How to become a healthy vegetarian – such a simple thing for those of us who have made the decision to not eat meat, and such a difficult thing for those of us who could not imagine a meal without it. The journey to a meat-less life is one that many of us are deciding to embark on. There is an abundance of research being published about the health benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle from lower rates of cancer, osteoporosis and inflammatory conditions, to naturally lowering cholesterol, blood pressure and reducing gallstone formation – it’s no wonder it’s become such a popular life choice! But once we make the decision, how do we put it into action? Where are the steps that lead us from a commitment to meat-free life, to actually living it successfully?
The biggest mistake I see being made when people choose to become a vegetarian is that they start without a plan or education. There are many things that you need to know, and without that knowledge, failure in some aspect is practically inevitable. In fact, there are probably more unhealthy vegetarians than healthy ones, so much so, there exists a term called Junk Food vegetarians.
The failures that follow a poorly planned vegetarian diet can look like the following:
- Nutrient deficiencies (B12, protein and iron are most common)
- Weight gain and/or hormone imbalance – this is due to a reliance on dairy, sugar and empty carbohydrates
- Poor health (weak immune system, fatigue, hair loss, muscle pain, allergies etc.) – results from eating only packaged “vegetarian” or “vegan” foods full of GMO ingredients, additives and fake ingredients
- Inability to actually be a vegetarian – falling back to eating meat as a result of hunger and lack of knowing what else to eat
The good news is that I am here to help you become a healthy vegetarian. You do not have to fall subject to the common failures, so if you are hoping to embrace a vegetarian diet, here are the stepping-stones to get you there.
How to Become a Healthy Vegetarian
The things you need to know in order to become a healthy vegetarian successfully
Where are you going to get your protein from?
Protein is a very important nutrient that is in charge of countless functions. It builds muscle and tissues, hair and nails, it gives us energy and focus, and is a component in hormones. Without adequate protein in the body, we can feel fatigued, lifeless, have a hard time concentrating and building muscle, can have weak hair and nails, and even lose our ability to menstruate. That is why getting enough protein when choosing to become a vegetarian is very important.
There are many sources of protein that do not come from animals, but it is important to start counting where you are getting them from. Many people who become vegetarian or vegan become protein-deficient because they do not eat enough protein-rich foods.
Take Action: The way to ensure you are getting enough protein is to find out how much protein you need and where you are going to get it. Simply head on over to my plant-based protein chart to calculate how much protein you need in a day. Then make a list of the protein-rich foods you are going to eat daily in order to meet that goal.
Best sources of vegetarian protein
– Eggs, organic
– Organic Greek Yogurt
– Protein powder
– Beans and lentils
– Raw nuts and seeds, nut butters
Tip for success: Most of us do not have time or the math skills to eat enough or calculate our protein intake for the day, so in order to save you the trouble take my advice and get a plant-based protein powder. By using a plant-based protein powder in either a glass of almond milk or smoothie daily, you can be assured that you are getting a sufficient amount of protein for the day. This is my top recommendation to meeting your protein needs when you go vegetarian or vegan. Simple and effective.
Take Action: Purchase a vegan protein powder like Sunwarrior Blend Vanilla Protein Powder
*You can also find my reviews of best vegan protein powders here.
Where are you getting B12 and Iron?
The second two nutrients that are most commonly missed in a vegetarian or vegan diet are B12 and iron. This is because B12 and the most easily absorbed form of iron are primarily found in meat sources. Once you eliminate meat from the diet, people quickly become B12 and iron deficient. And why is this a big deal? Being B12 and iron deficient causes you to feel tired. I mean really tired. This is especially true in women since we lose quite a bit of iron every month from menstruation.
B12 and iron are both needed for red blood cell production. Without enough B12 or iron, anemia can occur. B12 is also needed for cardiovascular health (normalizes homocysteine levels), for building DNA (our genetic backbone), nerve and brain health, and energy production at a cellular level. Iron, like B12, also plays a role in oxygen transportation and energy production. Without proper levels fatigue, muscle weakness, and excessive menstrual blood flow can occur.
Take Action: In order to get enough B12 it is important to eat foods that are rich in B12. When being a vegetarian, make sure to include the following foods into the diet daily.
Foods rich in vitamin B12
– Mushrooms, crimini
– Tempeh, organic
– Nutritional yeast (make sure it is fortified in B vitamins)
– Yogurt, organic
*the following foods most likely only contribute to 1/3 of daily need of B12. For that reason it is recommended to add B12 fortified foods or supplements into the daily routine to ensure sufficient daily intakes of B12.
Take Action: In order to get enough iron it is important to eat foods that are rich in iron. It is also important to eat them with foods rich in vitamin C in order to optimize iron absorption. Drink coffee or tea only between meals–never with food. You absorb up to 40% less iron with coffee, and up to 70% less with tea.
Foods rich in Iron
– Swiss chard
– Collard greens
– Bok choy
For a complete list go to Plant-Based Iron Sources.
*Many factors can reduce the iron content in a food. To ensure you are getting adequate levels, eat your vegetables raw or lightly steamed, not boiled. Also, soak your beans and grains in order to reduce levels of phytic acid, a component that binds to iron and thus lowers iron levels available.
Tip for success: take a high-quality B12 and Iron vitamin. Taking a high-quality supplement is the easiest way to ensure that you are getting enough B12 and iron. Since most of us are not dedicated to counting our nutrient intake, taking a supplement is the fastest and most effective way to put our minds at ease.
*Before taking an iron supplement consult with your MD to ensure it is right for you.
Recommended Daily Intake for B12: 2.4 micrograms
Recommended Daily Intake for Iron: 8 mg/day for men and postmenopausal women, 18 mg/day for premenopausal women, and 27 mg/day for pregnant women.
Avoid “Vegan” or “Vegetarian” Fake Foods
A huge pit fall of becoming vegetarian or vegan is that people trade meat for fake vegan or vegetarian meat substitutes. Most of these “meats” are full of ingredients that are oftentimes more unhealthy than meat itself. They are typically made of GMO (genetically modified) soy and corn proteins and fillers, chemical additives and preservatives, and other non-nutritive food-like substances. In addition, many are made of wheat proteins that many people cannot properly digest leading to digestive issues, allergy-like symptoms, bloating and immune suppression.
Don’t Become a Junk Food Vegetarian
Avoid the trap of eating only Wheat, Soy and Dairy
- Soy, wheat and dairy are the top food allergens
- Eating mainly soy, wheat and dairy can cause nutrient deficiencies
- Soy exposes you to GMO (genetically modified) foods
- Soy and non-organic dairy exposes you to hormones, which can lead to hormone imbalance and hormone-related cancers and conditions
- Soy contains compounds that prevent mineral uptake, which can lead to mineral deficiencies
- Being a junk food vegetarian quickly leads to weight gain and skin issues
Most people are so excited to go vegetarian because they can eat cheese and bread. Cheese is the one food group that I find most people never want to give up, even over meat, chocolate and alcohol. That is why people believe that going vegetarian is going to be amazing! Free reign to eat cheese all day long.
A diet composed of primarily dairy, soy and wheat is probably the most common case of vegetarian failure. Meat is replaced with these other foods that are in many ways no healthier. There are a few problems with these foods, one being that the most common food allergies are from wheat, soy and dairy. Many of us cannot digest these foods properly, which causes immune reactions in the body. Issues such as sinus infections, weight gain, eczema and psoriasis, acne, fatigue, foggy head, and a weak immune system are all side effects from food allergies. So switching from a diet rich in meat, to a diet rich in soy, wheat and dairy is not the answer.
Another reason that becoming a vegetarian that eats mostly wheat, soy and dairy is something to avoid is because these foods crowd out the healthy foods. I cannot tell you how many vegetarians I meet that display countless signs of nutrient deficiencies. While you think that they would be eating lots of vegetables and fruits, many hardly eat any all day long. That is because they are busy filling their plate with wheat, soy and dairy – really it is easier than you might think. Bagel and cream cheese for breakfast, quesadilla for lunch, soy protein bar for a snack, and pasta alfredo or tofu steaks for dinner. No vegetables and fruit.
Once you decide to become vegetarian, you must be very aware of where you are getting your nutrition. Making sure that you are eating vegetables at every meal is vital, along with filling your plate with other nutrient-rich foods such as beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, healthy fats, fruits and whole grains (other than wheat).
The final thing you must do to avoid being a junk food vegetarian is to watch the soy. Soy is advertised as being a vegetarian’s best friend, especially since it is a good source of plant-based protein, but its not all that its cut out to be. First and foremost, most all soy in the U.S is genetically modified (GMO). If it is not organic you can be sure it is GMO. And why do we care about avoiding GMO? Because GMO foods have the possibility to cause infertility, birth defects, cancer and organ damage. There is much we do not know about the long-term health effects of GMO foods, but the research is pointing in the direction that it is harmful. If you are going to eat soy, I recommend only eating 1-2 organic servings a week.
A Note about Soy: When you eat organic soy, eat it sparingly. Soy is estrogenic, meaning it contains compounds that act like estrogen in the body. For many people the consumption of soy can cause hormone imbalance. This can lead to a host of issues including PMS, weight gain, fertility issues, low testosterone, and mood disorders. If you have not gone through menopause, have had an estrogen-sensitive cancer (like breast cancer), are a child or man, this is of even more importance. Limit your soy consumption to 1-2x/week. To learn more about soy read my article Is Soy Healthy?. In addition, soy has natural compounds that prevent the body from absorbing minerals. Daily consumption of soy can cause mineral deficiencies.
The best form of soy is organic tempeh, nama shoyu and miso. These are fermented forms of soy. The fermentation process breaks down the compounds that inhibit mineral absorption. It also improves the digestion of soy, ideal for those who have soy sensitivities.
*In some cases such as for menopausal women, organic soy can be a beneficial food. Read the article “Is Soy Healthy?” for more information.
A Note about Dairy: only buy organic dairy. Conventional (non-organic) dairy, including cheese, milk, ice cream and yogurt comes from cow’s that are routinely fed growth hormones. These growth hormones can cause hormone imbalance when consumed. In addition, conventionally raised cows are given antibiotics. Eating non-organic dairy exposes you to these antibiotics, which can lead to antibiotic resistance. This is of particular importance because if you are in need of antibiotics for health reasons, you need them to work. Only eat organic dairy.
What does a vegetarian eat?
Surprisingly once we take away meat, most of us have no clue how to eat. What does a vegetarian meal look like? How are we going to eat a meal without meat and feel full? The key is the right balance of fiber-rich vegetables, satiating healthy fats and plant-based proteins. There are so many foods that you can choose from, you will quickly notice that you are eating more variety than you ever did when eating meat.
- Protein smoothie
- Greek yogurt with protein powder, berries, nut butter
- Protein pancake with Greek Yogurt and berries
- Scrambled eggs with veggies
- Sprouted wheat or GF toast with avocado and fried egg
- Sprouted wheat or GF toast with nut butter, hemp seeds and honey
- Salads with beans, fresh vegetables, nuts or seeds, scoop of hummus
- Wraps with avocado, sprouts, organic cheese, tomatoes
- Veggie burgers (love Hilary’s Eat Well)
- Bean and rice with sautéed veggies
- Tacos (breakfast) eggs, black beans, salsa, cheese
- Grain bowls with roasted veggies, quinoa, avocado, seeds, tahini dressing
- Veggie Chili or Soup
- Stuffed sweet potato
- Avocado veggie sushi
- Tempeh spring rolls
- Tempeh “bacon” BLT sandwich
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Hummus with veggies and seed crackers
- Protein smoothie
- Veggie burger patty
- Nutrition bar
- Yogurt and berries
- Avocado with sea salt and nutritional yeast
- Dates stuffed with nut butter
How to Think like a Healthy Vegetarian
When you are going to prepare a meal always think about the different categories from which to choose. The goal is to have protein, healthy fats, slow burning complex carbs and fiber-rich produce. The benefits of being vegetarian come from the nutrients in these food groups, making it very important to include them at each meal. The richer the plate is with nutrients, the healthier and more successful a vegetarian diet will be. And remember, cheese and white carbs do not constitute a healthy vegetarian meal.
Protein: beans, lentils, eggs, organic cheese or Greek yogurt, nuts, seeds, quinoa, eggs
Fats: olives, avocado, nuts, seeds, coconut, oils (olive, coconut, grapeseed, avocado, flax, hemp)
Vegetables: all fresh vegetables (steamed, sautéed, roasted or baked)
Fruits: dried or fresh
Grains: brown, jasmine or wild rice, faro, amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, soba noodles, rice noodles, quinoa pasta, couscous
Fermented foods: sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled vegetables
How to Start Becoming a Healthy Vegetarian
Start with one vegetarian meal a day
The first step to how to become a healthy vegetarian is setting up a plan that will support your success. And for some, that means NOT diving into a vegetarian diet full force. Easing into a vegetarian diet one meal a day can be the most effective way for many people, especially if you’re someone who eats meat at every meal. If you are not a person who is a hard-core meat eater, then you can start off a bit more committed. Try being vegetarian during the week, and allowing yourself to eat meat on the weekends. After a month or so, you can start adding in the weekend days to your vegetarian routine.
Buy a plant-based vegetarian cookbook
The next most important step of becoming a healthy vegetarian is planning your meals and cooking at home. Pick up a few cookbooks and choose recipes that you are going to prepare during the week. This way you can ensure that you will be eating a healthy vegetarian meal, and won’t end up eating a burger at a fast food restaurant. And to make it that much easier, here is a vegetarian meal plan for the week.
Another important thing to mention is that many restaurants do not offer healthy or delicious vegetarian options. The most common vegetarian meal you will see at a restaurant is pasta. While eating pasta from time to time is okay, it is certainly not the healthiest option, and NOT one that you want to base your vegetarian diet on. Relying on pasta, or other refined carb-based meals like pizza or quesadillas is a quick way to becoming a junk food vegetarian.
Take Action: Choose a couple vegetarian cookbooks. Here are a few favorites:
Stock up on vegetarian essentials
The next thing you will want to do in order to become a healthy vegetarian is to stock up on vegetarian essentials. There are certain foods that you’re always going to use in recipes, favorite vegetarian staples to grab in a pinch, and protein-packed basics needed to ensure that you get your nutrition for the day.
Take Action: Get the vegetarian essentials
– Nutritional yeast (a cheese-like powder that is rich in protein and B vitamins)
– Supplements (iron and B12)
– High-Speed Blender to make the best smoothies and soup (I love the Vitamix)
– Protein powder (check out my favorites here)
– Protein essentials: organic eggs, organic Greek yogurt, beans, quinoa, organic tempeh, hummus, protein bars, hemp seeds, nut butter (almond, walnut, cashew – love Artisana)
Tip for Success: Join Thrive Market. Thrive market is an online shopping site that is like Costco for health foods and non-toxic products. You can find so many amazing vegetarian foods, snacks and staples here for discounted prices, making becoming a healthy vegetarian that much easier. I buy all my bars, protein powders, superfood smoothie powders, nut butters and pantry items here. It has saved me tons of money, and has introduced me to new brands I never would have tried otherwise.
Find plant-based vegetarian restaurants/to-go markets
Part of the fun of becoming a vegetarian is enjoying all that this meat-free cuisine has to offer. Check out local restaurants that are plant-based and vegetarian (or at least vegetarian friendly) and discover how delicious vegetarian food can be. Many times we need to truly experience how amazing a meatless dish can be in order to be more inspired to cook vegetarian at home. Head over to my restaurant list for inspiration.
Another essential step to becoming a successful and healthy vegetarian is finding a vegetarian lifeline. This lifeline is going to be vegetarian take out food. There inevitably will be a time when you are too tired to cook, or just don’t have the desire, which is when you will want to have a place picked out to get good vegetarian food to-go. Many health food stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s have great options, or they can be found at juice shops. If you don’t have any around, consider prepping meals on the weekends and freezing them for these times of need.
Make sure being a vegetarian is right for you
Following a vegetarian diet has many health benefits as mentioned before, but for some it may not be right. Each body is different and has different needs at different times, and therefore it is vital to listen to them. For some a vegetarian diet may not be the healthiest, and it is important to honor that. Always check in with how you are feeling, and how your diet is making you feel. If you start feeling like following a vegetarian diet is not what your body needs at that time, honor that and listen. Do not judge or force a certain diet on yourself. Just because your body is telling you that you need to eat meat now does not mean that your body will need meat later. The body’s chemistry changes over time depending on how you are exercising, what your stress levels are, and what you are facing physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Recognize that we are changing beings and the foods that we eat should follow that change. Be fluid, don’t define yourself as a label, and listen to your needs.
If you decide that you need to eat meat, then do so with awareness. Only choose organic meat that has been raised in a humane manner without the use antibiotics or hormones. Choose meat that has been grass-fed not grain-fed. Eat locally. Eat sparingly. We never need as much food as we think we do, and overeating, especially of meat is the number one cause of disease.
Still wondering if being vegetarian is the right decision for you? Perhaps you need to explore your motivation for why you are wanting to eat vegetarian, but cannot seem to commit to it. Read my article on Discover your True Resolutions and How to Acheive Them for more insight. Or perhaps you can benefit from My Food Philosophy by reading about it here.