  • Heart healthy (if you plan it right)
  • Might miss the meat
  • Can be lots of work

Do's & Don'ts

Don’t: Fill your plate with animals See more Do's & Don'ts

Overview

Type:

Balanced.

Resembles these U.S. News-rated diets:

Vegan Diet, Eco-Atkins

The aim:

Depends, but may include weight loss, heart health, and diabetes prevention or control.

The claim:

Going vegetarian could help shed pounds and fend off chronic diseases.

The theory:

You can cook up a perfectly healthy, meat-free menu that supports weight loss and reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

How does the Vegetarian Diet work?

Well, which kind of vegetarian do you want to be? Most choose a lacto-ovo approach, turning their backs on meat, fish, and poultry but still eating dairy products and eggs. (Lacto-vegetarians, meanwhile, also nix eggs, whereas ovo-vegetarians also nix dairy; vegans exclude all animal products.) For the lacto-ovo camp, the government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines can help you develop a healthy plan. You can skip over the first 80 pages and just figure out how many meatless calories you should eat (Appendix 6, page 78) and where they ought to come from (Appendix 8, page 81) to get all the nutrients you need.

A daily 2,000-calorie diet, for example, should include 2 cups of fruit; 2½ cups of vegetables; 3 cups of dairy, 6 “ounce-equivalents” of grains, and 5½ ounce-equivalents of protein. The fine print will tell you how much actual food is in an ounce-equivalent. For grains, one ounce-equivalent is a slice of bread or a 6-inch tortilla; for protein, it’s an egg or quarter-cup of cooked beans. As with any diet, boredom is avoided through variation—like incorporating different-colored veggies and sources of protein to get the nutrients you need.

If that sounds tedious, countless books offer structure with vegetarian meal plans and recipes. The Internet is also full of good information. On its website, Oldways, a nonprofit food think tank, simplifies with its vegetarian food pyramid, which it codeveloped with the Harvard School of Public Health. The Mayo Clinic also offers tips to get started.

You don’t have to go cold turkey. You could start by preparing a couple meat-free dishes each week, and gradually make more substitutions—tofu in stir fry instead of chicken, say, or grilled veggie burgers instead of beef. If your aim is also weight loss, amp up your exercise routine and eat fewer calories than your daily recommended max.

Will you lose weight?

Likely. Research shows vegetarians tend to eat fewer calories, weigh less, and have a lower body mass index (a measure of body fat) than their meat-eating counterparts. If you’re doing it right—eating lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains—you’ll likely feel full on fewer calories than you’re allowed each day. With that “calorie deficit” and a little physical activity, you’re bound to shed pounds. How quickly and whether you keep them off is up to you.

Does it have cardiovascular benefits?

Yes, provided you create a healthy plan (a French fries and doughnut diet counts as vegetarian). Research has linked vegetarian diets to reducing cholesterol, blood pressure, and the risk of heart disease. As long as you’re not devouring copious calories and you’re monitoring your saturated fat intake, you’ll tilt the heart-disease odds in your favor.

Can it prevent or control diabetes?

Yes, it’s a good option for both.

Prevention: Being overweight is one of the biggest risk factors for type 2 diabetes. If going meat-free helps you lose weight and keep it off, you’ll stand a better chance of staving off the disease. Some research has linked vegetarianism with a lower diabetes risk.

Control: It’s a healthful option, according to the American Diabetes Association. And because there are no rigid meal plans or prepackaged meals, you can ensure that what you’re eating doesn’t go against your doctor’s advice.

Are there health risks?

No, as long as you create a sensible plan.

You’ll almost certainly jack up your risk of heart disease and diabetes (and won’t do your waistline any good) if your meals revolve around white bread, cheese, and sugary, fatty desserts. If you’re worried about malnutrition, your doctor can help design your meals.

Otherwise, vegetarianism is generally safe for everyone. Children, teens, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding can safely go meat-free. (Besides, research has linked excessive red meat consumption with cancer and heart disease.)

How well does it conform to accepted dietary guidelines?

Fat. If you make healthful choices, you should stay within the government’s recommendation that between 20 to 35 percent of daily calories come from fat.

Protein. It should keep you within the acceptable range for protein consumption.

Carbohydrates. It’s in line with the recommendation that carbs supply 45 to 65 percent of daily calories.

Salt. The majority of Americans eat too much salt. The recommended daily maximum is 2,300 milligrams, but if you’re 51 or older, African-American, or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, that limit is 1,500 mg. It’s up to you to stay under your cap, but it shouldn’t be too hard if you eat enough fresh produce, ditch heavily processed foods, and hide the salt shaker.

Other key nutrients. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines call these “nutrients of concern” because many Americans get too little of one or more of them:

  • Fiber. Getting the recommended daily amount of 22 to 34 grams for adults helps you feel full and promotes good digestion. You’ll stay within or above that range.
  • Potassium. A sufficient amount of this important nutrient, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, counters salt’s ability to raise blood pressure, decreases bone loss, and reduces the risk of developing kidney stones. It’s not that easy to get the recommended daily 4,700 mg. from food. (Bananas are high in potassium, yet you’d have to eat 11 a day.) The majority of Americans take in far too little. Lots of lacto-ovo-friendly foods—produce, beans, and dairy products—are potassium powerhouses. You should at least come close to the recommendation.
  • Calcium. It’s essential not only to build and maintain bones but to make blood vessels and muscles function properly. Many Americans don’t get enough. Women and anyone older than 50 should try especially hard to meet the government’s recommendation of 1,000 to 1,300 mg. Since you’re allowed dairy products, you should have no trouble. (Ovo-vegetarians may struggle but dark-green veggies like collard greens, kale, and broccoli are good, dairy-free alternatives.)
  • Vitamin B-12. Adults should shoot for 2.4 micrograms of this nutrient, which is critical for proper cell metabolism. Focus on yogurt and fortified foods, like cereals, to help ensure you meet the requirement.
  • Vitamin D. Adults who don’t get enough sunlight need to meet the government’s 15 microgram recommendation with food or a supplement to lower the risk of bone fractures. Low-fat dairy and fortified cereals will help you meet the requirement.

Supplement recommended? N/A

How easy is it to follow?

How much do you like meat? If the thought of a turkey-free Thanksgiving isn’t a turn off, making the switch probably won’t be too hard. Plus you’re free to decide what you can’t live without (omelets? ice cream?) and whether you’ll cheat on occasion. Be mindful that healthy vegetarianism requires planning, especially if you’re a first-time convert.

Convenience:

When you want to cook, there’s a recipe somewhere that’ll suit your taste buds. When you don’t, virtually every restaurant serves up vegetarian fare. And while alcohol is technically permitted, that’s not license to binge drink.

Recipes. Limitless. Magazines, books, and websites like this one abound, offering suggestions for every meal and cuisine.

Eating out. Easy. Restaurants typically have lots of vegetarian-friendly entrées. Careful, though: Vegetarian doesn’t always mean healthy and restaurants are known for their gargantuan portions.

Alcohol. Vegetarian-friendly, but too much can thwart weight loss and damage the liver, brain, and heart. Moderation is your best bet—that’s one drink a day for women, two a day for men. (A drink is considered 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of liquor.)

Timesavers. None, unless you hire somebody to plan your meals, shop for them, and prepare them.

Extras. N/A

Fullness:

Nutrition experts emphasize the importance of satiety, the satisfied feeling that you’ve had enough. If you’ve built a healthful vegetarian diet around fiber-packed veggies, fruits, and whole grains, you shouldn’t feel hungry between meals.

Taste:

You’re making everything, so if something doesn’t taste good, you know who to blame.

How much does it cost?

It’s moderately pricey. Stocking up on produce and whole grains can get expensive, but bypassing the butcher will help keep the tab reasonable. Plus, lacto-ovo vegetarian staples like eggs and beans are some of the most affordable choices at the supermarket.

Does the diet allow for restrictions and preferences?

Vegetarian diets can be easily adapted—choose your preference for more information.

You can easily follow egg- or dairy-free approaches.

And with a few more restrictions (i.e., shunning all animal products), you can become vegan—read about veganism here.

Yes, just make sure your choices are certified gluten-free.

Doable, as long as you stay away from buying too many processed foods. Eating lots of fruits and veggies generally keeps the sodium count low.

Yes, you have the freedom to use only kosher ingredients.

Yes, but it’s up to you to ensure your food conforms.

What is the role of exercise?

Vegetarianism only has rules on animal products, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise.

No matter the diet, the more you move, the quicker you’ll see the pounds come off—and you’ll reduce your risk of developing diabetes, heart problems, and other chronic diseases. Adults are generally encouraged to get at least 2½ hours of moderate-intensity activity (like brisk walking) each week, along with a couple days of muscle-strengthening activities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers tips to get you started.


Last updated by Kurtis Hiatt | December 13, 2013

Best Diets Rankings

Best Diets Overall
Diets ranked by across-the-board effectiveness.

Best Weight-Loss Diets
Diets ranked by effectiveness for both quick and lasting weight loss.

Best Diabetes Diets
Diets that can prevent diabetes or help diabetics.

Best Heart-Healthy Diets
Diets that lower cholesterol, blood pressure or triglycerides.

Best Diets for Healthy Eating
Diets ranked by how safe and nutritionally complete they are.

Best Commercial Diet Plans
Brand-name diets ranked by overall effectiveness.

Easiest Diets to Follow
Diets ranked on whether they're a snap to stick to.

Best Plant-Based Diets
Plant-based diets ranked by overall effectiveness.

Connect with U.S. News Health