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Vegetarian diets

Different salads and snacks on the wooden table.

Vegetarian diets may lead to lower blood pressure, improved cholesterol levels, healthier weight and less incidence of Type 2 Diabetes, all of which can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

A vegetarian diet consists of eating plant-based foods while avoiding meat. 

A vegan diet is different from a vegetarian diet because it avoids all animal products and byproducts. This means removing all dairy and eggs from your diet. Some people may choose to exclude things like honey and gelatin as well.

Vegetarian and vegan diets can provide all the nutrients you need at any age, as well as some additional health benefits. Vegetarian diets often have lower levels of total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than many meat-based diets, and higher intakes of fibre, magnesium, potassium, folate and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E. 

A vegetarian eating plan can provide all the nutrients you need but requires careful planning.

We recommend that you: 

  • Fill half your plate with vegetables and fruit.
  • Fill a quarter of your plate with whole grains.
  • Fill a quarter of your plate with plant proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu.
  • Include a small amount of unsaturated fat each day.
  • Satisfy your thirst with water.

A vegetarian or vegan diet requires planning to meet your nutrient needs. Here are the nutrients that require some special attention.

 

Protein

Plant-based foods can provide all the protein you need. Protein-rich plant foods include:

  • All soy products such as tofu, tempeh and beverages
  • Cooked beans, peas and lentils
  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Most nuts and seeds

It is no longer necessary to combine proteins for example, beans with grains, in the same meal in order to maximize protein absorption. Other protein options include eggs (also rich in zinc and iron) and milk (high in zinc). Whole grains such as quinoa also provide some protein and are great sources of minerals.

Iron

Vegetarians and vegans are at no more risk of iron deficiency than meat eaters. While the version of iron found in meat (heme-iron) is more readily absorbed than the non-heme iron found in plant sources, absorption can be enhanced by combining non-heme iron options with foods high in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli or berries. Good plant sources of iron include dark green leafy vegetables, dried beans or legumes, iron-enriched products (check labels), nutritional yeast and dried fruit. An example may be a romaine lettuce salad with mandarin oranges. See more heart-healthy vegetarian recipes.

Calcium and vitamin D

Calcium is important for strong bones and vitamin D is necessary for your body to be able to absorb calcium. Dairy products, almonds, sesame seeds, dark-green vegetables (such as broccoli, bok choy and kale), and black strap molasses contain calcium. Other products are fortified with calcium, including soy, almond and rice beverages and tofu (check the ingredients).

Vitamin D is often added to milk and some yogurt, soy, almond and rice beverages, and fortified margarine. While sunlight allows us to produce our own vitamin D through our skin, it is typically not sufficient during Canadian winters. As a result, these supplemented sources are important, especially for babies, children and older adults. We recommend for men and women over 50 years of age to take a daily supplement of Vitamin D of 400 IU.

Vitamin B 12

This vitamin is necessary for cell division and blood formation. It can be found in fortified cereals, soy and rice beverages, and some types of nutritional yeast. It's important to read labels to ensure you are getting enough B 12. If you are vegetarian or vegan, consult your health professional about a B 12 supplement if you are not sure you're getting enough from your diet.

Related information

You don't have to be a vegetarian to reap the health benefits from eating more plant foods and less meat. Try these mouth-watering vegetarian recipes.

Get tips for eating at home.

Make smarter shopping choices with our grocery store basics.

Read the Dietitians of Canada’s healthy eating guidelines for vegans.

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