Adopting a vegetarian lifestyle is a big change. Maybe you have been a “veggie” your whole life, or you are considering making the swap. Either way, vegetarianism takes a lot of work. With the right information and practice you can safely achieve a healthy diet. Here are the answers to some of the most important diet questions.
What nutrients will I need now that I have given up meat?
Key nutrients that all vegetarians should focus on are protein, vitamin B12, and iron (especially women).1 If you normally obtain most of your protein in the form of meat, finding a new protein source can be challenging. Staple ingredients to keep around the house in place of meat include beans, lentils, quinoa, eggs, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, milk, pistachios, almonds, peanuts, and edamame. Vitamin B12 can be found in dairy products, eggs, and fortified foods such as nutritional yeast, soy milk, and some cereals. However, if you don’t normally eat these types of food, a vitamin B12 supplement may be necessary. Lastly, good vegetarian sources of iron include fortified cereals, soybeans, some darky leafy greens, beans, and eggs. It’s also a good idea to eat iron-rich foods with a good source of vitamin C to increase absorption, especially because plant-based iron is absorbed differently than iron found in meat. This can be achieved by eating iron-rich foods with a citrus fruit.
I recently became a vegetarian and gained weight. What’s up with that?
There may be a few reasons a newly adopted vegetarian diet leads to weight gain. The most probable being an increase in poor-choice carbohydrate intake and lower protein intake. Protein is beneficial because it typically provides more satiety than carbohydrates or fat, which might help to keep hunger at bay.2,3 Feeling full longer can lead to a decrease in energy consumption. Another reason you may be noticing weight gain is because you load up on processed or starchy carbs.4 Don’t replace meat with foods like bread and potatoes, but focus on filling up on proteins and fiber such as those listed above. You should also seize this opportunity to increase your vegetable and fruit intake. Lastly, be cautious not to overdo it on nut and seeds. They are a fantastic source of fat and protein, but they are extremely energy dense and can increase caloric intake by hundreds if you aren’t careful.
What are the health benefits of vegetarianism?
If you take care of your body correctly, there are benefits you may reap from a new vegetarian lifestyle. People may choose to adopt a vegetarian diet to improve their health, support religious beliefs, avoid antibiotics used in livestock, or promote animal welfare. Either way, in comparison to meat eaters, vegetarians often consume less saturated fat, cholesterol, and consume more vitamin C, vitamin E, fiber, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, and phytochemicals.5 For this reason, they are more likely to have a lower total and LDL cholesterol count, as well as lower blood pressure and body mass index. While it’s hard to draw a firm conclusion that doesn’t take external influences into account, there is some evidence that suggests vegetarians have a lower risk of cardiac evens (one study showed vegetarians on average were 25% less likely to die of heart disease), may reduce risk of developing cancer, and type 2 diabetes. However, this isn’t to say non-vegetarians don’t enjoy these benefits as well if they consume a healthy amount of fruits and vegetables. That being said, if you eliminate red meat from your diet specifically, vegetarian or not, you can reduce your risk of colon cancer. Interestingly, vegetarians typically have lower levels of potentially carcinogenic substances in their colon.5
As you continue to progress through your vegetarian diet but sure to pay extra attention to what your body is telling you and choose a high-quality supplement if needed. Congrats and welcome to the club. Go out and get ‘em, veggie!