Reviewed by Sharon Denny, MS, RDN
There are numerous reasons a person may choose to follow a vegetarian diet, such as religious beliefs, philosophical concerns or health. Becoming a vegetarian — especially if you’ve been a lifelong carnivore — isn’t always easy. Your best bet? Switch to a vegetarian diet in steps. A gradual change will give you time to find vegetarian foods that you like.
Find Foods You Enjoy
A good first step is to review your current diet. Make a list of foods that you regularly eat, paying special attention to vegetarian foods that you like. Next, aim to incorporate these foods — along with a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans — into your eating plan. A good way to include vegetables, for example, is to add them to the foods you already enjoy, like pasta or rice dishes.
Plant-based meat substitutes offer the opportunity to get the taste and flavor of meat without consuming the real thing. Choices may include soybean proteins, wheat proteins and other vegetable sources. Check your grocer’s freezer department for vegetarian versions of hamburger, sausage, chicken or bacon. These are good in dishes such as chili or casseroles, but keep an eye on portion size and sodium content.
If you’re going vegan and eliminating all animal-based food products, look for dairy substitutes including calcium-fortified soymilk, soy yogurt and soy cheese.
Pick up a vegetarian cookbook or search the Internet for vegetarian recipes and meal ideas and explore vegetarian ethnic foods. While American cuisine can be meat focused, it’s easy to find ample vegetarian options on many Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern menus. The supermarket is a good place to find vegetarian ingredients and ready-to-eat meatless foods from around the world.
Become a Label Reader
Label reading is essential for vegetarians since some seemingly meat-free foods actually contain animal-based ingredients like lard, chicken fat or gelatin. Ingredients are listed in order from the largest amount to the smallest. These lists can help you make healthy choices and avoid packaged foods made with ingredients you will not eat.
Another reason to read labels is to ensure you’re getting essential vitamins and minerals. Poorly planned diets of any kind can lead to health problems. Most people get iron, zinc, vitamin B12, calcium and vitamin D from animal products such as meat and milk. It’s important for vegans and vegetarians to include other sources of these nutrients in their daily eating plans.
One good way to do this is to review the Nutrition Facts Panel. This part of the label lists the serving size, as well as the calories and nutrients in one serving. You can use this information to help you stay within your daily limits for calories, fat and sodium, and ensure that you’re choosing foods rich in healthy vitamins, minerals, proteins and fiber. To limit added sugars, avoid foods that list sugar, corn syrup or honey as one of the first ingredients.
It is a myth that vegetarians can’t get enough protein in their diets. Vegetarians can meet their protein needs when they eat a variety of plant proteins and get enough calories. Plant proteins can provide all the essential amino acids that your body needs. Grains, beans, nuts and vegetables are good sources of protein. Eating a variety of different plant proteins each day helps your body store and use protein. Dairy foods — fat-free and low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese — and eggs are also good sources of protein.
Learn more about vegetarian sources of protein.
Healthy Vegetarian Eating Tips
Be wary of potential weight gain when choosing a vegetarian diet. You may eliminate a lot of fatty foods by cutting meat from your diet, but if you consume full-fat dairy products, high-fat snacks, fried foods and foods with lots of added sugar, you may be eating too many calories.
You may also be eating too much fat, especially the types of fat that can contribute to heart disease, namely trans and saturated fats. If a food has hydrogenated oil as an ingredient, the food contains trans fat. Many packaged baked goods, snack foods, margarines and fried foods contain trans fat. Saturated fat, meanwhile, is found in fats from animals including milk fat and lard. It is also in palm, palm kernel and coconut oils.
Instead, cook with heart-healthy fats like canola and olive oil, which are rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. But, remember that these fats are also high in calories.
Control calories and fat by planning meals around whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans. Plant foods that are high in fat (including avocados, coconuts, olives and oils from plants and seeds) are also high in calories. Nuts are excellent sources of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, but they’re also calorie dense. Consume them in small amounts. Choose fat-free milk or milk substitutes. Lacto-vegetarians can enjoy low-fat dairy products. These are lower in calories, total fat and saturated fat than foods made with whole milk or cream. Vegans, meanwhile, may opt for dairy substitutes including low-fat or fat-free soy, rice or almond beverages.
Soy food and meat substitutes can also be high in fat so enjoy reduced-fat soy foods and meat substitutes. For example, there are several brands of reduced-fat tofu. For meat substitutes and textured vegetable proteins, compare labels and choose lower-fat varieties. If you eat small amounts of meat, choose lean cuts of meat with the fat trimmed off.
To add a little taste, cook with fat-free or low-fat spices and seasonings like herbs, mustard, vinegar, fruit juice, bean dips, fresh salsa and miso spreads. Also, use moderate amounts of reduced-fat salad dressings and mayonnaise.