Vegetarian diets focus on fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains which usually leads to a higher intake of dietary fiber and reduced intake of saturated fat.
The commonality among all vegetarian diets is that they eliminate meat, poultry, and fish, but there is variation regarding eggs and dairy products.
People who are pre-diabetic, at high risk for heart disease, or those who have hypertension, may especially benefit from a vegetarian diet.
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The vegetarian diet is a popular way of eating thanks to growing research on the health and environmental benefits of reducing meat, as well as concern for animal welfare.
Though the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras was an early proponent of going meatless, humans were probably eating more wild plants than animals for the majority of history, long before the advent of agriculture.
Today, researchers agree that a vegetarian diet can be inherently healthy because it encourages eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and beans — all of which are chock-full of essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients.
Though just because a vegetarian diet is healthy, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an easy diet to start or follow long-term. Especially if you’re used to eating meat multiple times a day.
So if you’re interested in giving vegetarianism a try, here’s a 7-day vegetarian meal plan to try — as well as some additional insight into the benefits and potential drawbacks of this popular diet.
7-day vegetarian meal plan
The commonality among all vegetarian diets is that they eliminate meat, poultry, and fish. However, there is some variation:
Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy but not eggs Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but not dairy Vegans eat neither eggs nor dairy
If you’re just starting a vegetarian diet, registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist Jenna Gorham recommends the following 7-day meal plan. Make sure to adjust portion sizes to your own caloric needs.
Kick off your week with a delicious buddha bowl.
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Breakfast: Whole-grain cereal with berries and oat milk
Lunch: Hearty buddha bowl with whole grains, greens, roasted or raw veggies, and dressing or sauce
Snack: Fruit and veggie smoothie
Dinner: Black bean enchiladas
Overnight oats are an easy, delightful way to start your morning.
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Breakfast: Overnight oats with fresh fruit
Lunch: Avocado toast on whole-wheat bread
Snack: Hummus and crudités
Dinner: Spicy peanut lettuce wraps filled with baked tofu, roasted cauliflower, carrots, cucumbers, and peppers
Kale and squash salad is packed with nutrients like potassium and vitamin K.
Breakfast: Yogurt parfait with berries and grain-free muesli
Lunch: Hummus and veggies in a pita pocket
Snack: Fruit and nut trail mix
Dinner: Kale and squash salad with turmeric dressing
Start your day with some protein-packed tofu scramble.
Breakfast: Tofu scramble with nutritional yeast, veggies, and hot sauce
Lunch: Lentil soup
Snack: Crunchy roasted broad beans
Dinner: Vegetarian lasagna
Black bean burritos are a filling end to the day.
Breakfast: Protein smoothie bowl with fruit and veggies, milled flaxseed, and plant-based protein powder, topped with chopped nuts
Lunch: Falafel platter with tahini sauce and salad
Snack: Sliced apples and peanut butter
Dinner: Black bean burrito
Oat energy bars are a quick energy boost in the middle of the day.
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Breakfast: 2-ingredient banana pancakes made with mashed banana and eggs (add cinnamon and vanilla extract to taste)
Lunch: Veggie burger with a side of baked sweet potato “fries”
Snack: Peanut butter oat-based energy bites with flaxseed and coconut
Dinner: Vegetarian chili
Try stuffing peppers with lentils instead of meat for a filling lunch.
Breakfast: Two sprouted grain frozen waffles with peanut butter and banana
Lunch: Lentil stuffed peppers
Snack: Cashew yogurt
Dinner: Lemon basil pasta with white beans, chopped cherry tomatoes, and garlic
Health benefits of a vegetarian diet
Research suggests that there are numerous advantages to going vegetarian.
“Vegetarians tend to eat less saturated fat and cholesterol, and more Vitamins C and E, folic acid, dietary fiber, potassium, magnesium, and phytochemicals,” says Michelle Zive, a registered dietitian and NASM-certified nutrition coach.
“This means vegetarians are more likely to have lower total and bad cholesterol, blood pressure, and body mass index, all of which are associated with longevity and a decreased risk for many chronic diseases,” says Zive.
Studies have shown that vegetarians tend to have an overall better quality diet, and a higher intake of key nutrients like fiber, vitamin C, vitamin E, and magnesium.
Here are just some of the specific benefits that can come from going meatless.
Improved heart health
Multiple studies have shown that going vegetarian may protect your heart by simultaneously lowering your LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels, as well as your blood pressure.
Most notably, a 2012 review found that following a vegetarian diet was associated with a reduced risk of
which may, in part, be due to what a 2014 review found: Vegetarian diets were associated with lower blood pressure.
Weight loss and maintenance
Studies show that vegetarians have a lower BMI than meat-eaters and, when combined with a calorie-restricted plan, a vegetarian diet can lead to more weight loss than those which include meat.
One of the reasons why vegetarianism may result in weight loss is that vegetables, whole grains, fruits, legumes, beans, and other staples of this diet are high in fiber, which can help keep you feeling full for longer. These staples are also usually lower in calories per serving than fatty meat and dairy products.
However, Zive says that vegetarianism does not necessarily guarantee weight loss.
“Nuts, seeds, cheese, and dairy are all high in calories since they are high in fat,” she says. “The key is to watch portion sizes, and in the case of eating dairy, look for low-fat and nonfat options. But watch out for low-fat options that are high in sugar.”
Chronic inflammation has been linked to symptoms like weight gain, joint pain, muscle aches, fatigue, and GI issues, as well as an increased risk of cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
According to Gorham, a vegetarian diet can help to decrease inflammation as it often results in a higher intake of anti-inflammatory foods, such as green leafy vegetables, berries, and nuts, and lower consumption of inflammatory foods like red and processed meats which are high in saturated fat. A 2017 review found that following a vegetarian diet for at least two years was associated with less inflammation, however this finding is still only beneficial in theory and requires further direct research.
Reduced risk of certain diseases
In addition to potentially warding off heart disease, research has shown that vegetarian diets are also associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes — likely because this diet can help to stabilize your blood sugar.
Current research on the link between vegetarianism and cancer is limited to observational studies, so scientists have yet to prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the two. Still, some research has indicated that vegetarian diets may be related to a lower risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and stomach cancer.
Disadvantages of a vegetarian diet
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According to Gorham, the main potential drawback to this diet is that vegetarians may be prone to some nutritional deficiencies, since vitamin D, iron, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids tend to be more available in animal products, and the only source of B12 is from animal products. Fortunately, there are vegetarian food sources of omega-3 fatty acids — such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans.
Aside from fortified cereals, experts advise adding vitamin B12 to your diet through fortified nut milk and nutritional yeast. Egg yolks, mushrooms, fortified milk, cereal, and orange juice are all excellent sources of vitamin D.
Zive also says that some vegetarians should particularly avoid depending on processed foods which can be high in fat, sodium, and sugar, and may be linked to a higher risk of cancer.
Nearly anyone can benefit from a vegetarian diet because the focus on fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains means a higher intake of dietary fiber, and usually a reduced intake of saturated fat.
Gorham says folks who are pre-diabetic, at high risk for heart disease, or those who have hypertension may especially benefit from a vegetarian diet since it can help to control blood sugar and improve blood pressure.
While a vegetarian diet is considered healthy for most people, it’s important to eat a wide variety of produce, legumes, and grains to minimize your risk of any nutritional deficiencies — and opt for fortified foods when necessary, particularly if you’re eliminating eggs or dairy products.
In order to reap the most rewards from this diet, experts caution against eating a lot of highly processed foods and advise choosing whole foods whenever possible.
“Before starting any new diet or eating pattern, consult with your registered dietitian or healthcare professional so they can look at your individual nutrition needs and make recommendations that fit for you,” adds Gorham.