Your Complete Guide to Going Vegetarian
Buh-bye, burgers. Sayonara, sausages. With retail sales of plant-based foods on the rise, meat has gone from juicy star of the dinner plate to something more and more people are cutting out. Health reasons, environmental concerns, compassion for animals, religious beliefs, and plain ol’ culinary preference are just some of the reasons people have been veering vegetarian lately. In a nutshell? Plants are in popular demand.
But it’s one thing to move meat to the sidelines; it’s another to figure out exactly what a vegetarian diet looks like day to day. Can you still have seafood? What about eggs? Where do you get your protein? The good news: The answers are pretty much up to you. Read on to explore some of the most popular approaches to vegetarian eating and learn how to incorporate more meatless meals into your rotation.
What exactly is a vegetarian diet?
Ask a group of vegetarians to define the way they eat, and you’ll quickly realize the answer is highly personal. In broad terms, a vegetarian diet nixes or limits meat in favor of plant-based foods. Under that huge umbrella, vegetarian diets can range from still including meat every now and then to eliminating every single food made with an animal-derived product (even, say, some forms of white sugar, which are processed using bone char). Vegetarian diets tend to fall into one of four categories, explains Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, a plant-based registered dietitian and owner of Plant-Based Eats:
- Vegan diets exclude all meat, poultry, fish, and animal-based products, such as eggs, dairy, honey, as well as food additives derived from animals. If it didn’t grow from the ground, forget about it.
- Vegetarian diets include plant foods, dairy, and eggs, but exclude meat, poultry, and fish.
- Pescatarian diets include plant foods and fish, but exclude meat and poultry. Some pescatarians add in dairy and eggs; others don’t.
- Flexitarian (a.k.a. semi-vegetarian) diets include plant foods, dairy, and eggs with the occasional addition of fish, seafood, meat, or poultry. As the name suggests, this one is all about flexible rules.
Foods to include in a vegetarian diet
In the grand scheme of things, going vegetarian doesn’t mean a lack of variety. But it can definitely feel that way if you’re switching from serious carnivore status. No bacon or fried chicken? What are you supposed to eat for protein when you can’t just throw a steak on your plate? And how do you do all this without getting bored? A person can enjoy only so many salads, after all.
Try it, though, and you may find it’s pretty simple to keep your taste buds tingling without touching meat. The whole world of fruits, veggies, grains, beans, nuts, and (for some people) dairy is open to you. Here’s a sampling of things you can nosh on:
Legumes, beans, and pulses: Things like lentils, black beans, chickpeas, cannellini beans, peas, butter beans, and more are worth including in your meals as often as you can. “They are high in fiber, low in fat, rich in many essential nutrients including protein, B vitamins, folate, iron, potassium, phosphorus, and zinc—and they are filling,” says Martica Heaner, PhD, an adjunct associate professor of nutrition at Hunter College in New York City.
Vegetables: There’s a reason veggies have a strong reputation for being healthy: They’re full of nutrients like calcium, iron, protein, fiber, and vitamins A, C, E, and K. Branch out of your typical vegetable rotation with some of these options:
Greens and cruciferous veggies: bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, parsley, spinach, and Swiss chard.
- Red and orange veggies: bell peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and winter squash.
- Starchy veggies: jicama, plantains, white potatoes, taro, water chestnuts, and yucca.
- Other veggies: asparagus, beets, Brussels sprouts, celery, cucumber, green beans, mushrooms, onions, radish, seaweed, snow peas, summer squash, tomatillos, turnips.
Fruit: Pick from fresh or frozen to get a dose of antioxidants, vitamins A, C, and E, potassium, manganese, fiber, and more. And it’s easy to mix up your fruit choices since there are so many options: apples, bananas, berries, citrus, cherries, dates, grapes, jackfruit, melons, pineapple...the list goes on and on.
Dairy and eggs: Deciding to welcome milk products and eggs to your party opens up a whole world of options. Dairy foods like yogurt, kefir, and cheese are great sources of calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and more. And you can start your days off with a scramble, knowing you’re getting more than 6 grams of protein from each egg.
Nuts and seeds: If you’re vegetarian, you’re going to want to go a little (or a lot) nuts. You’ll get protein, fiber, and unsaturated fats—a trifecta for keeping you fuller for longer, says Gorin. Squirrel away a stash of almonds, cashews, peanuts, pistachios, walnuts, and seeds such as pumpkin, flax, and chia. Nut and seed butters deliver the benefits, too.
Tofu and other soy products: Tofu, edamame, and tempeh will give you the protein you might be missing as well as fiber.
Whole grains: Everything made with wheat, rice, oats, corn, farro, barley, and other grains is fair game. Just go for whole grain options whenever possible, since they contain fiber, B vitamins, antioxidants, protein, minerals, and unsaturated fats.
Meat and dairy alternatives: If you find yourself missing the flavor and texture of meat but still want to stay true to your vegetarian goals, you’re in luck! There have never been more plant-based meat options that mimic things like beef, bacon, and chicken. That said, some may be high in sodium and added sugars, says Gorin, so be sure to read the nutrition labels (or use the barcode scanner in the WW app to find foods that work with your Budget). You’ve also got loads of options if you’ve cut out milk products. Store shelves are packed with beverages, yogurts, and cheeses made from soy, oats, almonds, rice, and more.
Tips for eating a more vegetarian diet
It’s one thing to see that there are a lot of foods you can still eat while vegetarian; it’s another to imagine how that will actually play out in your day-to-day life. Here are some simple ways to make your favorite dishes meatless:
- Top your salad with chickpeas or other beans instead of grilled chicken.
- Bulk up rice and noodle bowls with leafy greens.
- Add marinated tofu to your stir-fry instead of beef or pork.
- Grill up a plant-based burger at your next cookout.
- Mix kidney beans into a bolognese-style pasta sauce instead of ground beef.
- Warm up with a bowl of lentil soup instead of chicken noodle.
- Transform Taco Tuesday by filling your tortilla with mushrooms and black beans.
Health benefits of a vegetarian diet
Would breaking up with your butcher be better for your body? It’s possible. Research shows plant-based diets are linked to a lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, and even some cancers, while other research shows diets high in red and processed meats may increase a person’s risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Here's a deeper dive into the science:
- Heart disease: Researchers analyzed data from about 800 middle-aged adults and found that those who followed a diet higher in plant foods and lower in animal foods had a lower risk for developing cardiovascular disease, dying from cardiovascular disease, and dying from any other reason. They also noted that those who consumed a diet higher in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, tea, and coffee and lower in refined carbohydrates and animal foods had a lower risk of dying from either cardiovascular disease or another cause.
- Cancer: While studies haven’t found a direct link between plant-based diets and cancer prevention, there is plenty of science to recommend the eating pattern as a way to reduce your risk. Some vegetables are loaded with cancer-fighting compounds, such as beta-carotene in sweet potatoes, lycopene in tomatoes, and carotenoid in carrots. And then there are cruciferous veggies, like broccoli and cauliflower, which have been shown to reduce your risk for colorectal and lung cancers. And even isoflavones in soy and fiber in fruits, veggies, and whole grains offer up some cancer protection.
- Type 2 diabetes: An analysis of 14 studies found that people who followed vegetarian eating patterns have a 27% lower risk of having diabetes compared with nonvegetarians, with vegans having the lowest odds of diabetes. While the effects may be due to lower body mass index (BMI) of vegetarians (more on that connection below), the researchers believe the increased consumption of risk-reducing foods (whole grains, fruits, veggies, etc.) and decreased consumption of risk-increasing foods (red and processed meats, sugary beverages) play an important protective role.
- Hypertension: An analysis of seven controlled trials showed that people who stopped eating meat (or cut way back on it) for about four months had lower blood pressure than those who didn’t alter their diet.
But here’s the thing: To make the most meaningful impact on your health, you can’t just focus on avoiding certain foods; you need to fill your plate with options that are nutrient-dense, Gorin says. And that’s true whether you go vegetarian or not. Other eating approaches, including the DASH diet and Mediterranean diet, don’t exclude meat completely; they support health by encouraging people to eat a variety of plants and choose leaner choices of protein, like fish and poultry.
Can a vegetarian diet help you lose weight?
A singular goal of dropping pounds might not be the best reason to go meatless—there’s not enough evidence that switching to a vegetarian diet provides a weight-loss advantage over other eating patterns. Avoiding meat doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll consume fewer calories than you burn, which is what needs to happen to lose weight, Gorin says. Some observational studies do show vegetarians generally have lower body weight compared to nonvegetarians, but more conclusive research is needed before this way of eating gets touted as a surefire pathway to a smaller pant size.
What about belly fat?
By the same token, no single diet is proven to zap belly fat, either, so don’t think of banning meat as a magic way to whittle your middle. Some evidence does suggest that limiting higher-fat meats might be helpful: A study of nearly 24,000 adults published in The Journal of Nutrition found that those who ate a diet high in lean protein—like fish, poultry, and beans—had both lower BMIs and smaller waist measurements. Additional ways to reduce belly fat include getting regular physical activity, prioritizing sleep, and managing stress.
Does WW have a vegetarian diet?
While there is no specific vegetarian plan (with WW, everything is on the menu!), the program affords you full freedom in choosing which foods to eat—and which foods you’d rather not. In fact, because so many ZeroPoint™ foods are plant-based, you may find yourself naturally gravitating toward non-meat options throughout the day. From there, it’s simple to use your Budget on vegetarian choices like nuts, seeds, whole grains, and more.
Potential downsides of a vegetarian diet
While animal-based foods definitely aren’t a requirement for a healthy diet, some key nutrients do tend to be more abundant in meat or dairy, Heaner says. It’s all good—you just need to pay a little extra attention to getting the following from other sources.
- Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products and fortified foods, like some breakfast cereals. If you aren’t eating dairy or eggs, both of which have B12 in them, you may want to ask your doctor about popping a multivitamin.
- Calcium is popularly associated with dairy, but vegans can get it in tofu, fortified orange juice, alternative milks, leafy greens like kale, and cruciferous veggies like broccoli.
- Iron can be found in some plant foods like beans, spinach, and raisins. Just note that those contain a form of iron called nonheme, which your body has a harder time absorbing. (Meat is the only source of heme iron, which is much more easily absorbed.) You can give your body a helping hand by pairing iron-containing foods with fare that’s high in vitamin C—for example, spinach salad with strawberries, or black beans with bell peppers.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines, as well as foods fortified with DHA and EPA, such as eggs, milk, and yogurt. But there are plant foods that contain ALA, which is another type of omega-3s Flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and plant oils such as flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil, contain ALA, which your body can convert to EPA and DHA in small amounts.
One other thing to know about going vegetarian is that you may end up eating a lot more fiber, which could make you feel a bit bloated or gassy during the early days. Heaner says that such effects generally go away once the body gets used to all that roughage.
5-day vegetarian meal plan
Ready to dig in? Here are five days’ worth of meatless recipes to get you going. While some include animal products like eggs and cheese, other dishes are purely plant-based. Each day includes a recipe for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack.
The upshot: Should you try a vegetarian diet?
Whether you're ready to quit meat cold turkey or want to dial back your intake, go for it! The health benefits that come from a varied, plant-forward diet, like lower risk for heart disease and other serious conditions, make it a smart choice for many people. That said, don’t feel pressured to ban chicken tenders from your life if you enjoy eating them sometimes. Beyond hitting nutrition benchmarks, a truly healthy diet is one that reflects your personal preferences.
Joanne Van Zuidam is a health journalist and editor based in New Jersey.
This article was reviewed for accuracy in July 2021 by Angela Goscilo, MS, RD, CDN, manager of nutrition at WW. The WW Science Team is a dedicated group of experts who ensure all our solutions are rooted in the best possible research.