On average, people who follow vegetarian diets weigh less and have and lower risks for heart disease and some kinds of cancer. These potential benefits are more likely when you make nutritious choices, such as choosing nutrient-dense foods, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and healthy fats. Also, limit your intake of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, high-sodium foods and foods high in saturated fat. Keeping a list of healthy vegetarian foods handy can guide your meal planning so that you always have healthy and interesting options on hand.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables can help you control your weight and lower your risk for heart disease and osteoarthritis. They are sources of dietary fiber, antioxidants and potassium, and a 2,000-calorie plant-based diet should include at least 2 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables per day. Have fruit with your cereal or yogurt for breakfast or choose it for a snack, and add vegetables such as spinach, kale, bell peppers, asparagus and broccoli to sandwiches, sauces and soups.
Whole grains contain the bran, germ and endosperm components of the entire grain kernel. They are natural sources of dietary fiber, iron and antioxidants. Enriched grains also provide folic acid. Refined grains are lower in natural nutrients. Choose whole-wheat bread over white bread and brown rice over white, and look for other whole grain options such as barley, popcorn, bulgur, oatmeal, quinoa and whole-grain ready-to-eat breakfast cereals.
Nuts, Peanuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds provide heart-healthy fats and are low in cholesterol-raising saturated fat. Other essential nutrients include vitamin E, protein and potassium. Try peanut butter or nut butters with celery sticks or baby carrots, have trail mix with mixed nuts, seeds and dried fruit or add pecans or walnuts to your oatmeal. They are high calorie, so consume nuts and seeds in moderation to avoid unwanted weight gain.
Soy foods are plant-based sources of high-quality, or complete, protein. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins in foods and in your body, and complete proteins provide all of the amino acids that you need from your diet. Iron, zinc and dietary fiber are additional essential nutrients in many soy foods, such as tofu, tempeh and soybeans. Use tofu as a meat substitute in stir-fry and salads, and use enriched soy milk and soy yogurt as alternative calcium sources to dairy products.
Beans, Peas and Lentils
Legumes -- beans, split peas and lentils -- provide protein and dietary fiber as well as iron and zinc. The protein in legumes is incomplete, but you can combine legumes with other sources of protein to make complete proteins. Make complete proteins by adding garbanzo beans to a couscous salad, making minestrone soup with whole-grain pasta and kidney beans or having lentil soup with barley.
Dairy Products and Eggs
Lacto-ovo vegetarian diets include milk products and eggs. Milk, cheese and yogurt are sources of calcium, an essential nutrient for strong bones and teeth, and vitamin B-12, which is a component of healthy red blood cells. Choose reduced-fat dairy products to limit your intake of saturated fat, which raises your LDL cholesterol levels and increases your risk for heart disease. Eggs provide protein, iron and vitamin D. Vegan diets include only plant-based foods and exclude dairy products and eggs.
- Journal of the American Dietetic Association: Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets
- Colorado State University: Vegetarian Diets
- U.S. Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010
- University of Michigan: Fruits and Vegetables
- University of Michigan: Dairy
- University of Michigan: Eggs
- University of Michigan: Legumes
- University of Michigan: Soy