Last Updated on August 30, 2023
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how to become a vegetarian
7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Vegetarian
If you don’t eat meat or plan to go vegetarian soon, whether that’s a full vegan diet or vegetarian (or even pescatarian or flexitarian), you may have questions. Like what will you eat instead of meat and where will you get your protein? Will you lose weight? Will you be able to enjoy meals with your omnivore friends? Full disclosure, I’ve been mostly vegetarian now for 15 years (I’ve probably had five bites of meat in that time, and I still eat fish about once a month).
But before I went vegetarian, I had lots of questions about what my diet would look like and if I would still get all the nutrients I need. Before you dive in head first, learn from my mistakes. Here are seven things I wish I knew before I started eating vegetarian.
1. Protein is in almost everything
People constantly ask me where I get my protein. But for vegetarians, and even vegans, there are plenty of high-protein foods to eat. (Here’s our list of top vegetarian proteins.) You can try foods like eggs, Greek yogurt, cheese and milk or if you’re dairy-free focus on beans, nuts, seeds and tofu. But even foods like pasta, bread and Brussels sprouts have protein in them. As long as you eat a variety of foods throughout the day and focus on including a protein source at most of your meals and snacks, you’ll likely get plenty of protein in your diet. (Here’s how much protein you should be aiming for each day.) What does that look like in real life? It means sometimes you can enjoy a bowl of just pasta, but most days you should add some vegetables and beans or tofu to help balance it out and add a protein boost. Have some high-protein meal ideas in your back pocket, like a black bean taco bowl or a tofu stir-fry. Or, try these high-protein vegetarian dinners ready in 30 minutes or less when you need some more inspiration.
2. Just because it’s plant-based, doesn’t mean it’s better for you
People often want to start eating less meat or completely start a vegan or vegetarian diet because it’s better for them. There definitely are benefits to eating more plants, especially if you bump up your produce intake. Eating more plant-based can improve your heart health, increase your fiber intake, and reduce your risk of diabetes (learn more about the health benefits of going plant-based). But those health perks aren’t guaranteed. There’s no meat in donuts, cookies, cake, grilled cheese, french fries, ice cream…I could go on, but I think you get the idea. I’m not saying you can’t eat those foods, but it can be easy to subsist on too many refined grains and added sugars as a vegetarian.
3. It can still be challenging to get enough fruits and vegetables
Similar to above, without consciously trying to eat your veggies, you may miss out. Meat is often replaced with carbs or something like tofu, so you don’t automatically start eating more fruits and vegetables when you start eating vegetarian. All of us, veg or not, should aim to make half of our plates vegetables (or fruits). Try fruit with yogurt for breakfast, adding carrots to lunch and serving up dinner with a side salad. (Here are 8 ideas for what a day of fruits and veggies look like.) If you’re finding it hard to eat more produce, start small. Maybe it’s an apple or handful of raisins for snack or having a cup of vegetable soup before dinner. Try and work your way up to the recommended 2 servings of fruit and 3 servings of vegetables per day that’s recommended.
4. Restaurants can be tricky
More and more restaurants are catering to people who don’t eat meat. But depending on where you live, and what restaurants you enjoy, it can still be tricky to put together a satisfying meal. For a long time, it felt like the only vegetarian entrée on the menu was a pasta covered in cream sauce. Now I often see options like veggie burgers, tofu or beans. Even if a restaurant doesn’t seem to have something on the menu for you, I’ve found many places are open to substitutions if you ask nicely. Another trick? Pair two vegetarian side dishes or appetizers to make something more filling if you don’t love the mains.
5. No one will know what to cook for you
Even after 15 years without meat, I still run into this sometimes with my family and friends. Let me just say, I am always so grateful if someone wants to cook me a meal. But it can be hard for people to think of vegetarian or vegan main dishes, if they’re not used to cooking without meat (these meatless recipes perfect for flexitarians might be a good place to start). I typically offer to bring a hearty side—like a Greek Salad with Edamame or our Quinoa Avocado Salad—to help the host, but also to ensure there’s something satisfying for me to eat. Keep your expectations low, always offer to bring something, say thank you—and maybe keep an energy bar stashed in your bag in case hunger strikes on the way home.
6. You might gain weight
People give up meat for a variety of reasons, but one common one is that they want to lose weight. While vegetarian and vegan diets may lead to weight loss, especially if you load up on plenty of good-for-you greens, fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains, they also might not. Like I said above, choosing too many desserts or refined grains could lead to weight gain. Also, if you’re just eating plant-based because it’s trendy, you might end up feeling deprived and try to satisfy that with an extra cookie or glass of wine after dinner. If you do miss meat, but want to reap the benefits of eating more plant based, choose smaller portions of meat but don’t cut it out entirely. And if weight-loss is your goal, make sure you’re getting plenty of fiber-rich vegetables and fruits in your diet (vegetarian or not), and aim to eat balanced meals that fill you up (think protein, vegetables and whole grains with some healthy fat) so you’re not constantly hungry. (Try these 5 weight-loss tips that actually work, according to dietitians.)
7. You can still get almost all your nutrients in
While you can get plenty of protein and fiber as a vegetarian, you may have a harder time getting some specific nutrients. Iron and omega-3s can be hard to get enough of, even though there are plant-based sources. It’s not impossible to do if you don’t eat meat or fish, just harder. (Try these 8 omega-3-rich vegan foods and these 8 foods with more iron than beef.) Vitamin D is another nutrient that’s not super abundant in our diets—whether you eat meat or not. Calcium can be tricky for vegans—dairy foods, like milk and cheese, are high in calcium—but again not impossible (check out these top calcium-rich foods). And almost all vegans will need to supplement with vitamin B12. If you do make big changes to your diet, like forgoing meat, fish, dairy and eggs, talk to your doctor or a dietitian to see if you should start taking a supplement. They can ask more questions about your diet and even run tests to see if you’re deficient in certain nutrients.
beginner vegetarian meal plan
Cut back on meat for a week with this 7-day vegetarian meal plan recommended by a registered dietitian
- Vegetarian diets focus on fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains which usually leads to a higher intake of dietary fiber and reduced intake of saturated fat.
- The commonality among all vegetarian diets is that they eliminate meat, poultry, and fish, but there is variation regarding eggs and dairy products.
- People who are pre-diabetic, at high risk for heart disease, or those who have hypertension, may especially benefit from a vegetarian diet.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
The vegetarian diet is a popular way of eating thanks to growing research on the health and environmental benefits of reducing meat, as well as concern for animal welfare.
Though the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras was an early proponent of going meatless, humans were probably eating more wild plants than animals for the majority of history, long before the advent of agriculture.
Today, researchers agree that a vegetarian diet can be inherently healthy because it encourages eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and beans — all of which are chock-full of essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients.
Though just because a vegetarian diet is healthy, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an easy diet to start or follow long-term. Especially if you’re used to eating meat multiple times a day.
So if you’re interested in giving vegetarianism a try, here’s a 7-day vegetarian meal plan to try — as well as some additional insight into the benefits and potential drawbacks of this popular diet.
7-day vegetarian meal plan
The commonality among all vegetarian diets is that they eliminate meat, poultry, and fish. However, there is some variation:
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products
- Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy but not eggs
- Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but not dairy
- Vegans eat neither eggs nor dairy
If you’re just starting a vegetarian diet, registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist Jenna Gorham recommends the following 7-day meal plan. Make sure to adjust portion sizes to your own caloric needs.
Breakfast: Whole-grain cereal with berries and oat milk
Lunch: Hearty buddha bowl with whole grains, greens, roasted or raw veggies, and dressing or sauce
Snack: Fruit and veggie smoothie
Dinner: Black bean enchiladas
Breakfast: Overnight oats with fresh fruit
Lunch: Avocado toast on whole-wheat bread
Snack: Hummus and crudités
Dinner: Spicy peanut lettuce wraps filled with baked tofu, roasted cauliflower, carrots, cucumbers, and peppers
Breakfast: Yogurt parfait with berries and grain-free muesli
Lunch: Hummus and veggies in a pita pocket
Snack: Fruit and nut trail mix
Dinner: Kale and squash salad with turmeric dressing
Breakfast: Tofu scramble with nutritional yeast, veggies, and hot sauce
Lunch: Lentil soup
Snack: Crunchy roasted broad beans
Dinner: Vegetarian lasagna
Breakfast: Protein smoothie bowl with fruit and veggies, milled flaxseed, and plant-based protein powder, topped with chopped nuts
Lunch: Falafel platter with tahini sauce and salad
Snack: Sliced apples and peanut butter
Dinner: Black bean burrito
Breakfast: 2-ingredient banana pancakes made with mashed banana and eggs (add cinnamon and vanilla extract to taste)
Lunch: Veggie burger with a side of baked sweet potato “fries”
Snack: Peanut butter oat-based energy bites with flaxseed and coconut
Dinner: Vegetarian chili
Breakfast: Two sprouted grain frozen waffles with peanut butter and banana
Lunch: Lentil stuffed peppers
Snack: Cashew yogurt
Dinner: Lemon basil pasta with white beans, chopped cherry tomatoes, and garlic
Health benefits of a vegetarian diet
Research suggests that there are numerous advantages to going vegetarian.
“Vegetarians tend to eat less saturated fat and cholesterol, and more Vitamins C and E, folic acid, dietary fiber, potassium, magnesium, and phytochemicals,” says Michelle Zive, a registered dietitian and NASM-certified nutrition coach.
“This means vegetarians are more likely to have lower total and bad cholesterol, blood pressure, and body mass index, all of which are associated with longevity and a decreased risk for many chronic diseases,” says Zive.
Studies have shown that vegetarians tend to have an overall better quality diet, and a higher intake of key nutrients like fiber, vitamin C, vitamin E, and magnesium.