The Biggest Benefits (and Most Common Mistakes!) of a Vegetarian Diet

published Jan 24, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

You’re probably familiar with the vegetarian diet in some form or another. Unlike some of the newer diets like Paleo, Whole30, and Keto, vegetarianism has been around for a very long time — since the 7th century B.C. But while its basic tenets are clear — the vegetarian diet eschews meat in favor of plant-based foods — people choose to follow the diet for a number of different reasons and there are actually several different kinds of vegetarian diet.

Here’s what you need to know about the four main vegetarian diets, their biggest benefits, and some common mistakes to avoid.

What are the four vegetarian diets — and what do you eat? 

Here are the four types of vegetarian diets:

  1. Lacto-ovo-vegetarian, which includes eggs and dairy.
  2. Ovo-vegetarian, which includes eggs and egg products, but no dairy.
  3. Lacto-vegetarian, which includes dairy, but no eggs or egg products. 
  4. Vegan, which includes no eggs, dairy, or animal products of any kind. Read more about the vegan diet here.

“The most popular is lacto-ovo,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN author of The Flexitarian Diet and The Superfood Swap. “They drink milk and eat eggs, but don’t eat meat, poultry, or fish.”

The common denominator, though, is a plant-based way of eating — meaning a diet composed primarily of plants like fruits and vegetables, but also nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, and beans. 

What do you avoid on a vegetarian diet? 

Regardless of what type of vegetarian diet you choose to follow, all vegetarians avoid consuming meat, poultry, and fish. (Those who eat fish, but not meat or poultry are called pescatarians.) Vegetarians whose reasons include animal welfare also sometimes choose to avoid other animal products, such as leather goods, certain perfumes and beauty products, and more, though not every vegetarian does this.

What are the health benefits of a vegetarian diet?

Though it is certainly possible to be vegetarian and eat poorly (both cheese pizza and potato chips are vegetarian), the diet does, in general, tend to be a healthy. This is especially true for vegetarians who eat mostly whole fruits, fresh vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. Plant-based foods are naturally lower in calories than animal foods, and they’re also full of health-promoting and inflammation-fighting phytochemicals. Plus, avoiding foods like red meat and processed meat could help avoid cancer — the World Health Organization lists both as “probably carcinogenic.”

Here are four specific health benefits of a vegetarian diet. 

  1. Weight loss. People who use a vegetarian diet to lose weight are not only more successful at losing weight, but they also have better luck keeping that lost weight off. A handful of well-respected studies have found that vegetarians are less likely to be overweight or obese, and tend to have lower BMIs, compared to omnivores.
  2. A healthier heart. Vegetarian diets are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Eating a vegetarian diet can also improve other risk factors for heart disease, like lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol and lowering inflammation, which encourages plaque buildup in your arteries).
  3. A lower diabetes risk. Eating a vegetarian diet lowers your risk of diabetes—no matter what your BMI is. Plus, people who eat a plant-based diet are more insulin-sensitive, says newer research. 
  4. Better nutrition. Research shows that people’s overall nutrition is usually better when they follow a vegetarian or vegan diet versus when they eat an omnivorous diet. Plus, most of us don’t eat the daily recommended produce amounts, so making your diet mostly, or exclusively, plant-based will help you reach those targets. 

Are there any drawbacks to eating a vegetarian diet?

It’s not terribly difficult to meet your nutritional needs on a vegetarian diet — despite what you may have heard. The key, however, is to be mindful of where you could be deficient and plan accordingly. For some, adding fortified and processed foods, such as nondairy beverages and fortified cereals, to an otherwise whole plant food-focused diet can help to bridge those nutrient gaps. Nutrients to pay attention to include omega-3 fats, iron, vitamin B12 — and if you’re not eating dairy, add vitamin D and calcium to the list.

Some worry that vegetarians don’t get enough protein, but research shows that a vegetarian diet can easily meet — even exceed — a person’s protein requirements. That said, if you think you might be falling short on protein: “Look to see that each meal and snack has a source of plant-protein. It’s a good mental habit to get into!” says Blatner. 

There are common mistakes that people make on a vegetarian diet, especially if they’re new to eating this way. “I’ve seen many vegetarian mistakes,” says Blatner. Here are the top three she sees regularly, and how to avoid them. 

Mistake #1: The Cheesy-Carb Overload

Being vegetarian doesn’t mean ditching meat and living off of beige carbs & cheese (think: mac and cheese, pasta and cheese, crackers and cheese, sandwiches with cheese).

Fix: Make sure each meal has balance by making 50% colorful vegetables, 25% whole grains or starchy vegetable, like potato, and 25% plant protein.

Mistake #2: Getting Meat-Substitute Obsessed

Eating a healthy vegetarian diet doesn’t mean just cooking up boxes of fake chicken nuggets and veggie burgers. Though meat substitutes can have a place, the real health value of the diet comes from eating more actual vegetables.

Fix: It’s important to include whole sources of protein as well, like beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. 

Mistake #3: A Boring Lack of Diversity

A healthy vegetarian diet doesn’t come from eating plain steamed veggies, either. If your meals go from a meat and two sides, to just the two sides, neither your body nor your taste buds will be happy. 

Fix: Experiment with veggie-versions of your meat-based favorites and try out new flavors. Black bean tacos anyone?

Your turn: Are you a vegetarian or have you tried a vegetarian diet? Which version, and what was your experience? Tell us in the comments below.