Thinking about going vegetarian? I'm sharing ten things I wish I would've know before I made the switch.
1. Align with your intention
The first step in any major lifestyle shift is to understand intention and motivation. So why, exactly, are you thinking about going plant-based? Because you love pigs and cows? Because you know environmental sustainability is your passion and purpose? Maybe you’re thinking a vegan diet could be your golden ticket to thinness? There are plenty of great reasons to eat less meat, but be honest with yourself here. Most people don’t need to eliminate food groups to achieve better health, and the pursuit of weight loss is totally futile.
2. Know how to answer the #1 question
If you’ve been a vegetarian for at least one hour, you’ve probably already been asked the question. So where do vegans and vegetarians get their protein?
Truth is, protein is everywhere—plants included—and most of us already get plenty. If you’re trying to include more plant proteins, use pulses (beans, peas, lentils—disclosure, a client), soy foods (tofu, tempeh, edamame), whole grains, nuts, and seeds. I shared a typical day of high-protein, plant-based meals in my Guide to Plant-Based Protein.
3. Drop the labels
If you’re preparing to go veg, get ready for an onslaught of questions from family, friends, coworkers, strangers at parties, your hair stylist, the checkout clerk at Trader Joe’s—it just never. ends.
I used the “vegetarian” or “vegan” label in these conversations in the past, because it was so much easier than explaining the truth. (AKA I eat food—mostly plants, unless you want to split the cheese plate, or you made fish tacos.)
I eventually realized that labels were pigeonholing me into a lifestyle that didn’t quite fit who I really was. I felt dishonest when I crossed the line, and for a long time, hiding behind the label hindered my ability to develop a truly intuitive relationship with food. So totally, go explore this vegetarian thing, but don’t feel like you need to give it a label or follow specific rules for anybody.
4. Seek satisfaction
One of the most common complaints I hear from new vegans and vegetarians is not feeling satisfied after meals. A few potential causes: (1) You aren’t balancing your meals out with enough produce, starch, protein, or fat. (2) Your portion sizes are too small, and you’re not actually honoring your body’s hunger signals. (3) You’re not listening to your body’s cravings. If you’ve ever ordered a salad when you really wanted lasagna, you know how impossible it is to feel satisfied when you don’t give your body what it’s asking for. The salad may appear like the healthier choice at first, but it often leads to dissatisfaction, late night binges, and a downward spiral of self-trust and negative emotions soon after.
5. Get calcium without dairy
Not only is it possible to meet your calcium needs without dairy, but choosing plant-based sources could actually give you more bone-promoting nutrients, like vitamin K, potassium, and vitamin C, too. The catch? You’ll need to focus on calcium-rich plant foods that are also low in oxalates. (Oxalates can bind calcium and decrease its absorption.) Low-oxalate foods with calcium include collard greens, kale, broccoli, calcium-fortified tofu and plant milks, figs, almond butter, tahini, and beans.
6. Get iron without meat
Non-heme (plant) iron isn’t absorbed as easily as heme iron (from meat), so you may need to pay more attention to your intake if you’re vegan or vegetarian. High vitamin C foods (mostly fruits and vegetables) offset some of these effects, because vitamin C improves iron absorption. A few examples of iron-containing plant foods: spinach, swiss chard, oatmeal, tempeh, almonds, and raisins.
7. Get your vitamin B12
Vegans, vegetarians, and everyone over the age of 50 should be paying attention to vitamin B12. You can find it in milk, yogurt, cheese, and eggs, but natural plant sources aren’t as reliable. Some plant-based foods (plant milks, cereals, nutritional yeast, and certain meat substitutes) are fortified with vitamin B12, but a supplement is probably needed if you’re vegan. (Ask your dietitian for brand and dosing recommendations.)
8. Move past the bland and boring myth
There’s a misconception out there that vegetarian cooking is bland and boring, but to the contrary, cooking with plants taught me how to meld together flavors in ways I’d never imagined before—it’s what turned me into a little bit of a foodie, really. You can infuse so much flavor into plant-based dishes with seasonal produce, fresh herbs, spices, avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil, vinegars, and so much more. I don’t expect everyone to develop the same devotion, but with a few good recipes, and some open-mindedness, I think everyone can enjoy plant-based cooking from time to time. I shared a few strategies for opening up your family to plant-based eating in an earlier blog post.
9. Drop perfectionism
It’s easy to feel like every meal needs to be the picture of #veganfoodporn perfection, but beating yourself up over a pizza craving isn’t going to help. You’re worthy of the same compassion you give others. It’s okay to take baby steps. And you absolutely do not need to mold yourself into that strict, 100% vegan label if it’s not working for you. The perfect diet is the ultimate myth.
10. Work with a dietitian
If you feel like you could be missing out on one of the nutrients above, or if you feel at all conflicted about your transition to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, consider talking things out with a registered dietitian. An intuitive eating dietitian can help you fill in the nutritional gaps while you explore what health means to you in a judgment-free space. Let me know if you want to learn more about working together!
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