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A Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Vegetarian

July 15, 2013

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Are you thinking about switching to a vegetarian diet? Eating a primarily plant-based diet can have many health benefits, especially if you have health issues such as high blood pressure or heart disease that could be exacerbated by the consumption of meat. Vegetarianism is also a great way to lower your carbon footprint, stand up for animal rights, and even save money on your groceries!

It can be intimidating to think about cutting meat out of your diet and switching to vegetarianism. The most common mistake that people make when doing this is becoming a “junk food vegetarian,” meaning they cut out meat and replace it with carbohydrates, sugary foods, and snacks. This could lead to nutrient deficiency and weight gain.

However, if done correctly, you can get just as many nutrients, if not more, on a vegetarian diet as you would if you were eating meat. Just follow these simple steps and you’ll be on your way to living a happy and healthy vegetarian lifestyle!

Replace the protein – If your current diet is high in animal products, chances are this is the biggest source of protein in your diet. Luckily, there are several vegetarian sources of protein for you to eat.

  • If you’re looking for a meat-like entrée, try cooking with a meat substitute like tofu, tempeh or seitan. They can be cooked just like meat – marinate or season them and then bake, stir-fry or grill them. 
  • You can also include high-protein grains and legumes into your diet. These foods include:
    • Any type of beans (black, pinto, navy, garbanzo)
    • Some grains such as quinoa, wheat germ and oat bran
    • Lentils (try these lentil burgers!)
    • Any type of nut or nut butter
    • Seeds such as sunflower, flax and pumpkin
    • Soy or nut milks
    • Remember, you can include animal by-products in your diet such as eggs or cheese. If you want to try your hand at veganism, these products will also need to be removed from your diet.

Increase the greens – Dark, leafy greens such as kale or collard greens are one of the most nutrient-dense foods. A common concern of vegetarianism is that it is impossible to get enough nutrients from plants. Increasing your daily intake of leafy greens will provide you with ample amounts of iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamins K, C, E and in some cases B. How is that for a nutrition powerhouse? Try starting your day with a green smoothie, or sauté greens to serve with dinner.

Eat more grains – This is where the “junk food vegetarian” comes in. To avoid the inevitable weight gain from the empty calories in foods like cookies, crackers and pastries, try adding whole grains into your diet. Whole grains include:

  • Quinoa (Gluten-Free. Try this recipe for Thai Quinoa )
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat (Gluten-free)
  • Spelt
  • Brown Rice (Gluten-free)
  • Oats (Gluten-free, but often processed in plants with grains that aren’t so look for gluten-free options)
  • Teff
  • Millet (Gluten-free. Try this Millet with Roasted Sunflower Seeds)
  • Amaranth (Gluten-free)
  • Polenta (Gluten-free)

Vegan Alternatives – If you decide to cut out all animal products, including eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt, there are several dairy-free alternatives that you can find at your local grocery store or health food store. Products like soy cheese or nut milk may be good replacements if you are just starting your vegan diet and want to eat as close as possible to the diet you are used to. However, always read labels and keep an eye out for for additivies and unnecessary processing.

It’s also important to remember that becoming a vegetarian or vegan is not for everyone. Give your new diet a few weeks to see how your body feels before you decide to switch back to your old diet or stick with vegetarianism.

What about you? Are you a vegetarian? What advice do you have for someone who is just starting their vegetarian diet?