vegetarian diet

Are vegetarian diets actually healthy?

Written by: Kelley R. Hill, MSN, RN-BC

In a Nutshell

  • Simply put, it excludes meat
  • There are variations depending on how strict you choose to be
  • Easier to follow and potentially more balanced than a vegan diet

Vegetarian diets have skyrocketed in popularity. More and more people are considering giving up meat due to growing environmental conscientious or seeking ways to improve their general health.

The vegetarian diet, like any other plant-based diet, is rich in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber. It can be tailored to be low in saturated fat and cholesterol (greatly dependent on dairy choices and consumption of the whole egg versus egg whites only).

Vegetarian diet variations include:

  • Lacto-vegetarian: includes dairy
  • Ovo-vegetarian: includes eggs
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: includes both
    • This is now known by the USDA as “Healthy Vegetarian”
  • Pescatarian: excludes dairy and eggs, but allows fish and seafood
  • Vegan: excludes all animal meats and products
    • There are additional types of vegan diets, though none include any animal products

Lifestyle Impacts

While vegetarianism is not a cultural tradition in the U.S. as it is many other countries, in much of the U.S. it has become easier to find healthy, tasty vegetarian foods in restaurants and supermarkets.

This diet can save you money as protein sources like beans and lentils are much cheaper than animal meats. They are also more readily available.

Like any plant-based diet, even with the inclusion of dairy and eggs, meal planning takes a good deal of education and advanced preparation to ensure that the diet is appealing and easy to maintain.

When first beginning a vegetarian diet, depending on the diet you choose, consider adding supplements to ensure proper nutrition. The elimination of animal meats and animal products makes some nutrients more difficult to consume in adequate quantities. The following supplements should be considered, especially if you’re not going lacto-ovo-vegetarian:

  • Vitamin B-12
  • Vitamin D
  • EPA and DHA (omega-3s)
  • Iron
  • Iodine
  • Calcium
  • Zinc
  • (possibly) Protein

Scientific & Expert Support

Some research directly suggests that a vegetarian diet may reduce risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. There is also a wealth of evidence on the benefits of eating more plant foods to reduce disease risk, as well as improve immunity and gut health.

There is and has always been great concern that a plant only diet lacks adequate B-12, iron, calcium, vitamin D, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and iodine. These nutrients are essential for preventing increased risk of anemia, bone density loss, neurologic disorders, goiters, and other conditions such as muscle weakness and slowed healing. The inclusion of eggs and dairy, however, makes getting adequate protein easier and a B-12 deficiency unlikely.

The lack of fish and seafood makes some variations of this diet low in omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for heart and brain health.

Now included in the latest edition of The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (HHS & USDA, 2016) is the Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern resulting from the tremendous amount of research showing the health benefits of this way of eating.


It can be easy to succumb to many junk foods (highly processed, or with added sugars and salt), or rely too much on cheese as a protein source.

You should always consult with your physician, and ideally a registered dietician (RD) or nutritionist, before radically changing your diet or eating habits. Especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, are taking prescription medications, or have existing health conditions.

Some supplements should not be taken at the same time, as it reduces their ability to get into your system. Calcium should not be taken at the same time as iron or zinc.


There is an abundance of quality, patient-centered evidence that supports eating more plant foods for many health reasons, and a moderate amount of evidence directly supporting vegetarian diets (predominantly lacto-ovo).


A vegetarian diet can be restrictive, especially at first, though with the addition of dairy and eggs, the diet becomes not only easier to manage but more balanced and is a very healthful way of eating.


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