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What You Need to Know Before Going Vegetarian

Moving toward meatless? Here are the seven questions to ask yourself first
Written by 
Rachel Meltzer Warren, M.S., R.D.N.
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 

If you’re contemplating leaving meat behind, you may already know that a well-planned plant-based diet can be full of benefits, from decreasing your risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure to helping you keep off excess pounds—even lowering your environmental footprint. However, going vegetarian doesn’t automatically put you on the fast track to good health. Becoming a vegetarian is a choice best made with careful consideration. You might also seek the advice of a nutritionist to assist you in putting together the most healthful, balanced diet for you. As you think about it yourself, consider answering these questions.

Why Do I Want to Go Vegetarian?

There are many reasons why people give up meat, including the potential health or environmental benefits, religious or ethical reasons and taste preferences. However, if you’re hoping for instant weight loss or a magical reversal of high cholesterol, merely forgoing meat will likely not accomplish your goals. While a vegetarian diet can help you cut calories, cholesterol and more, those changes happen because of the nutritious foods you’re including in place of animal proteins (among other healthy lifestyle choices like exercise).

More: Food Smarts to Lower Your Cholesterol

What Type of Vegetarian Do I Want to Be?

It may be freeing to learn that, today, people subscribe to several different shades of  vegetarianism. Give some thought as to how you will define this lifestyle for yourself.  A lacto-ovo vegetarian eats no meat, poultry or fish, but does eat eggs and dairy. A strict vegetarian or vegan eschews all animal products (including honey), while a pescetarian won’t eat chicken or beef but will eat some fish. Moving toward a more plant-based diet is considered an optimal dietary plan, whether it includes more moderate amounts of meats and fish or embraces the other end of the spectrum in a vegan diet. It’s up to you to decide where you want to fall on the spectrum of plant-based diets. Regardless of what you choose, constructing a well-balanced dietary plan is important if you want to achieve the full nutritional benefits.

What Foods Will I Add to My Diet in Place of Meat?

Going vegetarian should be as much about what you’re adding to your diet as it is the foods you’re taking away. As long as you eat a variety of foods, it’s not hard to eat a vegetarian diet and get the nutrients you need. But if you take a standard American meat-and-potatoes plate and simply subtract the meat, you’re left with—well, potatoes. And that’s not much of a meal, since it’s lacking in protein and fiber, two nutrients that boost your sense of fullness and help keep you from overeating (and gaining weight as a result), among other important roles. If you’re shifting to a vegetarian diet, think about the foods you should be including more of: legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Combine these foods with an array of fruits and vegetables for a balanced vegetarian or vegan meal. Again, a nutritionist can help you plan balanced meals.

Can I Get Enough Protein Without Eating Meat?

We tend to overestimate just how much protein we need (most women need around 46 grams per day; men around 56). But you won’t get there if you survive on bowls of pasta and rice. Quinoa and soy are both complete proteins, making them especially good choices for vegetarians. Here is a small sampling of other vegetarian protein sources: garbanzo beans, lentils, edamame, peanut butter, almonds, tofu, green peas, tahini, tempeh, yogurt and eggs. Be sure to include one protein source—from this list or a plethora of other options—at every meal. Not only will you get the satiating benefits of protein, which can help you reach and maintain a healthy weight, but you’ll also lower your risk of diabetes and high blood pressure thanks to the fiber, phytonutrients and potassium in these foods.

More: Is Soy Safe to Eat?

How Will I Get Enough Iron in My Diet?

Iron, the nutrient that helps carry oxygen in the blood, is the most overlooked nutrient when it comes to vegetarian diets. The mineral tends to be harder for vegetarians to get enough of than others, but with a little extra care, you can get the amount you need while eating plant-based foods. It’s in enriched grains like certain cereals, oatmeal and whole wheat bread; beans and legumes like black beans, garbanzos and lentils; dark green veggies like spinach, chard, Brussels sprouts and broccoli; and meat-substitutes like tofu and tempeh. If you can, pair your veggie source of iron with a source of vitamin C like red pepper, orange slices or a squeeze of lemon—it will enhance your body’s absorption of the mineral.

Should I Consider Going Vegan?

You’ll have some extra work to do. While there are many potential benefits to being a strict vegetarian, it can be more difficult for someone who doesn’t eat meat or dairy and eggs to get an adequate amount of calcium, vitamin B12 and zinc. Explore including enriched non-dairy beverages, tofu, dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds and nutritional yeast to ensure you’re getting enough of these nutrients. Anyone who doesn’t eat seafood should look for plant-based ways of getting the heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids that are primarily found in fish. Great plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids are ground flaxseed, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, almonds and walnuts. It may be especially beneficial for you to speak with a nutritionist to help get some guidance (of course, it’s a good idea for anyone changing up their diet to talk with a nutrition pro first).

How Can I Get My Family’s Support?

Most people will be willing to get on board with a vegetarian diet (at least part of the time) when they realize how delicious it can be. If your loved ones are sworn carnivores, invite them to experiment by participating in Meatless Monday, a campaign to start each week with a meat-free day. Prepare a meat-free dinner like our Tofu Noodle Bowl or Cuban Black Bean Cakes and see if they even notice something’s missing.

More Canyon Ranch Vegetarian Recipes

Reference(s) 
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
American Diabetes Association
American Heart Association
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (May 1983)
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (June 2005)
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (May 2008)
The British Journal of Nutrition (August 2012)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Cleveland Clinic
European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (October 2006)
Harvard School of Public Health
Meatless Monday
MedlinePlus
T. Colin Campbell Foundation
University of California
The Vegetarian Resource Group
About the author 
Rachel Meltzer Warren, M.S., R.D.N., is a New York-based nutrition writer, educator and counselor, and author of the The Smart Girl's Guide to Going Vegetarian (Sourcebooks).