8 Nutrition Tips for Vegetarians or Want-to-be Vegetarians from Registered NYC Dietitian


Not too long ago, vegetarianism was considered a radical choice. We’ve all had family members – mostly grandmothers and great grandmothers – who balked at the idea of becoming vegetarian. Some of my clients have shared how defensive others get when they mention they’re a vegetarian, as if their food choices were a challenge to family tradition. It’s not uncommon, especially in smaller cities or more rural areas, for vegetarians to struggle.

People choose to be vegetarian for many different reasons: moral decisions about not wanting to harm animals or the environment, health reasons, food intolerance issues, religious or cultural reasons, among others. Whatever the reason, the lack of support from family and friends, and even a lack of support from establishments (schools, the workplace, local restaurants and supermarkets) make the choice to become vegetarian challenging. Luckily, we’ve made a lot of headway. Going “veg” isn’t as radical as it was once considered. 

Not all vegetarians are the same. Vegans are people who don’t use or ingest any animal products – not even wearing silk or leather, or eating honey. Lacto-vegetarians include dairy products in their diets. Lacto-ovo vegetarians include dairy products and eggs in their diets. And finally pesco-vegetarians include fish in their diets.

There’s so much misinformation about what being a vegetarian is and how vegetarians receive adequate nutrition – from what seems like a very complicated diet. But I’d argue that everyone has challenges to meet dietary recommendations. They’re just different for vegetarians and meat eaters.

October 1 is World Vegetarian Day, and in October we celebrate Vegetarian Awareness Month. Whether you’re a vegetarian or are considering moving toward a vegetarian diet, there are some nutritional challenges you need to be aware of. Here are 7 nutrition tips for vegetarians or want-to-be vegetarians.

  1. Know why you want to make this choice. If it’s to lose weight in order to avoid certain foods, it might not be the best route. Vegetarianism shouldn’t be considered a crash diet. 
  2. Change from an animal-based diet to vegetarian diet slowly
    1. Cut red meats out of your diet first. 
    2. Try one new recipe each week. 
    3. Start experimenting with vegetable-based proteins (beans, lentils, chick-peas) in your sauces and soups.
    4. Take a cooking class or get some books out of the libraries. Being a vegetarian in such a meat-centered community takes extra study to insure you get the nutrients you need.
  3. Make a list. What do you usually eat for meals and snacks? Now, investigate healthy vegetable-based substitutes for the meat products in your list.peanutbutter
  4. Protein, protein, protein matters. One of a vegetarian’s biggest challenges is getting enough protein. A complete protein provides the eight essential amino acids (nine in children) our bodies need every day. Proteins create the nuts and bolts (amino acids) of every cell in our body that are necessary for almost all biological processes. There are some phenomenal plant-based complete proteins: soy beans and tofu, hemp, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat and micro algae.  Incomplete proteins in plant foods can be mixed together to create a complete protein. Grains, cereals, nuts, or seeds can be combined with dried beans, peas, lentils, peanuts or peanut butter. And you don’t even have to eat them together … at the same time. The proteins from these foods go into the protein pool in our bodies where all the amino acids combine as needed throughout the day. Biology is phenomenal.
  5. B12, calcium, iron and fatty acids are must-haves for good nutrition. These nutrients are found in dairy products and meats. Vegans, especially, are at risk for not getting their fair-share of B12 and might need a nutritional supplement or nutritional yeast. Many plant foods, such as tofu, dark leafy greens and some legumes, are excellent sources of calcium. Some foods are fortified with these nutrients, so be on the look out!garbanzos.dish
  6. Take soy off the black list!  Soy is a great source of protein, good fats, calcium, and iron (see above). You can use Tofu (extra firm) in pasta sauces and vegetarian chili recipes. Add soybeans to salads and soups.  Use soy beverages (unsweetened) for pancakes, oatmeal, and smoothies. That said there is good research out there to support that isolate soy protein is problematic. It is processed and added to foods. Read the labels.
  7. Vegetarian processed foods are still processed foods. I call them Frankenstein foods, those foods that have a long list of unpronounceable ingredients. The market abounds with “veggie burgers”, fake chicken, and other products that pass themselves off as the veggie version of the meat. These products are often jam-packed with sodium and aren’t healthy options.
  8. Get an appointment with a registered dietitian to support you and help you create a meal plan that gives you the adequate calories and nutrients you need. This is especially important if you’re transitioning from a meat-based diet to a vegetarian diet.

Now there are many Websites and organizations that support vegetarians with tips and recipes. Thug kitchen is funny, irreverent, and is like tough biker gang goes vegan. Other useful websites are the Mayo Clinic’s vegetarian diet pyramid, and the Vegetarian Resource Group. 

The more you know, research, and learn about vegetarianism, the less restricted you will feel. This will help you on your road to becoming, or continuing to be, a vegetarian.