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So, you’re thinking about breaking up with meat — and maybe even animal products altogether. Well, hey! There are a ton of great reasons to go veggie, and adopting a plant-based diet is easier than ever. (See the vegan cheese and ice cream aisle.)
But if you’re wondering how exactly to get started, the prospect of overhauling your entire diet can be a little overwhelming. The good news is that transitioning to a plant-based eating plan isn’t all that hard, especially when you take the slow-and-steady approach.
Here’s what you need to know to get started.
The common denominator is — duh — no meat. But beyond that, not every veggie diet is exactly the same. Here’s what all those labels actually mean:
- Vegetarian. Your garden variety vegetarian (heh) eats eggs and dairy products, but no meat, poultry, or fish. People who ID as lacto vegetarians do dairy, but not eggs. Ovo vegetarians do eggs, but not dairy.
- Vegan. Vegans only eat plants, period. They steer clear of animal products altogether. That means no meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or dairy. Some vegans also avoid honey.
- Plant-based. Aka flexitarian, it’s a looser framework that sticks mostly with plant foods, but occasionally includes small amounts of dairy, eggs, poultry, or fish.
- Pescatarian. Basically, just another name for a vegetarian who also eats fish.
Being a vegetarian can have its pros and cons. (See going to a barbecue where the only items on the menu are hamburgers.) But the potential benefits of eating mostly plants are pretty far-reaching. Going vegetarian:
Might help keep your weight in check
Plant-based foods are often less calorie-dense than animal-based ones, so the more of them you eat, the fewer calories you might tend to take in daily. One study showed that plant-based foods might make it easier to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
Does your ticker good
Plants are naturally low in saturated fat and have no cholesterol. One study showed that when plants make up a big part — or even all — of your diet, you’re more likely to have healthier cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
Nourishes your gut
A research review showed that following a plant-based diet can help fill your microbiome with healthy bacteria, which could help promote a healthy weight and better blood sugar levels.
It’s all thanks to the fiber found in plant foods, which is key for keeping the good bacteria in your gut happy and well-fed.
Lowers disease risk
The more plants and fewer animal products you eat, the less likely you are to develop type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and even some cancers.
And while any veg-based diet serves up these perks, in some cases, the closer you are to being totally vegan, the bigger the benefit tends to be.
Might help you live longer
Will going veg help you live to see 100? There are no guarantees, but a 2013 study linked vegetarian diets to a lower risk of dying from any cause.
Better for the planet
According to the Earth Institute, Columbia University, plant-based diets have lighter carbon footprints. If you’re looking for a way to eat that’s more environmentally sustainable, veg is definitely the way to go.
Sure, totally changing up your diet and breaking up with certain foods can seem a little daunting.
But going vegetarian isn’t as hard as you might think. The key is making gradual changes, going easy on yourself, and maybe being willing to move a little bit outside of your comfort zone. Some pro tips for how to make the transition:
Rethink your plate
A balanced, filling meal doesn’t have to mean eating meat with a couple of sides — experiment with using plant-based ingredients as the anchor of your plate instead.
Try using whole grains as a base for a veggie and tofu bowl, make beans the star of a satisfying stew, or turn veggies into a mind-blowing taco filling.
Ease into it
No rule says that you have to go from omnivore to 100 percent vegetarian or vegan overnight. The cold turkey approach is a great option if you want to make a fast switch. But gradually upping the number of meatless meals each week is just as good.
Focusing on just a few new recipes at a time can make the transition feel seamless instead of overwhelming.
Find recipes you love
Speaking of new recipes, now’s the time to start stockpiling go-to veggie options that leave you feeling satisfied. Try picking up a plant-based cookbook (there are SO MANY good ones) or pick an ingredient to focus on and find new ideas for using it.
Did you know that there are, like, more than 40 ways to make tofu taste amazing?
Make friends with meal prep
Like with any dietary change, preparation is key. When things get busy, knowing you’ve got the goods ready and waiting in the fridge means you’re less likely to end up eating PB&J for dinner — or ordering pizza.
Expect speedbumps — and plan for them
The brutal truth? Being vegetarian means, you’re gonna sometimes run into situations where the food options are slim to none. The key is knowing when they’re likely to pop up — and being prepared.
Traveling? Pack snacks in case the food choices at the airport are all turkey and roast beef sandwiches. Meeting people at a new restaurant? Check out the menu ahead of time to verify there’s at least one thing you can eat. (FYI, there almost always will be, but it’s good to know for sure.)
Don’t feel like you have to go all or nothing
Remember, the only person you’re doing this for is yourself. It’s not the end of the world if you give in to a burger craving or accidentally eat soup made with chicken broth. Just get back to business tomorrow.
Some friendly nutrition reminders
Let’s real quick point out that vegetarian and vegan diets can deliver all the nutrition you need, provided you eat a variety of healthy foods.
There are some vitamins and minerals that can be a little harder to get than others, though, so you’ll want to make extra sure you’re getting enough of these guys:
- Calcium. If you’re regularly eating dairy foods, you’re all set. But if dairy milk, yogurt, or cheese aren’t on the menu or you only have them once in a while, be sure to get the bone builder from other sources. Think fortified plant milk, juices, cereals, tofu, almonds, broccoli, and leafy greens.
- Vitamin D. It’s hard even for some omnivores to get enough of it since vitamin D isn’t present in many foods. You can get it from eggs, fortified dairy milk, orange juice, plant milk, and cereals.
- Iron. The iron in plant foods is harder for the body to absorb than the iron in animal foods. So, load up on beans, leafy greens, eggs, and fortified cereals and always pair them with a vitamin C source to boost absorption.
- Vitamin B12. It only occurs naturally in animal-based foods, so if you’re vegan, find some solid fortified options, like fortified cereals, nutritional yeast, or plant milk. You can also talk with your doc about taking a supplement.
Even though a veg diet can deliver mega health benefits, no style of eating is perfect. These downsides aren’t deal breakers, but they’re definitely worth being aware of.
You might have to work harder to get enough calories and nutrients
One study showed that, on average, you’d get around 260 fewer calories per day on a vegetarian diet and around 600 fewer calories on a vegan diet compared to an omnivorous diet. That could be helpful if you’re trying to lose weight.
If you’re happy with where the scale is right now, you might need to pay a little closer attention to make sure you’re getting the calories you need. Thankfully, an extra spoonful of almond butter or guac goes down pretty easy.
Things could get gassy, especially at first
Upping your plant intake means upping your fiber intake, which is a good thing, healthwise! But you might notice some gas, bloating, or even constipation while your digestive tract adjusts.
Your system should be back to feeling good within a few weeks, but drinking plenty of water and gradually upping your fiber intake can help with the transition.
You may need to plan a little more
Without meat, it might take a little more work to figure out how you’ll hit certain nutritional requirements. Ditto for dealing with situations like traveling or social events when you’re not sure what the food options will be like.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, there’s definitely some misinformation out there about plant-based diets that’s worth clearing up. A few facts to get straight:
You don’t need to obsess about protein
You’ll easily meet the basic requirements for protein as long as you get enough calories and eat a variety of foods. If you’re a serious athlete or have extra high protein needs, working with a registered dietician can help you make sure you’re hitting all your bases.
As for combining foods, like rice + beans or bread + peanut butter to make complete proteins? It’s a rookie mistake. As long as you eat a variety of foods throughout the day, your body will get what it needs.
Don’t assume that veggie foods automatically = healthier
Vegan cupcakes have just as many empty calories as ones made with butter and eggs, guys. So, while it’s fine to treat yourself once in a while, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because it’s made with plants, it’s good for you or low calorie.
The same goes for meat substitutes. Veggie dogs and deli slices definitely have a health halo, but they’re highly processed and aren’t what you wanna have every day.
Vegetarian diets have loads of health benefits, provided you get enough of certain nutrients and eat a wide variety of wholesome, minimally processed foods.
The key to success is easing into your new eating plan, finding new recipes you really love, and making sure you get the vitamins and minerals you need. And if you fall off the bandwagon one day, don’t worry. There’s always another chia pudding or tofu stir-fry tomorrow.