Becoming Vegetarian: 8 Tips To Help You
Tips from the Nutrition Consultant
Is it true that after years of eating fried chicken and 10 ounce steaks at restaurants, you are finally thinking of saying goodbye to your departed animal friends? Are you finally freaked out about all of the yucky stuff that is shoved into our animals' bodies and feel that a meatless life would be beneficial to both your health and the environment? Well, you've come to the right place!
Welcome to a lifestyle change!
Wait! Don't go yet! It's not that scary. Too often, when people make decisions about going meatless (or animal-less altogether), they don't gather information first, thus, setting themselves up for failure. I've seen people just stop eating meat, but they continue with their lifestyle of eating lots of pastas (mac and cheese, for example) and fries. Hmmm.....not so healthy.
Quick definition check: Vegetarianism involves not eating the flesh of animals. This includes fish. Vegetarians still eat eggs and dairy. Veganism involves not eating any animal products at all, including eggs and dairy.
Consider your reasons for wanting to make the switch. Some people, it is for health reasons. Others support animal welfare. And some are interested in the environmental impact. If you choose all three, that is okay too! Be prepared to explain your "why" to family members. You will get judged and criticized. You can tell people to shove off, or you can approach it more appropriately. I've found that many people really don't want a lecture as to why you've chosen the foods you eat. So I suggest a response like, "Because I want to be healthier." Many are quite afraid of your choices because it makes them feel inferior. There ARE a few who really do want to know, and are interested because they care about their health too. It's an adventure!
Before taking the plunge, here are some tips that will help you make the transition with style!
1.) Begin to increase your vegetable intake. Successful vegetarians thrive off of the vegetables that they eat. Notice the words "Vegetarian, Vegan, and Vegetables" all start with the same three letters? Start by eating salads at your meals. Carry carrots and celery with you during the day. Adopt a Homemade Vegetable Soup Day! The main focus should be the veges! A word of caution though, to minimize your pesticide exposure, become familiar with the dirtiest produce, so that you can buy them organic. This list can be found on the Environmental Working Group's website at http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/.
2.) Know your sources of protein. When you give up meat and/or animal products, you give up some of the protein in your diet. Notice I say "some" of the protein. Many people don't realize that they don't need loads of protein each day, and they also don't realize that protein comes from many sources and not just animal products. We DO still need protein though to help us support the health of our muscles, not to mention that protein keeps us from feeling hungry all of the time! Proteins are our sources of essential amino acids too. Good sources include the legume family, such as lentils and beans. These also provide iron and fiber too! Many whole grains also contain protein, such as brown rice and quinoa. Whole grains contain many B vitamins and fiber as well! Nuts and seeds contain protein, as well as much needed minerals. Some people make the choice to also include soy products in their diet. I recommend minimally processed and organic soy though, since you don't want to eat up a bunch of GMOs. Miso, tempeh, and whole soybeans are the least processed.
3.) Know your sources of vitamins and minerals. Often, there are misunderstandings about iron, calcium, and Vitamin B12. It is imperative to understand that when you have a varied vegetarian/vegan diet that includes foods from the legume family, whole grains, and many vegetables and fruits, we end up getting all of the vitamins and minerals we need. It IS necessary to know, however, that since our foods have changed over the course of the years, supplementation may be necessary (even for those who still eat meat!). When it comes to iron, we can get loads of this mineral from our beans, as well as our dark leafy vegetables! Often the dark, leafy vegetables also contain vitamin C, which helps our iron absorption. It's a win-win! Calcium, which many people believe ONLY comes from dairy, can be found in abundance in our, yes, you guessed it, our leafy greens! Salads and broccoli are my top favorites! In addition, almonds contain calcium, as well as Vitamin E, a super antioxidant! Another win-win! As for Vitamin B12, we need this vitamin to support a healthy nervous system. We don't need huge amounts of this vitamin. For vegetarians, it can be found in dairy and eggs. I'm not a fan of dairy though, because of some negative health risks, but this is a topic for another article! Some foods are fortified with Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is also found in seaweed. Yes, you read that right! (And no, it is not green slime, and it is actually good!) This is one of those special items that can be added to the diet, once you've mastered the vegetarian/vegan basics. Sometimes, many people choose to take a B12 supplement. This is fine too! In addition, it is also helpful to look into a good quality multivitamin (even those who eat meat should do this!), as well as an Omega 3 and Vitamin D supplement. Do your research and explore your options! It's YOUR body!
4.) Try recipes and keep it varied as much as possible! There are so many vegetables, beans, and whole grains out there that you should never run out of neat ways to make your meals! However, like all of us, we tend to fall into a rut! When that happens, it's time to bust out the cookbooks or spend an hour searching for tasty fixes online! Variety adds adventure! Most importantly, it keeps you from falling off the tracks. Even carnivores need to have variety in their diet! Don't be afraid to try a new vegetable! There are some amazing grains out there too, that add spice to the typical rice meal. Also, nut butters get a thumbs up from me, specifically the ones without added junk. Sunflower butter is my favorite!
5.) Explore alternatives to favorite foods. If it is harder to give up something like cheese or burgers, there are many alternatives out there. Sometimes people use these substitute items to help with their transition. You can find some decent brands out there that offer meats and cheeses that are not meats and cheeses (get it?)......my only recommendation is to use these sparingly. Some of these items are overly processed and are no better than the box of Hamburger Helper. Read the ingredients please! Learn to make your own vege/bean burger! I can say that black bean burgers taste amazing! The other downside to the alternative meats and cheeses is that they do cost a little more money. It is wise to experiment on what you can live with and without.
6.) Have a Plan B for the rest of your family. If your spouse is still a meat lover, chances are it will be hard to change him/her. While you are on your health kick, you want your loved ones to eat well too, right? My suggestions for the meat-eaters of the house is to "invest" in their health by buying only grass-fed/pasture raised meats. Eggs should also be pasture raised/organic. Local farmers usually support this type of farming; however, you will pay an extra dollar or two. This is why it is an "investment" in your families' health. A suggestion would be to cut back on the meat meals to only a few days a week, so that the GOOD meat is eaten on these few days. Make sense? Trying new recipes just may keep your spouse interested in the new foods! Maybe? Well, it's worth a shot!
7.) Watch your "other" foods and drinks please. Even vegetarians and vegans sometimes still make the mistake of eating crap. Just because there are no animal products in the package, doesn't mean it is a health food. For example, soda and pop are no no's! No animal was sacrificed during the making of them, but they are a load of chemicals and sugar. Some boxed rice and pasta package "meals" are also loaded with unknown ingredients too (think MSG). Become familiar with what is edible and safe.
8.) Consider juicing! This can come once you've mastered your basics, but it is worth mentioning! Juicing can happen whether you are vegetarian or not! Juicing your vegetables is one sure way to get those valuable nutrients directly to your cells, without going through the process of digestion. It is a good way to supplement your healthy lifestyle. Remember to keep the vegetable and fruit ratio 3:1. In other words, for every 3 vegetables, you can add one fruit. This way, it is not overloaded with sugar.
Making the change to become vegetarian/vegan is a big one. It opens your eyes and changes your life. Remember, when you first begin, you may notice your digestive system doing some funky things. This is perfectly normal, since your body has been previously used to other foods. It may take a week to adjust. Hang in there! Also, know that you need to adapt to your bodies' needs. Everyone is different! Take baby steps, stay educated, and be your own health advocate! Your body, the earth, and many un-sacrificed animals will be happier!