Becoming a Vegetarian—The Healthy Way

There are many reasons why someone may become a vegetarian- religious, ethical, health, or just a personal preference.  The reason for the change should be the right reasons to make this the right choice for the person.  It may not be easy, but the benefits to your health can be huge, especially when it comes to heart health (1,2).  Less saturated fat, less cholesterol, more fiber, more phytonutrients.  But, going vegetarian does take some planning and education to put you on the right path instead of heading you down the road to an unhealthy, unbalanced diet.

Not all vegetarians give up all animal products.  Some still include dairy and/or eggs in their diets.  Some are stricter with what they eat, with the strictest form being a vegan.  This is an all plant-based diet and excludes all foods using any ingredients derived from animals.  Only you can decide which is the right type for you.  And while we like to think this is a life long commitment, there is nothing to say that you can’t go stricter down the road, or add eggs or dairy back in if you found that the vegan lifestyle isn’t right for you.  In the end, what matters is your health and happiness, so find the vegetarian plan that works best for you.

However, it is not as easy as just cutting the meat out and continuing to eat the way you were before.  That’s a quick way to wind up lacking in important nutrients- like protein, calcium and iron.  Here are some tips to help you get started as you work to become healthier by adopting a vegetarian lifestyle:

  1. Eat more plant foods! It sounds easy, but if you weren’t eating a lot of fruits, vegetable and whole grains before becoming a vegetarian, you will likely still be lacking them in your vegetarian diet.  Even if you were eating these foods, you will want to increase them to make sure you are getting the benefits from plant foods and not missing out on key nutrients, like vitamins and minerals.  Remember, vegetarians eat vegetables.
  2. Replace the meat! Another one that sounds easy, but can be overlooked.  Just because you cut the meat out doesn’t mean that you should eat the same foods as before, minus the meat.  Animal sources of protein may have been providing you with the right kinds and amount of protein, so without those foods, you need to find alternatives, or at least make sure you are getting enough of other foods that provide you with protein.  Substitute these alternatives in where you used to have animal protein sources.  Try beans, tofu and other soy products, and nuts and nut butters.  The good news is that no matter what anyone tells you, it is possible for a vegetarian (and even a vegan) to meet their protein needs without having to eat meat(1, 2, 3).
  3. Read food labels! Not all foods marketed as vegetarian or vegan are as healthy as they look.  They may fit in the diet in moderation, but can be just as high in sodium, added fats and added sugars as non-vegetarian foods.  It will benefit you to check the labels, just as you would for any other food.  You may be surprised by what you find.
  4. Try new foods! Since your making changes to your current diet by removing foods, you will also want to work on adding in new foods.  There should be some give and take as you work to find a healthy, well balanced diet.  Cutting things out without replacing them may result in not getting enough of certain nutrients.  Not only should you try some veggies that you may not have been fond of in the past, but you should give meat replacements a chance too.  Check out tofu and tempeh to get started.
  5. Plan, plan, plan!  There are a few nutrients that can end up missing from a vegetarian diet if you don’t plan in advance.  Calcium, B12 and iron tend to be consumed in most American diets from animal foods, but this doesn’t mean you can’t find vegetarian sources.  It just takes some planning, and really just some education on the topic.  If you are not planning to eat dairy and/or eggs, make sure to look for alternative sources for these nutrients.  Fortified foods can also help you to meet your nutrient needs, like soy milk fortified with calcium and breakfast cereals fortified with B12.

These tips are just to get you started.  You should become as educated as possible about how to get the calories and nutrients you need without the meat.  A vegetarian diet provides health benefits, but only when followed correctly.  Sure pizza and French fries can be vegetarian, but it doesn’t make these foods a vegetarian should rely on.  A good vegetarian meal plan includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat protein sources, and heart healthy fats.  It takes some practice, but in time will become second nature.  If you are unsure at all, consider meeting with a Registered Dietitian that specializes in vegetarianism.

By Melinda Boyd (MPH, MHR, RD)

References:

  1. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association). (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(7):1226-1282.
  2. American Heart Association. (2012). Vegetarian Diets.  Retrieved on October 1, 2012 from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/Vegetarian-Diets_UCM_306032_Article.jsp

Mangels, R. (n.d.). Protein in the vegan diet. Retrieved on October 1, 2012 from http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/protein.htm

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