A Vegetarian Diet

by Traci Kaufman, R.D.


Eating Vegetarian

The vegetarian diet is designed to maintain or attain optimal nutrition for persons who choose to follow a vegetarian life style.

The vegetarian diet may be used by any person who chooses to follow it for religious preferences, health concerns, environmental considerations, humanitarian issues, economic or political reasons.

Diet Site

Types of Vegetarianism

  • Vegan (total vegetarian diet): Excludes all meats, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, cheeses, and all other foods containing animal products. Diet is based on grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian diet: Excludes meat and usually fish. Diet is based on grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, eggs and dairy products.
  • Lacto vegetarian diet: Excludes meat, fish, and eggs. Diet is based on grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and dairy products. (Vegan diet including dairy products)
  • Ovo-vegetarian diet: Excludes the use of all meats, fish, poultry, milk, cheeses, and all other foods containing animal products. Diet is based on grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, eggs, nuts and seeds. (Vegan diet including eggs)
  • Pesco vegetarian diet: Excludes meat. Diet is based on grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, eggs, dairy products and fish. (Lacto-ovo vegetarian regime including fish)
  • Semi-vegetarian diet: Excludes only red meat. Diet is based on grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, eggs, dairy products, chicken and fish.
  • Fruitarians: Diet based on fruits and vegetables that are botanically considered fruits. Only plants that spread their seeds through being consumed are eaten.

Protein In the Vegetarian Diet

The selection of foods for a vegetarian diet must take into consideration daily needs for all nine (10 for children) essential amino acids (protein quality), as well as total protein quantity. Amino acids are used for tissue growth; repair and maintenance in the body. They must be obtained from the foods you consume each day, as your body cannot synthesize them. There are complete and incomplete proteins as follows:

Complete protein: A single source of animal (flesh, egg or dairy) protein containing all the essential amino acids or proper combination of complementary protein sources

Incomplete protein: Plant and vegetable proteins (foods listed at bottom of the page)

The complete and incomplete proteins do not need to be consumed at the same meal as believed. Intake of a variety of foods over the course of a day should provide adequate protein.


Breads & Grains6-11 servings each day

  • Whole-grain and enriched breads, bagels, rolls, buns, crackers, such as rye, mixed grain, pumpernickel (1 slice or 1 oz/serving)
  • Whole-grain or enriched ready-to-eat cereals (1/2 cup/serving)
  • Whole-grain or enriched cooked cereals like oatmeal, muesli, grits, barley, bulgur, quinoa, millet and farina (1/2 cup/serving)
  • Whole-grain pasta (1/2 cup/serving)
  • Corn, flour or whole wheat tortillas (1/serving)
  • Rice, brown, white, and others (1/2 cup/serving)
  • Wheat germ and bran
  • Pita pockets (1/2 cup/serving)
  • Enriched pastas, such as linguini, spaghetti, macaroni, and couscous (1/2 cup/serving)
  • Pancakes, waffles (1/2 cup/serving)
  • Pretzels (soft and hard), breadsticks, rice cakes (1 ounce/serving)
  • Popcorn

Milk & Dairy2-3 servings each day

  • Low-fat or nonfat plain yogurt, dairy or nondairy (1 cup/serving)
  • Milk and milk products, dairy or nondairy (1 cup/serving)
  • Regular or low-fat cheese and cottage cheese, dairy or nondairy (1-1/2 ounce /serving)

Vegetables4-5 servings each day

  • All canned, fresh, and frozen vegetables (1/2 cup/serving if cooked, 1 cup/serving if raw)
  • Red and green peppers, bok choy, spinach, leaf lettuce, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, cabbage and chard, asparagus and kale, Brussels sprouts, iceberg lettuce, sweet potato, tomato snow peas, zucchini, okra, winter squash, green beans, beets, cucumber, celery, jicama, artichoke, peas, mushrooms, eggplant, corn, avocado, potato
  • Bean sprouts, onion, rhubarb, rutabaga, sauerkraut, turnips mustard greens, romaine, turnip, greens (fit these fruits in the order of their nutrition content)
  • All vegetable juices, unsweetened (3/4 cup/serving)
  • Tomato and pesto sauces

Fruit3-4 servings each day

  • All canned, jarred, fresh, dried, and frozen fruit, unsweetened (1 medium size fruit/serving, 1/4 cup dried fruit/serving, 1/2 cup canned, frozen or cooked fruit/serving)
  • Papaya, strawberries, kiwi, orange, grapefruit, cantaloupe, mandarin oranges, mango, honeydew, raspberries, apricots, rhubarb, pineapple, watermelon, blueberries, peach, banana, plum, cherries, pear, apple, dried fruit, grapes, raisins, tangerine, nectarine, persimmon, blackberries
  • All fruit juices and nectars (3/4 cup/serving)
  • Juice bars
  • Fruit smoothies

Nuts, Seeds & Legumes & Meat Substitutes
2-3 servings or a total of 5-7 ounces each day

  • Pumpkin, fignolia, pinon, sunflower, sesame seeds (2 Tablespoons/serving)
  • Peanuts, cashews, coconut, macadamia, walnuts, pistachio, brazil, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans (2 Tablespoons/serving)
  • Legumes, canned, dried, or dried mixes such as black beans, pintos, refried beans, falafel, cannellini, and hummus ( mashed chickpeas) (2 Tablespoons/serving)
  • Nut or seed spreads such as peanut butter, almond butter, sesame spread (tahini) (2 Tablespoons /serving)
  • Soy milk (1 cup/serving)
  • Textured soy protein
  • Soy protein patties and sausages (3 ounces/serving)
  • Tofu and tempeh (8 ounces/serving)
  • Egg, egg whites, or egg substitutes (1 egg, 2 egg whites, 1/4 cup substitute/serving)

Fats & Snacksuse sparinglyr

  • Vegetable oils, margarine, butter, salad dressings, mayonnaise
  • Vegetarian gravy and sauce mixes
  • Sugar, jam, jelly, molasses, honey, and other sweeteners


  • Vegetarian soups
  • Frozen vegetarian entrees
  • Canned vegetarian dishes
  • Canned vegetable broth and broth mix
  • Herbs and spices
  • Vinegar, plain and flavored
  • Sauces, such as soy sauce, teriyaki, salsa, and chutney

General Dietary Recommendations
For A Vegetarian Diet

The following are guidelines to keep in mind when eating a vegetarian diet.

Sufficient calories from carbohydrates and fat sources should be obtained so that protein may be used for body maintenance and growth.

To meet the daily protein need the following proportions from each food group should be obtained:

  • 60% from grains
  • 35% from legumes
  • 5% from leafy greens
  • Variety in selection from food groups (legumes, whole grains, cereals, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables) is necessary.
  • Research now suggests that complementary proteins (legumes and grains, grains and nuts, or legumes and nuts) do not need to be consumed at the same meal. Intake of a variety of foods over the course of a day should provide adequate protein.
  • Vegan diets tend to be high in folate, which may mask deficiencies of vitamin B12. Reduced levels of vitamin B12 may cause a severe form of anemia; therefore, periodic evaluations (approx. every 6 months) of blood proteins, hematocrit and folate levels is recommended.
  • Supplementation of vitamin B-12 or vitamin B-12 fortified foods is suggested for vegetarians who avoid or limit animal foods. (Vitamin B-12 present in spirulina, algae, sea vegetables, tempeh and miso is not in the form that the human body can use).
  • The vegetarian diet contains a lot of fiber and may require a great deal of food to meet the calorie requirements. To help meet this need, oils, margarines, and sweeteners may be included.
  • Supplementation of vitamin D or vitamin D fortified foods (some breakfast cereals and soy beverages are fortified with vitamin D) is suggested for vegetarians who avoid or limit milk and if sun exposure is limited. (Sun exposure to hands, arms, and face for 5-15 minutes a day is believed to be adequate to provide sufficient amounts of vitamin D). Talk to your doctor or registered dietitian about vitamin D supplementation. Be sure the supplement supplies no more than 100% of the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for vitamin D/day. Large doses can be dangerous.
  • A high intake of vitamin C will help increase iron absorption
  • If animal protein sources such as dairy foods and eggs are included in the diet, choose lower-fat versions of these foods.
  • Choose whole, unrefined foods often and try decreasing intake of highly sweetened, fatty, and heavily refined foods.
  • It is recommended that vegetarians include good sources of linolenic acid in their diet.
  • Vegetarians should strive to meet the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for iron, calcium, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin B-12 and folate.

Remember, well-planned vegan and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of life, including pregnancy and lactation.


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Traci Kaufman, Registered Dietitian, received her bachelor's degree in dietetics and nutrition from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has worked as a clinical nutritionist at UCI Medical Center-Irvine in Orange California, and served as team nutritionist for the Los Angeles Rams. Traci is an active member of the American Dietetic Association and two Dietetic Practice Groups: Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutritionist (SCAN), and Dietitians in General Clinical Practice. Traci resides in Southern California.


This page created 1999

This page modified October 2006

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