Eating Healthy on a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet

By Summer Banks

There are many reasons why people decide to live a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. For some, that reason is saving the lives of animals; however, healthy living is a top incentive for many. Unfortunately, simply switching to a vegetarian diet does not automatically guarantee good health or weight loss. Vegetarians and vegans must also be mindful of what they eat. Eating too much, for example, and a lack of proper nutrition are some of the issues that they may face. For this reason, it is important for people to understand how to eat healthfully when following plant-based diets.

Vegetarian Diets

A vegetarian diet is one in which individuals choose not to eat the meat or any part of animals such as cows, pigs, fish, or fowl. Instead, they choose to eat plant-based foods, although some will consume product made by animals, such as milk, eggs, and honey. When eating milk and dairy products, they should be low-fat or fat-free. A healthy vegetarian diet is a diet that ensures that one’s nutritional needs are being met. This means incorporating the nutrients that are lacking in a meat-free diet. These necessary nutrients include vitamin B-12, vitamin D, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, protein, and riboflavin. Vegetarians can find sources of omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts and ground flaxseed. Fortified cereals and vegetable-based imitation meats such as soy burgers are a source of vitamin B12. Veggie-based meats are also good sources of zinc, as are soy milk, cheese, split peas, and seeds. Fortified milk and orange juice, dark green leafy vegetables, yogurt, and cheese are all excellent sources of calcium. To include protein in one’s diet, people should add foods such as legumes, nuts, high-protein whole grains, and eggs to their diets. Both soy and cow’s milk are good sources of riboflavin, as are almonds, mushrooms, and fortified cereals. A breakfast of eggs and fortified cereal is a helpful way to add iron. It is important that a variety of foods are included when planning meals and that sweets are kept to a minimum. Fried foods, even if they are plant-based, are bad for one’s health and should be avoided or eaten in moderation. Vegetarians and vegans should also be mindful of large portion sizes and processed foods.

Vegan Diets

People who identify themselves as vegan abstain from eating anything that comes from animals. Vegans differ from vegetarians in that they do not eat anything that is produced by or comes from the body of an animal. This means that they do not consume milk, eggs, or any dairy products, such as cheese. Honey is also widely considered non-vegan. Vegans can avoid the consumption of honey by using alternatives such as maple or rice syrup.

When following a vegan diet, people need to be cognizant of their nutritional intake. They risk not getting enough of the same vitamins and nutrients as vegetarians, but some of these concerns are even greater for vegans. While getting enough vitamin B12 is important for all vegetarians, for example, a vegan diet makes one particularly susceptible to this deficit, as eggs and dairy are not allowed. It is extremely important that vegans take B12 supplements and purchase fortified foods such as veggie burgers or cereals. As with vegetarians, a healthy vegan diet also includes eating enough calcium-rich foods to prevent the thinning of one’s bones.

  • Vegetarian FAQ: This link leads to an informational page on the North American Vegetarian Society website. The page is a long list of questions and clickable answers about meat, nutrition, and vegetarianism in general.
  • Everything You Want To Know About a Vegan Diet: Open this Michigan State University Extension link to read the who, what, when, where, why, and how of veganism.
  • Vegetarian and Vegan Eating: Read a brief overview on vegetarian and vegan eating patterns, their benefits, and nutritional requirements.
  • Vegetarian Diets: Open this page by the American Heart Association to read the basics on vegetarian diets. The page answers questions on what a vegetarian diet is, meal plans, and the healthfulness of being vegetarian.
  • Ten Tips: Healthy Eating For Vegetarians (PDF): Click this link to read ten numbered tips on how vegetarians can eat healthy. The page includes tips on how to start making vegetarian changes to one’s diet, eating at restaurants, and meeting nutritional needs.
  • Vegetarian Diet: How to Get the Best Nutrition: Review this two-page, in-depth article on the Mayo Clinic website for information on the various types of vegetarian diets and healthy eating patterns. The second page also includes information on getting started.
  • Vegan Diet: How to Get the Nutrients You Need: People interested in learning about vegan diet concerns can read about the challenges and benefits by clicking on this Family Doctor link.
  • Vegetarian and Vegan Diets Explained: This WebMD page reviews reasons for becoming a vegetarian or vegan and other information. Some of the topics that are discussed are related to health, nutrition, and pregnancy.
  • Digging a Vegetarian Diet: Click this link to read an NIH newsletter article that discusses the health benefits of being a vegetarian. The page also includes a small side section that provides tips for a vegetarian diet.
  • Wondering About a Vegan Diet? PETA provides this helpful infographic to outline what the additional nutritional needs are for vegans and what foods can help meet them.
  • How to Be a Healthy Vegetarian: Clicking this link opens a page on the Center for Young Women’s Health website that features a health guide on how to be a vegetarian. The guide features key facts about being vegetarian, such as why people choose to become vegetarian and whether it is a healthy diet.
  • Veganism in a Nutshell (PDF): Read this booklet for information on vegan foods and nutritional needs such getting enough calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin B12. The booklet also address what it means to be vegan.
  • Vegetarian Eating: Young girls who click on this link can learn what it means to be vegetarian. The page explains the different types of vegetarians and reviews what is necessary to eat a healthy vegetarian diet.
  • Vegetarianism: Parents interested in information about kids following a vegetarian diet will find helpful information when they click on this KidsHealth link. The page includes information about vegetarianism for infants, toddlers, and older kids, nutrition for all ages, and the different vegetarian types.
  • Best Diets: Vegetarian Diet: Read information on vegetarian diets when you click on this U.S. News & World Report link. The page provides an overview plus tabs on health and nutrition, do’s and don’ts, and recipes.
  • Vegetarian and Vegan Diet: On this page, readers will find an introduction to vegetarian dieting and a chart of the various types of vegetarian diets. By reading the chart, interested individuals will learn what types of food can and cannot be eaten with each of the diets.
  • Vegetarian Diet Health Information: People who are interested in learning more about vegan and vegetarian diets can read and learn about the benefits and get information about food resources and tips.
  • The New Four Food Groups (PDF): Here, vegetarians can learn about the New Four Food Groups developed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The four groups listed on this page are fruits, legumes, whole grains, and vegetables.
  • Vegetarian and Vegan Children: Interested parents who click this link will find an article and video about children and vegan diets on the NHS website.
  • Vegetarian Diets for Children: The information provided by this Healthy Children article discusses the dietary needs of children who are vegetarian.
  • Vegan Action: Frequently Asked Questions: People with questions about nutrition, acceptable foods, or veganism in general may click this link to the nonprofit organization Vegan Action for answers.
  • Becoming a Vegetarian: Read about the different vegetarian types and their health benefits by clicking on this link. The page lists major diseases that a vegetarian diet can help prevent.
  • Vegetarianism: The Basic Facts: This page on the Eat Right website provides basic facts about vegetarianism. The facts on this page include benefits, types, and reasons why people should choose vegetarianism.
  • Vegetarian Diets: Build on the Basics: Click on this page to read about correct serving sizes, food variety, and nutrition.
About the Author:

Summer Banks, Director of Content at Dietspotlight, has researched over 5000 weight-loss programs, pills, shakes and diet plans. Previously, she managed 15 supplement brands, worked with doctors specializing in weight loss and completed coursework in nutrition at Stanford University. full bio.