Here's Everything You Should Consider Before Becoming Vegetarian
In 2018, 36 percent of Americans ate at least one vegetarian meal a week, and between 6 and 8 million chose to go fully vegetarian. If you’re considering following a vegetarian diet (it's likely easier than you think!), use these tips to ensure you're making the smartest food choices.
Before you start a vegetarian or plant-based diet, there are a few factors to consider to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need. We rounded up four of the top things to keep in mind as you transition to a vegetarian diet. We’ve also included a few tips (and vegetarian recipes, of course) to help you add protein and other nutrients to your plate.
You don’t have to go full vegetarian to reap health benefits, either—eating less meat and more whole grains, beans, and veggies can still improve your health. Whether you’re adding more plant-based foods to your plate or following a vegetarian diet, these tips will help you plan well-balanced meals.
1. Get Enough Protein
Adding enough protein to your plate is a top concern for many vegetarians. Once you cut back on meat or eliminate it entirely, you need to find other protein sources to replace it. Eggs and dairy can be good options, but there are also plant-based foods you can try that come with a healthy helping of protein. Beans, legumes, lentils, soy products, whole grains like quinoa, nuts, and seeds are all great sources of protein. And if you’ve heard before that you have to pair foods like rice and beans to get a complete protein (one that has the right balance of essential amino acids), that rule has been debunked. As long as you eat enough protein—around 49 grams per day for women and 56 grams for men—and include a variety of protein sources in your diet, you should get enough amino acids, too.
2. Keep an Eye on Micronutrients
Because so many plant-based foods are rich in protein, macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat, and protein) are pretty easily accounted for on a vegetarian diet. It's the micronutrients (aka vitamins and minerals) that require more of your attention. If you’re also cutting dairy and fish, finding alternative sources for these vitamins and minerals is even more important (a dietitian can help you plan your meals). These are the top micros to remember as you start eating less (or no) meat:
Aim for about 1,200 milligrams of calcium each day. While two to three servings of milk, cheese, and yogurt a day should be enough to help you hit your goal, you can find calcium in plenty of plant-based foods, too. Leafy green veggies are high in calcium, but your body absorbs calcium from some (like kale, broccoli, and collard greens) better than others (like spinach). Calcium-fortified tofu, bread, juices, soymilk, and soy cheese can also help you hit your goal.
Milk is fortified with vitamin D, so if you’re also cutting back on dairy, look for breakfast cereals and milk alternatives that are fortified with this nutrient. You can have your vitamin D levels checked by your doctor to see if you need supplements.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Fatty fish recipes are a good source of omega-3s, so if you cut out seafood, your levels could dip too low. Omega-3s are key for heart and brain health, so add flaxseed, chia, and walnuts to your diet (all three are good sources).
This vitamin is key for your brain and nervous system, but it’s only found in animal products. Eggs and dairy should supply plenty of B12 if you're allowing those as part of your vegetarian diet (aka lacto-ovo vegetarians). Vegans will need to include foods that are fortified with vitamin B12.
Women especially can have a hard time incorporating enough iron into their diets. Legumes, dark green leafy veggies, iron-fortified cereals and breads, whole grain products, seeds, prune juice, and dried fruit are all good sources of this nutrient. Eating vitamin C-rich foods (like broccoli, bell peppers, cauliflower, and kiwi) at each meal will help your body absorb the type of iron (non-heme iron) that’s found in plant foods.
Commonly thought of as an immunity booster, zinc also plays a role in cell division, breaking down carbs, and healing injuries. Whole grains (particularly the germ and bran of the grain), whole wheat breads, legumes, tofu, seeds, and nuts are all good sources of zinc. Grains that are processed into refined flour will lose zinc, so stick to whole grains.
3. Watch Out for Junk Food
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that everything labeled “vegetarian” is automatically healthy. Just like any packaged food, you need to check labels for calories, added sugars, saturated fat, and artificial ingredients. An update to the Nutrition Facts label is already rolling out on some products, and the new version should include a breakdown of added sugars and the levels of nutrients like vitamin D, calcium, and iron. One caveat: If you eat dairy, make sure you’re not relying too much on cheese for your vitamins and minerals because it can add up to high levels of saturated fat.
4. Don't Be Afraid of Soy
Older studies raised concerns that plant-based estrogens found in soy could increase the risk of developing hormone-related cancers like breast cancer. Newer research has debunked those ideas, and instead found that whole soy foods like soymilk, tofu, edamame, and tempeh, along with meat substitutes made with soy, are safe to eat in moderate amounts. Soy foods contain complete proteins that are valuable for vegetarians and vegans, so choose them whenever you can over protein powders and bars made with soy protein to get the most and widest range of nutrients.
Our Top Picks for Plant-Based Foods
Some foods are packed with more nutrients than others. These three all-stars will help you include a wide range of vitamins and minerals in your diet, and they’ll help keep you satisfied longer (plus they’re tasty, too!).
There’s a reason that tofu is a common choice for protein among vegetarians and vegans. Tofu is a nutrient-dense food, which means it is low in calories but high in other important nutrients. It’s usually high in fortified calcium, and it’s also a complete protein. Try adding these unexpected tofu recipes made with compressed soymilk curds to your meal plan.
Bulgur and Quinoa
Bulgur is made from dried, cracked wheat, and it cooks pretty quickly (usually in about 12 minutes). It’s high in minerals like iron, manganese, and magnesium, and is a solid source of fiber and protein, too. Quinoa is a rare "grain" (technically a seed) that contains all the essential amino acids, so it's a complete protein source. Get familiar with our best quinoa recipes if you're forgoing meat. You can add both bulgur and quinoa to salads to bulk them up; use them as an overnight grain for easy, healthy breakfasts; and in countless other ways.
There’s a good reason for the kale craze! It’s one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can find, and it’s high in calcium, fiber, and vitamins A, K, and C. Adding kale to salads is an easy way to incorporate more into your diet, but you can also make crispy kale chips or stir it into stew.
Decoding Common Vegetarian Terms
When you start looking for vegetarian and vegan foods, you might run into some unfamiliar terms on packaging and in recipes. Here are some of the most common ones you’ll see:
- Lacto-Ovo: Includes dairy products and eggs, but no meat, poultry, or fish.
- Lacto: Incorporates dairy, but doesn’t include meat, poultry, fish, or eggs.
- Ovo: Includes eggs, but not meat, poultry, fish, or dairy.
- Pescatarian: Includes fish and usually eggs, but excludes meat and poultry.
- Pollo-Vegetarian: Eats poultry, but no other types of meat.
- Vegan: Excludes all animal products like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, gelatin, and sometimes honey.
- Flexitarian: A mostly plant-based diet that still includes poultry, dairy, eggs, meat, and/or fish in small amounts.
Even if you’re just interested in adding a few plant-based meals to your diet each week, it’s important to know the ins and outs of vegetarian nutrition to ensure your body is getting all the nutrients it needs. We have plenty of vegetarian recipes you can try for dinner tonight, and other meatless recipes you can incorporate into your meal plan. Or, if you want to cut all animal products from your diet, we have info to help you go vegan, too!