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What You Need to Know Before Going Vegetarian

Aug 22 2021
7 min read
Close-up of hands putting a red pepper into a reusable canvas bag filled with fresh vegetables.

If you’re contemplating leaving meat behind, you may already be aware 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 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 is not likely to 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).

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 pescatarian 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 about 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 benefits. 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 plate. 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. Some other vegetarian protein sources include: garbanzo beans, lentils, edamame, peanut butter, almonds, tofu, green peas, tahini, tempeh, yogurt, and eggs. Since vegetable protein sources generally contain less protein than equivalent amounts of animal meats, be sure to include one protein source — from this list or a plethora of other options — at every meal and snack. Not only will you get the satiating benefits of protein, which can help you reach and maintain a healthy weight, you’ll also lower your risk of diabetes and high blood pressure thanks to the fiber, phytonutrients, and potassium in these foods.

How Will I Get Enough Iron in My Diet?

Iron, the nutrient that helps carry oxygen in the blood, is frequently overlooked 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 such as red pepper, orange slices, or a squeeze of lemon. This will enhance your body’s absorption of the mineral.

Should I Consider Going Vegan?

Just know that 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. You’ll want to incorporate enriched non-dairy beverages, tofu, dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and nutritional yeast into your diet 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 get some guidance.

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. Even if your loved ones are sworn carnivores, invite them to experiment by participating in Meatless Monday, a global movement to start each week with a meat-free day.