7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Vegetarian
I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 15 years—here’s what I wish I knew before I gave up meat.
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.
Welcome to The Beet. A weekly column where nutrition editor and registered dietitian Lisa Valente tackles buzzy nutrition topics and tells you what you need to know, with science and a little bit of sass.