If you’re thinking about becoming a vegetarian, it can be daunting to know where to start.
Rest assured: with the vegetarian lifestyle increasing in popularity, more restaurants and grocery stores are accommodating these dietary needs than ever before.
Vegetarian recipe blogs abound, and new plant-based takes on old favorites like the Impossible Burger make this diet as easy to follow as any other.
Still, you might be wondering where to start with this new lifestyle. This comprehensive guide will walk you through the basics of becoming a vegetarian.
Vegetarian Vs. Vegan
If you’ve wondered what the difference is between vegans and vegetarians, you’re not alone. Many similarities exist between the two diets.
They do have one glaring difference, though. While vegetarians do not eat meat, they do consume animal byproducts like eggs, cheese, or butter.
Vegans, on the other hand, consume neither animals nor their byproducts.
In other words, if an animal died to make the product (a steak, for example), neither group eats it. If an animal was involved in its production in any way (like dairy-based ice cream), vegetarians can eat it, but vegans do not.
As an aside, including animal byproducts in your new vegetarian diet will ensure a smoother transition away from meat. Eggs and milk are good sources of protein, and make useful meat substitutes in recipes like fried rice, protein bowls, and more.
If you’re interested in becoming vegan, consider a gradual approach: vegetarianism first, with a slow decrease in animal byproduct consumption as time goes on. This will make veganism less of a shock to your system.
“Vegetarian” Does Not Automatically Mean “Healthy”
This is a big and understandable misconception about this lifestyle.
Due to occasionally low sources of protein, iron, or other nutrients you used to receive from meat, you can feel hungry a lot. When you’re not sure what to eat, you tend to grab whatever is around and whatever is easiest.
The product may be vegetarian, but it’s almost always packed with sugar and carbs, too. Be sure to portion out your intake of these snack foods into appropriate amounts.
If you find yourself gorging on food after becoming vegetarian, it’s possible you’re deficient in certain vitamins or minerals. The same goes if you experience lethargy or mood swings. Consult a doctor to get some basic lab work done for anemia and other deficiencies.
Alternatively, you might find yourself rapidly losing weight, now that so many of your favorite foods are off-limits as a vegetarian.
Keep a food log to track your caloric intake, and make sure you’re getting the right amount for your height, weight, and lifestyle.
Beware of Hidden Animal Bases
Some folks who won’t eat meat have no problem consuming fat-based flavorings. They may even take supplements with bases like cod liver oil.
If you choose to make exceptions to your vegetarianism like those, that’s entirely your call. If, however, you want to avoid hidden animal bases, watch for these items on food labels:
- Gelatin. This substance consists of animal skin, tendons, and bones. It’s boiled down to form a gel-like substance, and is found in Jello (obviously), candies, marshmallows, and even vitamins.
- Lard. Simply put, lard is fat from pigs. It’s found in many baked goods and anywhere you’d expect to also find butter.
- Rennet. This enzyme is found inside the stomachs of animals (usually calves) and is used to make a lot of different cheeses. Many don’t require rennet, however. A lot of cheese production companies have recently switched over to vegetable options.
- Beef/chicken stock, bacon fat, and bone broth. Usually added for flavor, these ingredients can still affect your body the same way meat would. Slowly consuming less of these might be ideal for brand-new vegetarians looking to ease into the lifestyle, but if you want to steer clear of meat completely, watch for these in most products.
How to Get Your Protein and Iron as a New Vegetarian
There are probably more sources of natural protein and iron sources than you have ever imagined. Some excellent meat substitutes and protein sources include:
- Seitan. A gluten product that has a similar texture to meat that also contains iron and other nutrients.
- Tofu, tempeh, or edamame. All made from soybeans and packed with protein and amino acids.
- Lentils. Delightful little bean-like things that are packed with protein and fiber.
- Beans and chickpeas. There is a huge variety of these, so you are bound to find one you like. Hummus, for example, is made of chickpeas, and makes a great dip for vegetables.
- Nuts and seeds. Full of protein and healthy fats.
- Mushrooms. Not as protein-packed, but they are rich, diverse, and delicious. They also contain a lot of B-vitamins.
- Dark greens. Veggies like spinach, brussel sprouts, broccoli, and the outlier potatoes (or sweet potatoes) are high in protein, iron, and vitamins.
- Dark fruits. Nectarines, blackberries, and blueberries are all vitamin-rich and delicious.
Benefits of Becoming a Vegetarian
Lower Food Bill
If planned in advance, eating as an herbivore is insanely inexpensive. Including foods like those listed above will keep your grocery budget low.
The pricier options include plant-based replacements (like Impossible Burgers or other burger substitutes), and vegetarian-branded snacks. You can choose to include these in your weekly shopping trips, but watch out for creeping costs.
Grocery shopping as a vegetarian isn’t all that different from most shoppers’ experiences. The more whole goods and ingredients you buy (to cook with yourself), the cheaper it will be. If, however, you go for more premade options and snacks, that total will look a lot higher at the register.
Easier Mealtime Cleanups
No more fat or grease caked to baking sheets and pans, no more strict clean-up after handling raw meats…the kitchen is a very different place after you switch to a vegetarian diet!
Simple Meal Substitutions
One of the best parts about becoming a vegetarian is how simple it is to substitute meatless options for your favorite meals.
You don’t have to give up your beloved spaghetti; just ditch the ground beef or sausage from your favorite sauce (or make your own from scratch). Substitute mushrooms for some extra flavor, if you’d like.
Bean tacos or quesadillas are just as delicious as the original versions. Your lunchtime salad will be even more delicious with hardboiled eggs or tofu in place of grilled chicken. Get creative! You might find your new vegetarian recipe is even better than the original.
Restaurants Almost Always Have Options
Unlike other diets (veganism, for example), vegetarianism is common enough and lighter on the restrictions that make cooking such a challenge for other dietary needs. This means restaurants will be more apt to include a vegetarian option or two.
And, in the event your establishment of choice doesn’t have a vegetarian option, you can always ask for a customized meal made with ingredients most places already have on-hand, like rice and vegetables.
Keep in mind that some cultures eat more vegetables than others. This means places like Indian, Thai, Mexican, or sushi restaurants may cater to vegetarians more easily than many American chains.
Live a Healthier Lifestyle and Feel Better
Perhaps the biggest benefit of becoming a vegetarian is how much better you’ll feel. When you plan your food intake wisely, you can meet all your required vitamin and nutrient levels, dramatically lower your fat consumption, and still get plenty of protein.
Some people turn to vegetarianism for a dramatic dietary overhaul, while others just want a little more plant-based food in their normal diets. Whatever your reason is for becoming a vegetarian, you can absolutely succeed in it with good research, planning, and dedication. Bon Appétit!