Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD
So, you’ve embraced the vegetarian lifestyle – that’s awesome! But, you know, there’s more to it than just cutting out meat.
Today we’re diving into the nitty-gritty of potential issues that could pop up in your diet.
By now, almost everyone has heard of the health benefits of a vegetarian diet. Even meat eaters are strongly encouraged to decrease their meat consumption and up their intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds, and whole grains.
We can’t definitively say that vegetarian diets have better health outcomes because of their higher intake of higher plant foods or the exclusion of meat. It’s probably a combination of both.
In this post, I explore habits that can lead you to become an unhealthy vegetarian and how to ensure healthy eating.
But Are All Vegetarians Destined for a Long, Healthy Life?
Not necessarily. There are many ways to do a vegetarian diet wrong. With the increasing popularity of vegetarianism, veganism, flexitarianism, and Meatless Monday, there are more and more vegetarian products flooding the market.
As a result, vegetarians, and even vegans, are finding it easier and easier to eat out with their friends and shop at traditional grocery stores. However, we are also finding it easier and easier to eat foods that are ultra-processed and lack balanced nutrition.
Read on to find out if you are an unhealthy vegetarian.
Basics of vegetarianism
There are a few different types of vegetarians, including vegans (who eat no animal products), ovo-lacto vegetarians (who eat dairy and eggs), and pescatarians (who also eat fish).
Unhealthy Vegetarian Habit #1 – Overreliance on processed vegetarian substitutes
Meat substitutes are getting more and more realistic. I wish I had the money to invest in Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger because they are exploding right now. Vegetarian substitutes range from vegetables in disguise to black bean patties, to near-realistic replacements for beef hamburger patties.
We do utilize these mock meats at home sometimes, mostly to help satisfy the omnivores. Personally, the more realistically the product mimics the taste and texture of meat, the less I want it.
Emotions aside, some of these products are highly processed, heavily salted, and high in saturated fat from coconut oil. This makes them less of a heart-healthy version than we envision when we choose a veggie burger. Overindulgence can make you an unhealthy vegetarian!
What can I do Instead?
Treat these products more as splurges or items to be used in a pinch rather than regularly including them in the rotation. If you like a weekly burger, consider making your own and freezing them for future use. This way, you can control what goes in and what doesn’t.
Search for recipes or, even better, create a family challenge to see who can come up with the tastiest and healthiest patty for your next burger night.
You can also look for products with lower sodium content and fewer ingredients or choose other options. Tofu, tempeh, beans, nuts/seeds, and quinoa are all packed with vegan-friendly protein.
Unhealthy Vegetarian Habit #2 – Excessive Carbohydrate Intake
This is super common among new vegetarians. They make a sometimes emotional decision to stop eating meat but then don’t know what to eat instead.
The result is a diet full of potatoes, bread, and pasta, and lacking in protein and variety. Add in vegan snack foods, and all of a sudden, they’re struggling to get in all of their nutrition. Then they’re tired all the time, instead of energetic.
What can I do Instead?
Remember all things in moderation. When you plan your meals, start with your protein source. Then pile on the vegetables. If you have the room, and if your protein wasn’t starchy (such as beans/lentils) add some rice or bread. Remember to include healthy fat such as nuts/seeds, olive oil, or avocado.
When you’re snacking, again, reach for a protein source and maybe fit in a fruit. Try peanut butter and an apple or some almonds and grapes.
Unhealthy Vegetarian Habit #3 – Eating Vegan/Vegetarian Ultra-Processed Foods
Potato chips and Oreos are vegan. You can find vegan versions of most processed foods you may crave. That doesn’t make them healthy. These foods can fit in a balanced diet, but their nutrition value doesn’t improve simply because they are the ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based’ or ‘organic’ version.
They should only be an occasional splurge, no more than 10-15% of your total diet.
Beware of the ultra-processed foods marketed as “healthy”. Veggie straws and gummy fruit snacks immediately come to mind. Granola and some yogurts and protein bars can also be full of sugar and fat that you may not be expecting.
What can I do Instead?
Choose whole foods and healthy alternatives for a random sweet tooth. I tend to keep chocolate chips on hand; just a tablespoon or so will satisfy a chocolate craving. You could try fruit with a light chocolate or caramel drizzle. Or sprinkle cinnamon on a cut apple or pear.
Cravings for something crunchy can be satisfied with raw vegetables such as cucumber, carrots, celery, bell peppers, or popcorn. Or with a palmful of nuts or seeds.
Then when a real, specific craving hits, go for it. I mean your favorite brownie from your favorite bakery. Not some lackluster substitute from wherever you can get to the fastest.
Unhealthy Vegetarian Habit #4 – Not Having a Varied Diet
Oatmeal and fruit for breakfast, spinach salad for lunch, and quinoa with roasted broccoli for dinner. Almonds and Greek yogurt for snacks.
Sounds healthy, right?
Now eat the same thing every day. This is obviously an extreme example (and too low in protein), but many unhealthy vegetarians do eat the same foods day in and day out.
The problem is, that you run the risk of nutritional deficiencies when you don’t have enough variety in your diet. Never mind the boredom.
Why is Variety Important?
In addition to getting in all of the different nutrients and compounds that are health-promoting, we are increasingly learning that eating a variety of plant foods has a profound effect on the health of our gut.
Each fruit, vegetable, nut, seed, or bean (etc) has a different blend of various fibers. All of the organisms that live in our gut prefer different substrates (food, the fiber we eat).
Although we tend to think about bacteria as either good or bad and that we should have more of the good and less of the bad, this is actually inaccurate.
What actually promotes our good health is to have a very diverse set of bacteria and other microbiota.
Our gut health affects every other aspect of our health, including our risk of heart disease and diabetes and our mental health.
What Can I Do Instead?
Visit your local farmer’s market; you have one, I promise. The produce is better, potentially cheaper, and it’s fun to visit.
Every time we go to the Dallas Farmer’s Market, we pick up something we’ve never tried before. Our local farmer’s market has less variety, but we still leave with something!
Spend a few moments looking for new recipes. It can be an original recipe for a favorite veggie, a new cuisine (I still can’t cook Indian food), or search for a food you heard your co-workers talk about that you’ve never heard of before. Google ‘unfamiliar vegetables’ or ‘unusual vegetables’ and then find recipes for them.
Eat the rainbow! Strawberries, spinach, blueberries, sweet potatoes, and cauliflower one day. Radishes, broccoli, red cabbage, cantaloupe, and jicama next week. Vary your colors to improve your phytochemical intake and reap the health benefits.
Unhealthy Vegetarian Habit #5 – not Eating Enough Vegetables(!)
We’ve touched on this previously. Increase your variety. Eating enough vegetables improves your long-term health. Eating too many (or not enough) carbohydrates isn’t healthy. I’ve already stated all of this.
But seriously, the word vegetarian implies that you eat vegetables, so get on it!
What can I do Instead?
Eat more vegetables. Seriously.
Why don’t you eat enough? Don’t like them? Don’t know how to cook them? Or maybe you don’t know how much you should eat.
Easy one first. Current recommendations are 2.5 cups per day. As long as you get in enough protein and fruit and adequate carbs and fat, I see no harm in eating more.
Don’t like vegetables? Try them in different ways. For instance, I cannot stand raw broccoli. But when steamed, roasted, or sauteed, broccoli is one of my favorite foods. See how the local Thai place cooks the veggie you hate or the Hawaiian place in the trendy part of town.
Sometimes it takes multiple exposures, just like it does for kids. I mean, who really liked red wine the first time they tried it?
Don’t know how to cook them? In this day and age, this excuse is thinner than my son’s methods to delay bedtime. Google it. Scroll through Pinterest. Heck, look through other posts on this blog, such as my Roasted Vegetable Shepherd’s Pie.
Or just eat them raw.
Unhealthy Vegetarian Habit #6 – Getting Your Health/Diet Advice from Unreliable Sources
There are several red flags for unreliable information.
Do they claim one food will cure your acne, cure your depression, reverse diabetes, and melt your fat away? That’s probably not true.
Do you have to buy something from them to “unlock the benefits?”
Are they claiming to detox something? Or do they know something your doctor doesn’t want you to know?
These are all hallmarks of unreliable health information. Sensationalized headlines get you to click. Dire warnings scare you into buying their product. Cures for incurable diseases give you hope that they know something nobody else does.
The result is unbalanced eating, frustration with the lack of results, an unhealthy vegetarian, and a slimmer wallet.
What Can I Do Instead?
Pay attention to where you are on the internet. Sites funded by special interest groups probably slant information in their favor. This can be done by overemphasizing small studies that are in their favor or disregarding large studies against them.
Look for sites that end in .gov, .org, or .edu for your best chances for reliable information. I particularly like Harvard’s Nutrition Source.
Finally, if you’d rather do the research yourself, you can find full scientific journal articles using Google Scholar or the library of the National Institutes of Health.
Unhealthy Vegetarian Habit #7 – Blindly trusting a health halo
A food or ingredient has a health halo when it is believed to be healthy, without context, or without reason.
These foods may or may not have health benefits, but often encourage an individual to exclude other foods in favor of the “healthier option.”
This reduces the variety in the individual’s diet and often results in an increase in grocery spending.
what to do instead
Try to make your food and nutrition choices based on your needs and wants rather than as an emotional reaction to something you see on the news or on social media.
What If I Have Some of These Bad Habits?
Basically, you run the risk of various nutritional deficiencies.
The most common symptoms of nutritional deficiencies are fatigue and foggy thinking. Some deficiencies don’t have obvious symptoms but do have long-term physical ramifications, such as an increased risk of bone fractures with calcium and vitamin D deficiencies.
Below are possible nutritional deficiencies that can be caused by a vegetarian or vegan diet, the symptoms of those deficiencies, and vegetarian and/or vegan sources of those nutrients.
B12, or cobalamin, is hard to come by for vegetarians, especially vegans.
Common symptoms of B12 deficiency include anemia, fatigue, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite, and unintended (potentially dangerous) weight loss.
If the deficiency is not corrected, neurological symptoms may occur, such as numbness or tingling in the fingers and toes, poor balance, depression, confusion, and poor memory.
Because natural B12 is found only in animal products, vegetarians and vegans are at an increased risk of deficiency compareto the general public.
Eggs and dairy are good sources for vegetarians. Vegans can reach for fortified cereals and nutritional yeast.
A vegetarian that lives on pasta and salad could be at risk for a protein deficiency. A 140-pound woman needs approximately 51-64 grams of protein per day (obviously certain health conditions, pregnancy, or substantial strength training can alter your protein needs).
Deficiency is pretty rare in the United States. Symptoms can include growth failure in children, loss of muscle mass/strength, decreased immunity, and weakening of the heart and respiratory systems.
A serving of beef and chicken contains ~22 grams. Salmon contains about 17 grams. In contrast, a serving of tofu contains 10 grams. Tempeh fares better with 15 grams (and bonus, it’s fermented!).
Calcium deficiency is difficult to determine. Blood levels do not alter much with calcium intake, because your body will leach calcium from your bones if it needs more in the blood.
Additionally, there aren’t any noticeable symptoms, so a person with a calcium-deficient diet won’t know something is wrong. Long-term, however a calcium deficiency can lead to a weakening of the bones as the body takes more and more from the bones to fuel other critically essential functions.
Dairy is a good source of calcium. Vegan sources include broccoli, cabbage, fortified soy milk, and tofu.
A diet that does not include enough iron leads to anemia, particularly in women. Symptoms include extreme fatigue, weakness, paleness, fast heart rate, shortness of breath, and cold hands and feet.
Iron found in meat is more readily absorbed than in plant sources. However, iron is in eggs, leafy green vegetables, and iron-fortified foods. To increase iron absorption from plant-based sources pair these foods with a source of vitamin C, such as fruit or bell peppers.
Zinc deficiency is probably not something you’ve ever heard of before, but this is a crucial mineral. Zinc plays a role in your metabolism.
It is also important for protein synthesis, wound healing, immune system function, growth and development in children, and interestingly, is required for you to taste and smell.
Symptoms of zinc deficiency include loss of appetite and impaired immune function. If allowed to continue, diarrhea, hair loss, impotence, delayed healing, weight loss, taste abnormalities, skin and eye lesions, and fatigue can occur.
Because many plant foods decrease the absorption rate of zinc, vegetarians may need to take in 50% more zinc than their meat-eating counterparts. Furthermore, your body cannot store zinc, so you need to get enough every day.
Nuts and seeds to the rescue again! Other sources include whole grains, cheese, yogurt, beans, and peas.
Omega-3 fatty acids are commonly referred to as fish oil and are phenomenally good for you. The two oils of note are EPA and DHA. Your body can convert another omega-3 fat (ALA – found in nuts/seeds) into DHA and EPA, but the process is very inefficient.
DHA/EPA are important due to their anti-inflammatory properties and are known to be very healthy for the heart and the brain. In fact, emerging research has linked a deficiency of omega-3s to worsening symptoms of depression.
This theory is strengthened by studies that indicate that rates of depression are higher among vegetarians than omnivores.
While they are called fish oil, fish don’t actually produce DHA or EPA on their own. Instead, they receive these fats from their foods, namely algae. Because of this, I recommend an algae-based EPA/DHA supplement for most vegetarians.
A word About Veganism
In addition to those mentioned, a vegan’s intake of potassium, B2, B3, iodine, and selenium may also be low. B12 is also more important, as there is no vegan source of B12.
Consider a multivitamin that is specifically formulated for a vegan diet.
So Should I Not Be a Vegetarian?
Because this post focuses on the difficulties of getting all of your nutrients when you don’t eat meat, it can be easy to think that you need to add meat back into your diet to be healthy.
This is simply not true; you just need to pay attention to what you’re eating. Make sure to include beans, nuts, and seeds in your diet, and you should cover the vast majority of these problem nutrients.
Remember that someone that eats meat has a different set of nutrients that they should be thinking about!
Despite the scary-sounding symptoms listed above, vegetarianism is still widely believed to improve health outcomes, but only when it is well-planned. Eat your veggies, dang it!
So, Are You an Unhealthy Vegetarian?
How do you feel? Are you energetic or tired all the time? Are you gaining or losing weight unexpectedly? Is your hair falling out or do you have weird rashes?
If so visit your doctor. Also, consider making an appointment with a dietitian that is familiar with the dietary needs of a vegetarian. If you’re in Texas, look me up at my private practice, Go You! Nutrition Counseling.
To sum it up, being a healthy vegetarian is all about balance and knowledge. It’s not about going overboard with superfoods or obsessing over every bite.
Just be mindful of what you eat, make sure you’re getting the key nutrients, and hey, a check-up now and then won’t hurt. Keep it real, keep it balanced, and keep enjoying your vegetarian journey!
A vegetarian diet excludes meat, but there are variations – from vegans (no animal products) to lacto-ovo (eggs and dairy allowed).
A vegan doesn’t eat anything that comes from an animal. A vegetarian doesn’t eat meat, but does eat eggs, or dairy, or both.
The term plant-based doesn’t really mean much, though the vegan community has adopted it recently. When someone says their diet is plant-based, it can mean their dietary pattern ranges from vegan to a “plant-forward” pattern such as flexitarian, Mediterranean, or traditional Asian diet patterns.
Ultimately a diet based on plants contains a lot of foods that originate from plants, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans. However the word “based” does not indicate an exclusion of foods that do not come from plants.
Absolutely! Incorporate beans, lentils, soy, nuts, quinoa, whole grains, and dairy for ample protein intake.
Yes! Opt for spinach, lentils, chickpeas for iron, and nuts, seeds, and whole grains for zinc.
Choose fortified plant-based milk or orange juice, leafy greens, almonds, and sesame seeds for calcium. Also, make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D through sunlight or supplementation.
Flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts are great sources. Consider algae-based supplements for DHA and EPA, otherwise known as fish oil. These fats are great for mental and physical health.
Not always. Minimize ultra-processed veggie burgers and fake meats and opt for whole, unprocessed foods. Black bean patties and minimally processed soy products are fine!
Make sure to always include protein each time you eat. A balanced meal will include protein, fruits or veggies, and a complex carb, such as potatoes, winter squash, or whole grains.
Aim for variety – and don’t forget the colors!
This is a highly individualized question. If you are concerned about your diet or your health, consult with a doctor and a dietitian that know you well.
You should aim to get as much of your nutrition from food as possible, but some people will need supplementation.
Absolutely! Many places offer veggie options – just choose wisely for a balanced meal.
Listen to your body, stay curious, and remember, it’s about progress, not perfection.
Remember, we’re here to help you navigate the world of vegetarianism with science-backed info – no fluff or fuss.
Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD is a registered dietitian, mom, wife, and vegetarian in North Texas. She has dedicated Dietitian Jenn to be a source of information, ideas, and inspiration for people like her, vegetarians that live with people with different dietary beliefs and/or needs in a multivore household.