Becoming Vegetarian: It's All About Variety!

Written By Andrea Docherty

In my last blog post I explained how a diet made up of some animal protein and plenty of plants (like fruits and vegetables and whole grains) can be just as healthy as a strictly vegetarian diet.

But, as I also mentioned, there are a number of other reasons why people become vegetarian. If you are thinking about cutting out or reducing the amount of meat in your diet, it’s important to replace meat with other foods so that you get all the nutrients you need.

Here are the nutrients that you need to take extra care to get enough of when you cut meat out of your diet, and a list of the plant-based foods you can eat to get these nutrients:


How to get them from following a plant-based diet (excluding or limiting meat, eggs and dairy)

​Protein​Beans, legumes, grains, soybeans, tofu and tempeh. There is no evidence that soy increases your risk of cancer, and some studies suggest a reduction in risk.
​Vitamin D​Margarine and fortified milk alternatives. Small amounts in mushrooms. Even non-vegetarians have difficulty getting enough Vitamin D. Talk to a dietitian or your doctor about whether you should take a vitamin D supplement.
​Zinc​Soy and other legumes, grains, and nuts.
​Iron​Spinach, edamame, lima beans, asparagus, tofu, lentils, soy beans, tempeh, and fortified cereals. Iron from plants is harder for your body to absorb, but eating foods high in Vitamin C at the same time helps.
Omega-3s​Ground flaxseed, chia and hemp seeds, soybean or canola oils, and walnuts.
Calcium​​Collard greens, spinach, kale, white navy beans, fortified milk alternatives. It is difficult to get enough calcium on a vegan diet. Talk to a dietitian to make sure you are meeting your calcium needs.
​Vitamin B12​Fortified milk alternatives, and nutritional yeast. B12 is difficult to get as a vegan. Talk to a dietitian about how to get enough vitamin B12.

How to make sure you get enough nutrients each day

  • Be sure to eat a variety of plant-based protein sources throughout the day to get all the essential amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Essential amino acids are the ones our body cannot make, so we must eat foods that contain them. Foods that contain all of the essential amino acids are called complete proteins. Most vegetarian foods are not complete sources of protein. Eating a variety of whole grains, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and legumes throughout the day will help you get all of the essential amino acids.
    • For example, chickpeas or black beans would be a nice addition to this Asparagus and Quinoa Salad. It will add an extra protein source, making it a complete protein meal.
    • Have these Baked Syrian Falafels on a whole wheat pita with veggies for a complete meal.
  • Stock your pantry! Grains like rice, barley, quinoa and dried or canned beans and legumes can be kept for a long time. An added bonus of eating more vegetarian sources of protein is that they cost less per serving.
  • Experiment. With a bit of creativity, you can make your favourite dishes vegetarian, such as using beans in chili, making bean salad, vegetarian tacos or burritos and vegetarian pizza.
  • Add tofu. Never tried tofu before? Tofu is flavourless, so use your favourite marinade before cooking. Try firm tofu baked, grilled or in a stirfry. You can even add soft or silken tofu to smoothies as an alternative to yogurt or milk. For example, try adding 1/3 cup tofu in place of the Greek yogurt in this Green Monster Smoothie recipe.
  • Snack. Don’t forget to add healthy snacks throughout the day, like veggies and hummus or this South Asian Snack Mix.

The key to a balanced, healthy and exciting vegetarian diet is variety. It may take some extra planning, but be sure to include as many types of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds and legumes as you can!

To find a dietitian to help you plan a balanced vegetarian diet to meet your needs, visit Find a Dietitian on the Dietitians of Canada website.


Reviewed by Christy Brissette MSc, RD