Thinking of Becoming a Vegetarian?

Are you tired of eating meat and want to become a vegetarian? Here is how you can make this very important lifestyle change carefully.

Photo credit: Anthony Poynton, Pixabay
Photo credit: Anthony Poynton, Pixabay

BY SARAH CASTELLANOS & NEVA COCHRAN, MS, RD, LD

Whether it’s for personal or health reasons, more and more people have decided to become a vegetarian. There are many different types of vegetarian diets; however, a true vegetarian, or vegan, eats no animal foods including chicken, fish or dairy products at all. When removing animal foods from your diet, it can be more challenging to get all the essential nutrients (in particular, iron, zinc, calcium, protein and vitamins B12 and D) your body needs. However, according to the American Dietetic Association, “a vegetarian diet can meet current recommendations for these nutrients.” If you choose to become a vegetarian, you must learn how to select foods to meet your nutritional requirements.

There are many benefits to adopting a vegetarian eating style. When done right, a vegetarian diet can lower your risk of obesity and chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. It may also improve digestion, lower blood pressure and even increase your energy level.

Unfortunately, when many people embark on a vegetarian eating plan, they fail to maintain a balanced diet. The key to a healthy vegetarian diet is eating a variety of foods while still making sure you have an adequate calorie intake. It is easy to remove meat from your diet and replace it with sugary carbohydrates and junk food, thus falling victim to binge eating. And that’s where the downfall can begin. So to be successful, remember these helpful hints when you become a vegetarian.

SLOW & STEADY
It may be difficult to quit all animal foods “cold turkey”, so ease into the diet over a few days or weeks. Try cutting back on just red meat and gradually do away with it all together. Then do the same with chicken and fish along with milk, cheese and yogurt. In the meantime, add plant foods such as favorite vegetables, fruits, grains, and proteins: beans, nuts and seeds along with soy foods such as tofu, soy milk, soy yogurt and soy cheese. Many of your favorite meals can be easily converted to vegetarian dishes by simply taking the meat out of the recipe.

Many of your favorite meals can be easily converted to vegetarian dishes by simply taking the meat out of the recipe.

NUTRITIONAL NECESSITIES
When becoming a vegetarian, everything you eat needs to count nutritionally. A well-balanced diet with foods that offer plenty of vitamins and minerals is a must. So don’t replace your protein-rich animal foods with too many processed foods or other less healthy substitutes. Try shopping at a natural food store such as Whole Foods or Sprouts, which are popping up more often especially in larger cities. Look for vegetarian labels on foods that contain no meat. Learn to substitute. There are many well-known brands, such as Morningstar Farms and Boca Foods, which offer delicious vegetarian options. Also, take a daily multi-vitamin and mineral supplement that supplies no more than 100 percent of the daily value for each nutrient to make sure you’re not missing any essential nutrients.

SMART SWITCHING
Making the change will require some effort. There is not a quick fix, so do some simple research beforehand to make sure you know what foods are best and how to make the most of everything you eat. It’s a good idea to buy a vegetarian cookbook to give you easy, fun ideas right away. Try asking some of your vegetarian friends for tips and about their favorite vegetarian dishes. According the American Dietetic Association’s Vegetarian Food Guide Pyramid, vegetarians should eat six servings of whole grains a day, five servings of legumes, nuts, and other protein-rich foods, four servings of vegetables, two servings of fruit and two servings of fats. If you keep this in mind, you will be well on your way to a healthy, new you.

If you commit to making this type of eating style work, becoming a vegetarian is a lot easier than you might think. For more help planning healthy vegetarian meals, consult a registered dietitian. To find one in your area, go to www.eatright.org and click on “Find a Registered Dietitian” at the upper right.

QUICK IDEAS FOR HEALTHY VEGETARIAN MEALS

Breakfast:
– Oatmeal with nuts and soy milk
– Fruit

Lunch:
– Peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole-wheat bread
– Spinach salad with mushrooms, orange sections, sunflower seeds and vinaigrette dressing

Dinner:
– Veggie Burger on whole grain bun, lettuce, tomato and soy cheese
– Three-bean Salad

Snacks:
– Dried fruit and nuts
– Popcorn
– Raw vegetables with hummus

Sarah Castellanos is a student at the University of Missouri working toward a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition and dietetics.  In July 2010 and June/July 2011, she worked with Neva Cochran, a registered dietitian and nutrition communications consultant in Dallas, Texas.

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