Switching to a vegetarian diet comes with an array of health benefits. However, when you first make the transition, it's important to learn about the types and quantities of food you'll have to eat to meet all your needs for nutrients and calories. Here is some advice.
1. Transition Slowly
The key to a successful transition to a vegetarian diet is to start slowly. Making just one or two small changes every week will keep you from becoming overwhelmed and giving up.
2. Foods a New Vegetarian Should Eat
New vegetarians should eat a variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. To increase your odds of success, start by incorporating more of the foods you already like instead of introducing several new ones at first.
3. Watch for Vitamin Shortfalls
Research suggests that eating a vegetarian diet may improve your health. However, becoming a vegetarian means you have to avoid deficiencies in iron as well as vitamins D and B12...easy enough if you plan thoughtfully. Beans, leafy greens and nuts contain iron. For adequate amounts of D and B12, look for fortified foods and consider supplementation.
4. Start by Giving Up Red Meat
Start by gradually giving up red meat, since it's typically the least-healthy type of meat. While you can make the switch to a meatless diet all at once, it's not necessary to do so. Determine a timeline and set a goal of when you'd like to give up meat entirely.
5. Plan Ahead
One way you can help ensure your long-term success is to plan ahead. Don't wait until you're hungry to decide what to eat. Instead, make a meal plan at the beginning of each week. When dining out, take a look at the menu online before leaving home to make sure it has good vegetarian options. With time, you'll learn plenty of recipes and figure out which restaurants are best for vegetarians. But those first few months will be challenging, making it important to plan ahead.
6. Prepare Your Pantry
One way to plan ahead is to keep a well-stocked pantry, which is especially helpful for those nights when you're in a rush and need to pull together a quick dinner. Take an hour or so on a weekend to carefully sort through your shelves, throwing out anything that looks old and restocking with such staples as canned chickpeas, fresh spices, tomato products, etc. And don't forget your freezer, which you should also count as pantry space and fill with frozen vegetables and other meal must-haves.
7. Stock Up on Healthy Snacks
A mainstay of your vegetarian pantry: healthy snacks. Fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds all make nutritious snacks. Avocado, nut butter and sunflower seeds are full of healthy fats make good snacks. Having a pantry stocked with nutritious choices makes it less likely you'll reach for junk food when you get hungry.
8. Try One New Recipe Each Week
Try one new vegetarian recipe every week. It won't take long to build up a list of go-to vegetarian meals that you enjoy. Once you feel confident in the kitchen, you'll increase your odds of maintaining a vegetarian diet in the long run.
9. Make Other Healthy Dietary Choices
One benefit of vegetarianism that surprises many people is that it often inspires them to try new foods and improve their diet in other ways, such as giving up gluten. Spanakopita, a Greek dish, is vegetarian and easy to make gluten-free. If you're wondering what Chinese food is gluten-free, rice, rice noodles and stir-fried vegetables are all good options that will allow you to maintain both a vegetarian and gluten-free diet.
10. Don't Worry Too Much About Protein
Ensure you eat an adequate amount of protein, but don't obsess about it. Protein requirements for adults are lower than many people think, and eating a varied diet full of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and similar foods will supply you with all the protein you need.
People Who Went Vegetarian
Jerry Snider, Hewitt, TX
Health and wellness author, coach and business owner Jerry Snider likes to debunk myths about vegetarianism. For example, he is a Master's-level distance runner. “I'm proof you don't need meat to be active,” he says.
Although his diet had been about 75% plant based, Snider recently upgraded from vegetarian to vegan for two reasons.
“First, everything I've researched has proven to me that being a vegan is the healthiest way to live,” he says.
Second, Snider says, “is with coaching my clients on ways to become healthier and eat healthier, I needed to become a vegan to live through the difficulties of the lifestyle in a heavily meat-dominated food supply.”
Transitioning to a total vegan diet was not an overnight process. “I knew better than to try and do it right away,” Snider says.
Although he'd previously enjoyed a good burger or steak on the grill, in general, he'd always considered his diet a healthy one, “but I was a big meat eater.” Snider admits he missed eating meat at first, but he noticed after about two months on a vegetarian regimen that the smell of meat cooking no longer appealed to him.
Nowadays? “I can't walk by a restaurant that's cooking meat,” he says.
As a surprising side benefit, Snider finds he recovers more quickly from workouts since he's become vegetarian, noting, “I was surprised to see my
Snider's biggest challenge lies in finding vegetarian fare when dining out in his hometown. “It's hard to find places to eat in Texas,” he says. “I make sure to always carry some apples with me. I know a handful of restaurants where I can go and be pretty comfortable.”
At home, Snider typically makes his own cereal out of oats, almond milk and fruit (nuts and fruits make up a large part of his diet). Lunch is an organic pea protein shake. Dinner often includes beans (black beans and chickpeas), tofu, stir-fry meals with veggies and rice.
Snider's special treat? Vegan ice cream.
Liem Quang Le, Daom, Tampa, FL
Having been raised in a Buddhist family made a vegetarian lifestyle second nature for Liem Quang Le, Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. “We were eating different things growing up, and it was just a normal way to eat. And then it became trendy,” he says.
Le admits his own vegetarian lifestyle was “on and off” since the age of 14. Now 38, he says his diet has been based on plants for the past 15 years.
An extreme workout routine was one reason for Le's intermittent vegetarianism. Years prior to completely transitioning to a plant-based diet, Le worked as a professional dancer; the daily hours-long workouts took their toll on his energy level. This led him to eat meat, hoping it would give him more stamina.
Le then became aware of the ethics involved in the treatment of farm animals, and this inspired him to go back to a vegetarian way of eating. He has stuck with it since.
“I personally became a vegetarian for two reasons,” says Le. “Ethical and religion/Buddhism, and for health reasons. I believed that I have to practice what I preach.”
Le also feels his humanitarian and ethical reasons for becoming a vegetarian makes it more likely he'll stay with it versus doing so purely for health reasons, although he sees how eliminating meat from one's diet can help improve overall health.
“I personally see and treat cancer patients almost exclusively,” says Le, “and I encourage a plant-based diet for my patients.”
It took time for Le to find what worked in terms of getting enough of all necessary nutrients from a vegetarian diet.
“Becoming vegetarian has been a process of many years of trial and error, of eating mainly rice and pasta,” says Le. “But I have transitioned over the years to eating more vegetables and fruits.” Today, a typical meal for him is cauliflower fried “rice” with spinach, mushrooms, kimchi, tofu, peas and carrots.
Like most vegetarians, Le's biggest challenge lies in finding restaurants that cater to a meatless lifestyle.
“It's a trend that's growing here in Tampa, but it's not fully accepted,” he explains. “I previously worked in San Diego, where people usually came in
Divya L. Selvakumar, PHd, RD, Laurel, MD
Growing up in an Indian-American family, registered dietician, professor, author and consultant Divya Selvakumar rarely ate meat even as a child.
“My family has always been lacto-vegetarian,” she says. “We didn't eat chicken, fish or meat, only eggs, milk and cheese. I ate meat very occasionally but completely quit more than 25 years ago.”
The importance of respecting animals, a crucial part of Hinduism, also contributed to Selvakumar's meatless lifestyle. One of the religion's main principles “is the concept of ahimsa, which emphasizes non-violence and the respect for life and nature,” Selvakumar says.
In addition, she says that her work as a nutrition professional and registered dietitian led her to be “particularly intrigued by the increasing public awareness and interest towards adopting a plant-based diet.”
Selvakumar says she recently began eating some cheeses. They don't always agree with her digestive system, however; as she puts it, “Cheese on pizza from some of the chain restaurants upsets my stomach.” For this reason, Selvakumar prefers plant-based milks, such as those made from coconuts and almonds, and she snacks on plant-based cheese.
Although it is easier today than in the past, Selvakumar finds it sometimes difficult to obtain vegetarian meals, particularly at restaurants with menus that emphasize animal products.
This becomes most challenging when she voyages to different parts of the world.
“Finding vegetarian meals is particularly tough when traveling to places such as West Africa, where the concept of vegetarianism is not completely well understood by the public,” Selvakumar notes. “When traveling, if I am not fluent in the local language, I have experienced difficulty in obtaining adequate vegetarian food, much less vegan dishes. Also, since ghee (clarified butter) plays a large role in my culture, it can be problematic in obtaining a proper substitute.”
For Selvakumar, a typical day starts with a breakfast of oatmeal with almond or coconut milk, flaxseed and nuts (walnuts, pecans, almonds), and a cup of coffee with almond or coconut milk and brown sugar. Lunch may be a grain—such as brown rice, quinoa or millet—and spicy lentils with curry (eggplant, squash, okra, spinach, tomato—any vegetable, really) along with a cup of non-dairy yogurt with water or organic, low-sugar juice.
Dinner is often roti (an unleavened flatbread) with dal (dried pulses or soups made from dried pulses) and vegetables, along with avocado slices or vegan cheese. Bananas, blueberries and raspberries are her favorite snacks.
Ginny Grabowski, MS, Anchorage, AK
For Ginny Grabowski, founder of The Women's Wellness Academy, being raised in a home where meat dishes weren't a family favorite made it easy to give meat up at an early age.
“I grew up in a home where meat was not particularly well flavored,” says Grabowski, 49. “My dad tended towards plain foods and my mom didn't love cooking. My mainstays through high school were chocolate, bagels, pasta, fruits and veggies.”
Eating a meatless diet became even easier once Grabowski began attending college. “A cafeteria salad bar, plenty of bread and unlimited frozen yogurt… I was in heaven,” she says.
Being surrounded by vegetarians and vegans while working at a supplement company further reinforced Grabowski's abstinence from meat. She never “branded” herself a vegetarian, she says. “I just started avoiding meat. At the time, dairy was still a large part of my life, however. I lived in New York and life without pizza or a schmear on my bagel wasn't worth living.”
Now focused on eating plant-based, whole foods, Grabowski confronts different concerns than she did two decades ago.
“Vegetarian packaged foods are much easier to find now versus in the 90s,” she says. “The biggest challenge is when I forget that not everyone lives/eats this way.”
Other challenges in adhering to her meatless diet include travel; as she puts it, “Fresh produce is expensive and not particularly fresh.” Plus, Grabowski has found it tough to find meals when a menu has no veggie options. “I've had to create my own on the fly with the help of patient chefs.”
Meals are simple and typically include a grain, beans and greens, most often in a single bowl. Grabowski says her favorite three-minute meal is brown rice, chickpeas, salsa and any leafy green. “If I don't already have rice or other grain cooked, I'll go with couscous because it requires no cooking. I just boil some water, pour it over and wait two or three minutes.”
When all else fails, Grabowski reaches for a “good, old-fashioned PB&J in a pinch.”
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**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.