What Is a Vegetarian Diet?

A vegetarian diet excludes meat, poultry, fish, and foods containing these products. There are many different variations of the vegetarian diet. This article focuses on the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, which is based on plant foods, but also includes eggs and dairy.

Why Follow a Vegetarian Diet?

There are many health benefits associated with following a vegetarian diet. In general, vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and provide higher amounts of many vitamins and minerals than traditional western diets. Moreover, a well-balanced vegetarian diet may help:

People choose to follow a vegetarian diet for many different reasons, including health benefits, concern for the environment, and concern for animal welfare.

Vegetarian Diet Basics

A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet is based on plant foods such as grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, and nuts, in addition to dairy and eggs. To make sure that you meet all your nutrient needs on this diet, be sure to eat a variety of each of these types of foods. Nutrients that deserve extra attention to make sure they are eaten in sufficient amounts include: protein, iron , calcium , zinc , vitamin B12 , vitamin D , and omega-3 fatty acids .

Eating Guide for a Vegetarian Diet

This guide is based on the current US food guide, MyPyramid. More information on the types of food included in each food category and serving sizes is available at http://www.MyPyramid.gov .

Food Category Daily Amount *Key SuggestionsKey Nutrients Provided
Grains6 ounces (1 ounce = 1 slice bread, ¼ bagel, ½ cup cooked pasta or rice, 3 cups popcorn)
  • Consume at least ½ of your grains as whole grains
  • Whole grains include: whole wheat products, oatmeal, brown rice, barley, bulgur, popcorn
  • Vitamin B12 (fortified breakfast cereals)
  • Zinc-fortified breakfast cereals, wheat germ
  • Iron-fortified breakfast cereals
Vegetables2½ cups (1 cup = 1 cup raw or cooked vegetables, 2 cups raw leafy vegetables)
  • Eat a variety of different vegetables every day.
  • Eat more of the following:
    • Dark green vegetables (eg, broccoli, spinach, bok choy, romaine lettuce)
    • Orange vegetables (eg, carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash)
    • Dry beans and peas (chickpeas, black beans, lentils, split peas, kidney beans, tofu)
  • Calcium (collard greens, turnip greens, bok choy, and mustard greens)
  • Iron (spinach, turnip greens, peas)
Fruits2 cups (1 cup = 1 cup fresh fruit, 1 cup fruit juice, ½ cup dried fruit)
  • Eat a variety of fruit
  • Choose fresh fruit over fruit juices
  • Calcium (fortified orange juice)
  • Iron (raisins, prunes, dried apricots)
Milk3 cups (1 cup = 1 cup milk or yogurt, 1 cup soy or rice milk, 1½ ounces natural cheese)
  • Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products; limit intake of full-fat cheese
  • Milk alternatives include calcium-rich or -fortified foods and beverages
  • Protein
  • Calcium (all milk products, fortified milk alternatives)
  • Vitamin D (fortified milk and milk alternatives)
  • Vitamin B12 (milk products and fortified milk alternatives)
Legumes, Nuts, Eggs, and Other Protein Rich Foods5½ ounces (1 ounce = ¼ cup cooked, dry beans; ½ cup tofu, ¼ cup tempeh, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon peanut butter, ½ ounce nuts)
  • Eat a variety of protein sources
  • Nuts and nut butters can also be counted as oils
  • Protein
  • Zinc (white beans, kidney beans, and chick peas)
  • Iron (kidney beans, black-eyed peas, lentils)
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (eggs, ground flaxseed, walnuts)
Oils6 teaspoons
  • Choose healthful oils such as those found in canola and olive oil, fish, and nuts
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (flaxseed oil, canola oil)
Fats and Sweets<265 calories
  • Limit or avoid solid fats such butter, stick margarine, lard, and shortening
  • Limit foods high in added sugar or solid fats

*Based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Recommended amount varies depending on age, gender, and activity level. The website http://www.MyPyramid.gov provides individualized amounts based on these factors.


  • Eat a variety of foods from each of the food groups every day.
  • Limit your intake of cheese and other high fat dairy products.
  • If you are new to this diet, do not just continue eating your usual diet minus the meat. Be sure to replace the meat with other protein-rich foods (eg, milk, beans, and nuts).
  • Consider meeting with a registered dietitian to makes sure you are meeting all your nutrient needs on this diet. A dietitian can create a meal plan for you.