Answer: Not necessarily. It's easy, in fact, to eat an unhealthy vegetarian diet. Lots of junk foods—chips, cookies, candy, and soda—are vegetarian. A vegetarian who eats mostly refined grains, fried foods, and sweets, for example, will have a less healthy diet than someone who eats lean meat and dairy in moderation and consumes lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. It remains important to pay attention to your diet after you go vegetarian to avoid developing health problems.
A healthy diet depends more on what is eaten than what is not eaten. Simply eliminating meat (or all animal products) from the diet does not necessarily make it healthier. For example, a diet consisting of plenty of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and a good source of calcium can be healthy—whether the protein sources are from lean meats, eggs, and (non- & low-fat) dairy products, or from non-animal protein sources such as beans, seeds, or soy-based meat substitutes.
There are several different types of vegetarian diets, depending on whether dairy and/or eggs are used as protein sources. An ovo-vegetarian diet includes eggs, but no dairy products, while a lacto-vegetarian diet contains dairy products, but no eggs. A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet includes dairy products and eggs. In contrast, a vegan diet consists only of foods derived from plant sources and excludes all dairy products and eggs. People who only eat fish or poultry may refer to themselves as vegetarian; however, they actually are following a semi-vegetarian diet.
In terms of good nutrition, the key is to be sure to get all the nutrients required for optimal health. Talk with a qualified health care provider, licensed dietitian, or nutritionist before beginning a vegetarian diet.
Originally published in The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter (March 2011)