Becoming a Vegetarian: What You Need to Know
Are you thinking about changing your diet to eat less meat, or to exclude it altogether? If so, you’re following in the footsteps of thousands of people who have enjoyed healthier lives. But becoming a vegetarian means more than turning your back on bacon sandwiches; you need to know what you should be eating, not just what you should be giving up.
If you’re a meat eater now, think about your diet; it may be pretty healthy already, or there might be some room for improvement. Everything you eat and drink has an effect on your body. If you’re going to exclude some of the things that are good for you, you’ll need to replace them. That means identifying what you gain from meat products, and then finding a vegetarian alternative.
For most people, the meat in a meal is primarily there as a source of protein, and the vegetables are there to provide carbohydrates, fiber, and some minerals. If you take away the meat, you’ll need to find an alternative source of protein. Unless you’re taking the extra step to become a vegan, you’ll still be able to eat eggs and dairy products, which are rich in protein. You can also get protein from nuts and seeds, soy and soy products, and beans and lentils. Although the vegetarian alternatives contain less protein, weight for weight, than meat, you won’t need to be eating huge piles of lentils; 6 ounces of plain Greek yogurt and 4 ounces of tofu contain more protein together than 4 ounces of chicken breast.
In general, you’ll need 1/2 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, depending on your activity level. So if you weigh 140 pounds, you’ll need between 70 and 140 grams of protein a day. The simplest way to make sure you’re getting this from a vegetarian diet is to have a good source of protein at every meal. Remember: unless you are currently having meat at every meal, becoming vegetarian isn’t just about replacing the meat with extra vegetables; you’ve got to be thinking “protein” at every mealtime.
Meat and fish are also good sources of minerals such as iron, zinc, iodine, and calcium. Your body needs iron for hemoglobin, so that your bloodstream can carry oxygen to your cells. If you’re low on iron (anemic), you’ll feel constantly lethargic and lacking in energy. If you don’t get enough zinc, your immune system doesn’t work properly, and you’ll get ill more easily and take longer to get well. Iodine helps to regulate your metabolism, and calcium is essential for strong bones and healthy teeth. You can take supplements if you’re concerned that you’re not getting enough of these minerals, but you can get all you need from food.
Whole grains, nuts, and wheat germ will provide you with zinc, which is also found in cheese. If you like sushi, the seaweed wrapped around it is a source of iodine, but the easiest way to get iodine is to use iodized salt, which provides a good dose in less than a 1/2 teaspoon. Dark green vegetables like broccoli and kale are high in calcium, and of course milk and dairy products are full of it. Your body can’t absorb calcium without vitamin D, so look for dairy products that are fortified with vitamin D, and look for fortified juices, soy products, and eggs. Those same dark green vegetables contain iron, which you can also find in whole grains and dried fruit and pulses. Your body needs vitamin C to absorb iron, so make sure you’re combining these foods with plenty of citrus fruit, blueberries, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes.
The vitamin that you’re most likely to miss out on when you give up meat is vitamin B12. This is needed for proper formation of red blood cells and to keep your nervous system functioning properly. A lack of vitamin B12 can lead to an inability to think clearly, and changes in personality such as irritability or depression. B12 is only found in meat and meat products, so as a vegetarian you’ll need to get it from milk and dairy produce or from vegetarian foods that are specifically fortified with vitamin B12. Again, you might want to consider taking a supplement if you’re not sure you can get enough from your diet. The good news is that there are no harmful effects in otherwise healthy people if you take more vitamin B12 than you need.
Nutritionists recommend eating two portions of oily fish per week, mainly because it’s a great source of essential fatty acids (Omega-3), which are proven to help prevent heart disease and control inflammation. If you’re giving up fish as well as meat, you’ll need to find another source. Walnuts are high in Omega-3, and some eggs are specifically fortified with it. You can also find it in flax seeds, soy beans, and some soy products such as tofu.
It’s easy to define a vegetarian as a person who doesn’t eat meat. If you’re making the shift to vegetarianism, you need to move beyond this definition. Stop focusing on what you don’t eat, and start considering what you do eat. Becoming a vegetarian, whether for ethical, environmental, or health reasons, doesn’t mean you’ll miss out on any of the nutrients your body needs. But becoming a vegetarian does mean you’ll need to change your thinking, not just your diet.