FAQs About Vegetarian Nutrition

We’re answering your most frequently asked questions about adopting a vegetarian diet, and meeting your nutrient requirements.

1. What are the health benefits of a vegetarian diet?

Vegetarian diets are lower in saturated fats, cholesterol, and animal protein than omnivorous diets. They’re also high in folate, antioxidant vitamins like Vitamin C and E, carotenoids, and phytochemicals. Overall, vegetarians have a substantially reduced risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus, osteoporosis, and some forms of cancer – particularly lung cancer and colon cancer. Vegetarian diets that are low in saturated fat have been successfully used to reverse severe coronary artery disease. (1)

2. What are the different types of vegetarianism?

There are 6 main types:

  • Semi-vegetarian: diet includes dairy foods, eggs, chicken, and fish, but no other animal flesh.
  • Pesco-vegetarian: diet includes dairy foods, eggs, and fish, but no other animal flesh.
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: diet includes dairy foods and eggs, but no animal flesh.
  • Lacto-vegetarian: diet includes dairy foods, but no animal flesh or eggs.
  • Ovo-vegetarian: diet includes eggs, but no dairy foods or animal flesh.
  • Vegan: diet includes no animal foods of any type.

3. Are vegetarian diets always healthy?

Not always. If, as a vegetarian, you choose to replace meat with high-fat cheeses and oils, you’re not improving your health much. It’s also important to remember there’s no meat in ice cream, potato chips, and fudge brownies – these can still be included in a vegetarian diet. It’s certainly possible to be a vegetarian and still consume large quantities of these high-fat empty calories.

Vegetarian or not, a healthy diet is low in cholesterol and saturated fats, and is based around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Eliminating meat doesn’t automatically make for a healthy diet.

4. Is it possible to get enough protein on a vegetarian diet?

Absolutely, it’s actually difficult to become protein-deficient unless you quit eating altogether. Almost all unrefined foods contain significant amounts of protein. Potatoes are 11% protein, oranges are 8%, beans are 26%, and tofu 34%. In fact, a study found infants grew at astounding rates (doubling their body size in only six months) on a diet consisting of only 5% protein during their first 6 months of life, fuelled by breast milk which contains just 5% protein. (2)

5. If I switch to a vegetarian diet, won’t I have to eat more dairy products?

Many people choose to increase the amount of dairy products in their diet when they eliminate flesh foods, but this is both unnecessary and potentially unhealthy. You can obtain all necessary nutrients when following a completely vegetarian diet (no meat, dairy products or eggs). The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine recently called for a New Four Food Groups (whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes) which classifies meat and dairy products as optional, not necessary.

6. What’s the difference between complete and incomplete proteins?

Animal proteins contain all nine of the essential amino acids, so these are referred to as a “complete” protein. The nine essential amino acids can also be found in plant proteins, however no single plant source contains all nine.

Therefore, plant protein is often referred to as an “incomplete” source of protein. It was previously believed that vegetarians had to carefully combine plant protein sources in each meal to obtain all nine essential amino acids. However, studies have shown the human body can store essential amino acids and combine them as necessary. So, while combining beans and rice, or peanut butter and bread produces a complete protein, it’s not necessary to consciously do this at every meal. If you eat a varied diet and consume adequate calories, combining proteins is not an issue. (2)

7. A vegetarian diet may be okay for adults, but is it a safe way to raise children?

A vegetarian diet provides more than ample nutrition for children, and may actually help protect them from some illnesses, including those caused by pesticides and contaminants in foods. Vegetables and grains are lower on the food chain and so contain far less pesticides and contaminants than animal products.

Parents should make sure children eat enough calories (from unrefined, whole foods, NOT junk foods). It’s wise to include some fats (avocados, nuts, seeds, and nut and seed butters) and dried fruits to add calories to their diets. All vegetarians, including children, should eat a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

8. Will I be getting enough protein if I don’t eat meat? Isn’t it tricky to make sure you’re getting enough of the various amino acids?

As long as you’re eating adequate calories to meet your energy needs, and have a reasonably varied diet, getting enough protein isn’t a concern.

In fact, the only ways to guarantee a protein deficiency on a vegetarian diet would be to consistently consume too few calories to maintain a normal weight, eat only foods which contain below 10% protein (certain fruits and refined oils), or eat exclusively junk food.

For most people the problem is consuming far too much protein, which is linked to a number of conditions, including osteoporosis, obesity, liver disease and kidney failure. Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are found in all plants, including all nine essential amino acids humans can only obtain from food.

Vegetarian foods highest in overall protein content include legumes or pulses (dried beans and peas), some soy products (tofu, tempeh, meat analogs), eggs and dairy products (for those who consume them), and some nuts. While it was once thought that “complementary” proteins, or proteins containing different essential amino acids, had to be eaten within the same meal to ensure a balance of amino acids, it’s now understood that this isn’t necessary. Your body can store amino acids in anticipation of receiving the others at a later time, forming “complete” proteins across different meals.

9. What are some of the changes I can expect if I adopt a vegetarian diet?

  • You may eat more food, because you’re eating less fat, and therefore less calorie-dense food. Meat, the leading source of fat in the western diet, contains no fibre and is high in calories. So relax, while you may be eating more, it’s bulky, lower calorie food than meat.
  • You may lose weight. Vegetarian foods often contain less fat and calories.
  • You may be less constipated. People who follow a typical western diet may be constipated without realising. Making the switch to a healthier, high-fibre vegetarian diet can lead to more regular bowel movements.
  • Most new vegetarians report feeling great! Some say they’ve never felt better. For some, there is a brief adjustment period where they may feel weak or tired. This should pass quickly if you’re eating a varied diet comprised of unrefined foods. Meat acts as a stimulant, and you may experience withdrawals, like someone who’s given up coffee. This should pass within a few days to a month. Most people don’t experience this adjustment at all, and others find after they adjust they have more energy and feel better than ever.
  • You’ll be embarking on an exciting journey! Get ready to enjoy a wide variety of new foods. Some vegetarians enjoy the many meat substitutes available, especially in the beginning. You may want to try tofu “hot dogs” or soy burgers, for example. Others find the meat-like texture unpleasant. You’ll undoubtedly find your favourite vegetarian foods after you’ve had a chance to experiment. Enjoy the experience!

10.  Why do vegetarians sometimes seem to eat more, and yet aren’t overweight?

Some vegetarians do gain weight, but most maintain a stable weight even if they’re eating a greater volume of food than meat-eaters. The reasons for this are simple. Meat and dairy products are calorie-dense, and most of those calories come from protein and fats. Vegetable foods contain far fewer calories for the same quantity of food, with their calories coming primarily from carbohydrates. Calories are not created equal. Dietary fat tends to be converted into body fat more readily than carbohydrates. People can eat more calories without gaining weight if those calories come primarily from carbohydrates.


(1) “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, November 1997, Volume 97, Number 11.

(2) McDougall, John, M.D., The McDougall Programme, 1990, pp. 44-45.

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