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I’ll be the first to tell you that I dislike the label “vegetarian” because it often elicits unwanted opinions, from meat eaters who don’t understand why I choose not to eat meat, and from vegans who don’t understand how I can’t try harder to be 100% vegan. I like to call myself “plant based” or “plant fueled”. But for the sake of this post, SEO ease, and the fact that I got a message this morning from a friend that said “I’m thinking of becoming a vegetarian“, we’re going to go with that title.
Now, a little background: I don’t eat anything that was once a living, breathing animal. This includes beef, pork, chicken, cat, dog, fish, shellfish, squirrel, yak…you get the idea. I do this for my own moral and ethical reasons, which I promise I’m not here to lecture you about today…or ever (but if you are interested, I’m happy to have the discussion with you). That said, I do eat eggs and occasional dairy, although the aforementioned “ethical” side of me is constantly self loathing the fact that I do so (Cue angry vegans who think I’m a hypocrite).
I am a work in progress.
And there are a number of reasons why YOU may be reading this, interested in becoming a vegetarian yourself. Maybe it’s for environmental reasons. Maybe health reasons. Maybe it’s for the animals. Maybe you just don’t like the taste of meat. Again, I’m not here to lecture, judge, or condone. But I am here to share my experience transitioning to a plant based lifestyle, and hopefully give you a few helpful tips that I learned through trial and error.
1) Start with the obvious.
Cut out meat from your diet. If this terrifies you, start with a meatless meal a few times a week to prove to yourself that a) it can be done, and b) it’s not horrible. Might I recommend the cookbooks “Thug Kitchen*” and the Vegan Black Metal Chef’s “Seitanic Spellbook“. Both are hilarious and include some, uh, “colorful” language and thoughts, but the recipes are AMAZING. Even I can make them, and I’m no master in the kitchen. Hell, I’m barely a beginner. Or, even easier, head over to Pinterest and search “meatless Monday” for a slew of recipes. Then try one. I promise you won’t miss the meat.
After you survive a few of these meals, make them more frequent. Make a conscious effort to replace meat with some other form of plant protein, until eventually, all of your meals are meatless. Realize that change takes time. Going “cold turkey” from the turkey (heh heh) is possible, of course. But time and time again, studies have shown that lasting changes are the ones that occur gradually. So make your own timeline.
2) Make sure your meals are well rounded.
The second you declare to the world, or anyone at all for that matter, that you are a vegetarian, the first question out of almost everyone’s mouth will be “but how do you get enough protein?” The answer is simple really, but a concept that is seemingly impossible to grasp for many omnivores. Plants have protein. Legumes and nuts are chock full of protein. And don’t forget got soy, tempeh, and seitan. If you choose to eat eggs and dairy, you’ll find protein there as well. So GETTING enough protein isn’t really the problem. (It’s 12:00 in the afternoon, and I’ve already consumed 47 grams of protein from plant sources alone.)
The problem *I* experienced as a new vegetarian was making sure my meals were well rounded. After spending 30 years as a “meat and potatoes” kind of girl, cutting out the meat left me with the potatoes…and nothing else. I clung to refined carbs like they were my lifeline: pastas, breads, pizzas, etc. What I wasn’t doing was adding in more vegetables, healthy grains, and plant proteins to round out my diet. So I was constantly hungry and left feeling unsatiated. I VERY QUICKLY put on weight because of this.
My recommendation to avoid this? Go back to the cookbooks or recipes above. Let someone else do the meal planning for you, follow recipes at first until you learn how to make a complete meal without meat. I am eternally grateful for a mother-in-law and sister-in-law who are WIZARDS in the kitchen when it comes to vegetarian meals. They opened up my world things I had never tried before. Tempeh? Chickpeas? Farro? I had heard of these foods, but had no idea how diverse the options were for cooking with and eating them could be.
3) Label reading.
Once you are more comfortable with a meat free diet, you will need to determine to what extent you want to be free of animal products. If you choose to be completely free of eating a part of an animal, you are going to have to start reading labels. It will shock you to find out how many products contain things like chicken or beef flavoring, gelatin, lard, etc., all hidden in the list of ingredients on processed and packaged foods. If you choose to be completely free of animal byproducts all together (vegan), then your label reading gets even more difficult. Honey, whey, eggs, lactose, etc. all come from animals. (For a more complete list, check out “Hidden Animal Ingredients in Foods“). Yeah, it’s tedious at first, but you quickly learn what products are safe, which ones are questionable and require a double check each time, and which ones to avoid. This brings me to my next point:
4)Don’t beat yourself up.
Learning what is, and what isn’t, in foods can be overwhelming. You will more than likely inadvertently consume some sort of animal product, whether it be a “hidden ingredient”, or the fact that you just really missed the taste of chicken early in your transition, and you caved while out to dinner with your friends. It happens. Reevaluate your reasoning for transitioning to a plant based diet, learn from the mistake, and move on.
And that is really all there is to it. As with anything in life, over time you learn, you grow, and you adapt. You will find foods that work well for you, and foods that do not. Are there any health concerns with a plant based diet? There CAN be, but there can also be concerns with any diet, as individuals vary. My suggestion is to keep an open line of communication about your lifestyle change with your physician, so they can check for any potential issues if they arise.
And thank you to Cade, a friend in Vermont, for inspiring this blog post today. I hope it helped!
Have any other questions about my experience transitioning from omnivore to herbivore status? Feel free to ask in a comment below!
Disclaimer: While I am an ACSM certified exercise physiologist, I am not a nutritionist or registered dietician, and do not claim to be. All information provided in this post is based upon my personal experience, and is not meant to be a prescription or recommendation for specific individuals. All advice taken from this post is done so at your own risk. When in doubt, consult your physician.
*Amazon Affiliate links are used in this post.
Related posts and resources:
The Plant Powered Way – by vegan ultra endurance athlete Rich Roll
Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life – by elite vegan triathlete Brendan Brazier
Eat and Run – by elite, plant based, ultra marathon runner Scott Jurek