One of humanity’s biggest mysteries is the Bermuda Triangle. Another one is: “What the heck do vegetarians eat?” (Hint: It’s not just lettuce.)
Whether you’ve been trying to transition to a plant-based diet or you’re just wondering what your friend’s new diet means, we’re here to tell you what’s on the menu.
Here’s a breakdown of the six main kinds of vegetarian diets.
Types of vegetarians
A vegetarian diet involves cutting out meat, typically for ethical or health reasons. The main types of vegetarian diets are:
- flexitarian (or semivegetarian)
- raw vegan
Eat: whole grains, veggies, fruits, legumes, nuts, sometimes meat, poultry, and fish
Skip: may avoid ultra-processed foods like processed meats and fast food
A flexitarian (aka semivegetarian) is someone who hasn’t yet gone 100 percent meat-free. They mostly eat vegetarian food but will indulge in meat on occasion. If you don’t feel ready to commit to a strict vegetarian diet yet, this can be a great stepping-stone.
Unlike more restrictive vegetarian diets, such as vegan diets, a well-planned semivegetarian diet can include all the nutrients your body needs, lowering the chances of nutrient insufficiencies or deficiencies.
Plus, research suggests nutrient-dense vegetarian lifestyles — including the flexitarian diet — are associated with better heart health! ❤️️
Eat: fish, shellfish, dairy, eggs, whole grains, veggies, fruits, legumes
Skip: mammal meat, poultry
Pescatarians don’t eat red meat or poultry… but they do eat fish! They can also choose to eat crustaceans, mollusks, or other seafood 🦞. Some pescatarians also abstain from eating eggs or other land-animal byproducts.
Eating a pescatarian diet might help you keep your nutrient levels in a healthy range. A diet rich in seafood can be a great source of nutrients that tend to be low in strict vegetarian diets. such as:
- omega-3 fatty acids
- vitamin B12
Another bonus, according to a 2018 study, is that this diet might reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes more than a diet that includes meat.
Keep in mind: Eating a ton of fish (especially larger species) can increase your risk of developing high mercury levels. If you’re preggo or breastfeeding, be sure to stick to lower-mercury fish like salmon.
Eat: eggs, dairy, whole grains, veggies, fruits, legumes, nuts
Skip: meat, poultry, fish, seafood
When you think of a vegetarian, you’re prob thinking of a lacto-ovo-vegetarian. This is someone who doesn’t eat meat, fish, or poultry but DOES eat dairy products and eggs.
You can also be a lacto-vegetarian (eating dairy but not eggs) or an ovo-vegetarian (eating eggs but not dairy).
Balance is a key part of the lacto-ovo-vegetarian lifestyle. To make up for the missing meat, make sure your diet is full of:
- iron: legumes, tofu, tempeh
- vitamin D: fortified cereals, milk
- protein: soy products, beans, dairy, eggs
- vitamin B12: nutritional yeast, eggs, fortified foods
Although some foods are good sources of these nutrients, people following restrictive diets, including vegetarian diets that avoid animal protein, may need to take dietary supplements to ensure their bodies are getting optimal nutrition.
Eat: plant-based foods (whole grains, veggies, fruits, legumes, nuts)
Skip: any animal products or byproducts (including honey, dairy, and gelatin)
Unlike lacto-ovo-vegetarians, vegans don’t eat any animal products. This includes animal byproducts like gelatin and honey.
The term “vegan” usually refers to more than a person’s diet. A vegan lifestyle also means you don’t buy clothes made from animal products (like leather, silk, and wool) or beauty products with animal-derived ingredients (like beeswax).
Research suggests a vegan diet can have multiple health benefits, including:
- reduced risk of heart disease
- reduced risk of certain cancers
- possibly reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes
- possible weight loss
PSA: Make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need. Try to eat lots of foods high in iron, vitamin D, calcium, and B12. You also can opt to take vegan vitamin supplements.
Vegan diets are often deficient in many nutrients, including B12, iron, zinc, omega-3s, and more.
If you’re following a vegan diet, it’s a good idea to work with a registered dietitian to optimize your diet for nutrients. It’s also important to talk with a doctor to determine which dietary supplements you might need to take to reduce your risk of developing nutrient insufficiencies or deficiencies.
Eat: raw plant-based foods
Skip: any animal byproducts and vegan foods heated above 115°F
This diet is restrictive AF, but some people swear by it. You can eat only vegan foods that haven’t been heated above 115°F. The idea is that fruits and veggies have more nutritional value when raw than when cooked.
In general, a well-planned raw vegan diet can be considered safe. But many doctors don’t recommend it due to its unnecessarily restrictive rules and the high risk of deficiency of multiple nutrients, including:
- vitamin D
- vitamin B12
Keep in mind that raw fruits and veggies can carry harmful bacteria. To avoid food poisoning, be sure to wash them before eating.
Eat: whole grains, seasonal vegetables, legumes, nuts, seaweed, wild fish
Skip: meat, poultry, any processed foods
In addition to the main types of vegetarian diets, there are other plant-based eating patterns, such as the macrobiotic diet. This eating pattern doesn’t always fully exclude animal products, but it does focus on plant-based options.
This diet was hella popular in the ’70s (and with good reason!). The macrobiotic diet is still revered for its health benefits.
Some folks argue that macrobiotic is more of a ~lifestyle~ than a diet, since it advocates for chemical-free, organic food. You mainly eat a lot of vegan foods and the occasional plate of fish.
A typical macrobiotic diet consists of:
- 30 percent whole grains
- 40 percent seasonal vegetables
- 20 percent protein (preferably vegetable-based)
- 10 percent seaweed, nuts, or other seeds
Pro tip: The macrobiotic diet excludes meat and dairy, so you might have to stock up on iron, magnesium, calcium, and vitamin B12 supplements.
Vegetarian and vegan diets usually end up relying more heavily on plant-based foods by eliminating animal sources. Focusing on whole-food replacements for those meaty options could mean including more whole grains, veggies, fruits, legumes, seeds, and nuts. This means you’ll get even more beneficial plant-based nutrition.
Here’s what the science says:
- A 2019 review of studies found that there may be both short- and moderate-term benefits to plant-based eating for weight, systemic inflammation, and the gut microbiome. The authors indicated that more research needs to be done to fully understand the causes and long-term benefits.
- A 2017 review of studies suggested that vegetarian diets may reduce the risk of ischemic heart disease and cancer incidence (but not of all cardiovascular diseases or mortality from cancer).
- If you’re aiming for weight loss, a 2015 study suggested that those on vegan diets specifically lose more weight than those on other diets such as low fat, low glycemic index, or less strict vegetarian diets.
- A 2013 research review noted that certain people may benefit from plant-based diets, especially if they have high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.
This is just a small portion of the research being done on plant-based diets, so we’ll surely hear more about the benefits and drawbacks in the years to come.
It’s easy to miss out on essential nutrients like vitamins D and B12 when cutting certain foods out of your diet, so dietitians recommend following a comprehensive eating plan and taking appropriate dietary supplements to avoid missing out on certain nutrients.
To get the most bang for your nutrient buck, it’s also important not to replace animal products with overly processed foods that don’t have as much nutritional value.
There are lots of reasons to #GoVeg. Whether you want to be healthier, you want to help the planet, or you think eating meat is cruel, there are plenty of veg-friendly diets to try. It might take some trial and error, but you can find the best balance for your diet and lifestyle.