Eat a wide variety of foods for all of the nutrients you need.
Many people like the idea of reaching all of their nutritional needs with a diet that excludes meat. With a little planning, vegetarians can achieve and maintain all the benefits of a healthy diet.
You might choose a vegetarian diet for a variety of reasons, including:
- Weight loss
- Addressing specific health conditions
- Concern about animal welfare and commercial farming practices
- Food safety
- Environmental concerns
About 16 million Americans, or 5 percent, are vegetarians,. With that kind of demand, it isn’t difficult to find food products, restaurants, websites, cookbooks, and friends that cater to vegetarians, all of which make it relatively easy to stick to the diet.
First, you’ll need to decide what type of vegetarian diet to follow. There are four main types:
- Lacto-vegetarian diets exclude red meat, pork, poultry, seafood, and eggs and the foods that contain them. Dairy products are allowed.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian diets exclude red meat, pork, poultry, and seafood but allow eggs and dairy.
- Ovo-vegetarian diets exclude red meat, pork, poultry, seafood, and dairy products but allow eggs.
- Vegan diets exclude red meat, pork, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy, and all products that contain them.
Determining what to include and exclude from your diet will help you plan your diet and stick it. You’ll also need to know which foods deliver certain key nutrients. Getting adequate levels of vitamin B12, vitamin D, Omega 3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, and zinc can be a concern for vegetarians; you may need to do some extra planning or consider supplements if you’re coming up short.
In addition to lots of fruit and vegetables, a typical vegetarian diet usually includes beans, whole grains, nuts, and soy products — tofu and tempeh, for example — to replace foods you eliminate. So going vegetarian may require you to learn some new cooking skills, which could be fun!
Who would benefit
As a result of switching to a vegetarian diet, many people naturally lose weight and take a significant step toward minimizing health risks, such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and some cancers. Additionally, you may eliminate some unhealthy fats and increase health-promoting dietary fiber and phytochemicals. (You still need to watch out for calories.)
Of course, just because you stop eating meat doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be healthier if you make bad food choices. Many foods are vegetarian but aren’t good for you — white bread, highly processed breakfast cereal, ice cream, and cupcakes are all vegetarian. That said, small amounts of any of those foods probably won’t do you much harm.
The point is, in the long run you still have to make good choices about what you put in your mouth to fuel your body.
If you’re considering making a change to a vegetarian diet here are some tips that may help make your transition a little easier:
- Consider phasing in your new diet. You may find a gradual approach to becoming a vegetarian works better for you. If you’ve eaten meat your entire life, consider starting by going meatless two or three days a week at first.
- Phase meats out gradually. You may want to eliminate certain foods — meat or poultry, for example — one at a time.
- Find substitutions. You can reinvent many mainstream recipes — such as spinach lasagna or meatless chili. Look for resources to help you reimagine your favorite foods in vegetarian form.
- Talk to someone who’s done it. If you have friends or family who are vegetarians, ask them what their experience was when they made the switch. They may have helpful information and can be a resource and provide support as you change your habits.
Of course, you may want to take the plunge all at once. Either way, with a little knowledge and some careful planning, you can make your transition to a vegetarian diet healthful and easy.
March 25, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN