An estimated 6 to 8 million Americans are vegetarian.1 Are you considering giving up meat and fish and joining the club? For someone who’s tucked into meat and fish for much of their life, the transition to vegetarianism isn’t always easy. But if you consider the potential health benefits and your own personal reasons for making the switch, it can help you stay strong and keep at it. So here’s how you can get started!
Benefits Of Turning Vegetarian
- If you eat a healthy balanced vegetarian diet, you may be eating less cholesterol and saturated fat than before. And that could translate to lower levels of total and bad low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.
- According to some research, it may even lower the risk of heart disease, though this needs to be backed up with more extensive research.
- You may also consume higher levels of vitamin C and dietary fiber as well as minerals like magnesium and potassium that are found in abundance in fresh produce.
- Plus, your body would get an antioxidant boost from fresh fruits and vegetables, which could combat free radical damage that’s responsible for aging skin and even certain cancers.2
Arguably, you could get these benefits just by consuming your “five a day” of fruit and vegetables. But it is a lot harder to stay on track when you can just as easily fill up on quick cooking and delicious fish or meats.
Tips To Become A Vegetarian
So being vegetarian does have its benefits – provided you do it right. Making the transition isn’t easy for everyone. Here are some steps and tips you could follow to ease your way.
1. Don’t Try Going Cold Turkey!
Giving up on all your carnivorous cravings overnight is tough. Instead, try eating only vegetarian dinners or one other meal to begin with. Then, limit meat or fish intake to once or twice a week. Alternatively, you could give up red meat first, then poultry, and eventually fish. Even eating eggs for a while can simplify the transition if you have plans to give up on eggs as well as a vegetarian.3
2. Make A Meal Plan
Having a well-planned menu can ensure you’re getting all the nutrients you need in the right amounts. It can also be helpful in the early days where you may be hard-pressed to think up vegetarian meals on the go. This also counts if you are in a meat-eating family and are the only one going vegetarian.
3. Get Creative
Certain vegetables have been described as “meaty” – eggplant or mushrooms for instance. Which is why they make such great alternatives to meat or poultry in traditionally nonvegetarian recipes. Certain recipes also lend themselves to having vegetarian substitutes added in. For instance, stuffed peppers, which you’d normally load with a meaty chili, could be as delicious filled with a wild rice salad and nuts, salsa and cheese, or simply a vegetarian chili.
This also makes it easier on whoever is doing the cooking, because the basic food prep is the same. Just a small portion will need to be taken out for you before the meat is added in, so you can substitute it with rice, couscous, nuts, cheese, or vegetables.
4. Use Meat Substitutes
Make it easy on yourself by using some “faux meats” that look and almost taste familiar but are pure vegetarian. As the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) lists out, there are veggie hot dogs, burgers, vegan nuggets, and even faux bacon to fall back on!4
5. Change It Up: Eat A Rainbow!
Don’t fall into the trap of eating just one or two vegetables and tiring of them quickly. Instead, explore more exotic vegetables at the supermarket. You might even want to venture into specialty grocery stores. All kinds of exotic vegetables await you – from savory plantains and yams of many hues to a variety of Asian greens that lend themselves well to stir fries and more! Eat a rainbow of colors on your plate to get in a variety of nutrients and have that plate looking great too.
Here’s what you can expect from each color of food5:
- Violet/Indigo/Blue: Antioxidants called anthocyanins are what give these vegetables and fruit their color. The nitrates in vegetables like beetroot, purple lettuce, or cabbage can help lower blood pressure.
- Green: Green leafy vegetables are legendary when it comes to health benefits. The sulforaphane in broccoli, kale, and pak choi could help protect you from some cancers and also shield you from blood-vessel damage. Lutein and zeaxanthin in peas, spinach, kale, and broccoli could also protect your vision from age-related degeneration.
- Yellow: Carotenoids like beta-carotene found in sweet corn, papayas, and peaches help in the production of vitamin A. There is also some research suggesting they could help lower cancer and rheumatoid arthritis risk.
- Orange: The trademark orange color of fruits and vegetables like carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, or peppers is used to make vitamin A. This vitamin helps maintain good eyesight and is also used in hormone production.
- Red: Lycopene found in red tomatoes may reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and can lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Berries like raspberries and strawberries are also antioxidant-rich and great for your body.
6. Avoid Hidden Fats And Sugars, But Treat Yourself Sometimes
Being vegetarian isn’t a license to binge. Just because something is vegetarian doesn’t automatically make it healthy – how you cook or eat your vegetables is important. If you’re having your kale out of a pack of kale crisps, you’re also likely to be consuming preservatives and a lot of salt and sugar with the vegetable! Instead, make your own at home. A potato when it is roasted and mashed or topped with a healthy salsa is healthier than if it is deep fried.
But don’t deny yourself too much in the pursuit of good health. Remember to give yourself treats of ice cream, desserts, or fried foods once in a way, just as you would when you were a nonvegetarian – unless your health doesn’t permit it. That way you’ll know they’re treats and not be tempted to binge or overcompensate for your meat cravings.
7. Find A Protein Source
The big gap you’re likely to experience from the get go is of protein. Fish, chicken, beef, or pork might have been your mainstay all this while when it came to protein. Now you will need to explore alternatives that fit into your new vegetarian diet. Here are some vegetarian sources of protein that you should consider6:
- Nuts to thicken curries and gravies or to use as spreads on toast
- Beans like chickpeas, butter beans, baked beans, and black beans in stews, casseroles, and salads
- Lentils for hearty meals, soups, and stews
- Tofu/soy protein
8. Fill In The Missing Nutrients
As you make the transition, it’s natural to miss out some essential nutrients. Make up for the typical shortfall in these nutrients through the right vegetarian foods.
- Calcium: A vegan diet in particular can cause your calcium intake to drop. If you’re eating eggs, drinking milk, or eating dairy regularly, your calcium intake is likely to be around the same levels as a meat eater. However, vegans need to compensate by eating calcium-rich vegetables like collard greens, bok choy, or broccoli.7
- Vitamin B12, D, and K: The chances of missing out on vitamin B12 foods when you turn vegetarian is pretty high. Whereas a healthy adult needs 2.4 mcg B12 every day, vegetarians are advised to take in 6–30 mcg, because only a portion of it is absorbed. If you are giving up on eggs, your vegetarian options for B12 are milk, yogurt, and Swiss cheese. For a shortfall in vitamins D and K you may need to have fortified foods like cereals or orange juice to add in these nutrients.8
- Iron: Lentils, beans, wholegrain bread, cereals, seeds, nuts, and leafy greens are good sources of iron. Fortified foods can also be consumed if you find your levels dipping. Remember, vitamin C helps your body absorb the iron from your diet better, so wash down those foods with some orange juice.9
9. Don’t Give Up!
You may not always manage to completely give up on meat or fish from the word go. Don’t let any lapses dishearten you. Keep trying until you are able to go for longer spells without consuming any meats. Eventually, you’ll get better at it.
|↑1, ↑2, ↑7, ↑8||Becoming a vegetarian. Harvard Health Publications.|
|↑3||Go Veggie. Vegetarian Society.|
|↑4||Making the Vegan or Vegetarian Transition. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.|
|↑5||Should you eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables?. British Heart Foundation.|
|↑6, ↑9||Going Veggie: What To Eat. Vegetarian Society.|