You’ve seen Meatless Monday all over social media and by now you’re probably familiar with some of the (many) benefits of going meat-free. Due to the naturally high fiber content and low content of saturated fats present in a vegetarian diet, going meatless isn’t just healthy for you, but also provides a host of benefits.
Many studies have shown a dramatic decrease in cancer risk in vegetarians. Some of these studies indicate that meat-eaters are at higher risk because of the fat present in meat, and that fat in vegetables is far less likely to cause cancer (specifically colon and breast cancer).
Generally speaking, vegetarians are at lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and hypertension because of the nutrients and phytochemicals present in plants. While these benefits are great, they are only guaranteed by a properly balanced vegetarian diet, not one full of processed, vegetarian-friendly foods. The guide below will help you navigate the most common questions and issues when becoming a vegetarian. (But, as always, these are friendly suggestions for those looking to try a vegetarian diet. If you’re a carnivore through and through, no problem! Just try to add some more of veggies’ green goodness to your meals.)
Protein: Everyone’s first question for a vegetarian is always: “how do you get enough protein?” It may not seem obvious, but almost all plants (plus dairy and eggs) contain some amount of protein. Vegetarians just have to work a little harder to make sure they’re getting enough protein – once you get used to it, finding protein is a breeze. Some of the best options are: eggs, Greek yogurt, beans, and soy products. You’ve probably eaten some tofu and maybe even tempeh, another soy protein, but have you heard of seitan? For those of you who don’t like soy, seitan is a great alternative. Seitan is a protein made from wheat gluten, which provides it with an even higher protein count than tofu. For more protein-filled meals, click here.
Nutrients: “Aren’t there vital nutrients in meat that don’t exist in plants?” skeptics might ask. Answer: sort of. Vegetarians sometimes have low levels of iron, zinc, calcium, or vitamin B-12 or D. But good news: nearly all vegetarian foods contain these nutrients. It’s up to you to make sure you’re eating a good balance of each. To get calcium, turn to dark greens (spinach, broccoli, etc.) or milk. Beans contain iron and vitamin D is added to many foods such as dairy or plant milk, cereals, or margarine. B-12 is almost exclusively available in meat products (save for nutritional yeast, which you can read about here), so a daily B-vitamin is recommended for many vegetarians. If you’re concerned about getting the right nutrients, talk to your doctor or a nutritionist to figure out how to balance your diet without too much brainpower.
Cost: Meat is probably the most expensive item on your grocery list. Even if you’re not buying grass-fed, organic meat, it adds up quickly. Great news: vegetarianism is almost always the cheaper option. True, some meat substitutes can be pricey, but in general, vegetarian proteins are much cheaper (for example, $1 for a can of black beans vs. $4-6 for a pound of chicken). There are always some tempting vegetarian specialty foods that will add up quick, but if consumed in moderation, you’re likely to find going meat-free to be a lot easier on your wallet.
Weight. No diet or lifestyle is inherently conducive to losing weight; only reduced calories guarantees weight loss. That said, most vegetarian foods are less calorically dense than omnivore ones, allowing you to eat more volume for fewer calories. That is, if you eat a proper amount of veggies. Even veggie proteins are lower in cals: 3 oz. of tofu has 79 calories, while 3 oz. of chicken has 131 calories. So while weight loss is not guaranteed with a vegetarian diet, you might find it easier to lose weight when you lose the meat.
Effort. This one is what you make it. If you want to go vegetarian but end up buying a lot of processed, pre-made meals, you probably won’t feel any different than when you were eating meat. But if you do your research and figure out your body needs, you’re likely to find going vegetarian to be an easy switch. Keep it simple: eat mostly “green” foods (fruits and veggies), pick a complex carbohydrate (potatoes, whole wheat pasta, brown rice), and add some protein (eggs, beans, tofu). And most importantly: enjoy your food!