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Read This Before You Give Up Meat

Tips for Transitioning to a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet

If you're considering giving up meat, you probably already know about the potential benefits of a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, meatless diets have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, hypertension and other conditions. Many vegans and vegetarians have reported higher energy levels, increased weight loss and an improvement in overall well-being.
But the decision to go meatless is just the first step along a path that will hold many concerns and considerations. The most important ingredient in a successful meat-free diet is knowledge. We talked to some vegan and vegetarian nutritionists to pinpoint what you need to know before making the transition.
You don't have to go cold turkey.
Many new vegans or vegetarians start out with an "all or nothing" mentality, and then return to meat after the shock of the change. You might have more success by easing into it. "You don’t have to give everything up all at once," says Lisa C. Andrews, a registered dietician at Sound Bites Nutrition. "Start with meatless Mondays, or just give up red meat and pork to start."
Reed Mangels from The Vegetarian Resource Group points out that many people like to get a feel for a meatless lifestyle by eating vegetarian one day or one meal a week, and then gradually increasing the ratio. The key is choosing the approach that works best for your personality and lifestyle, and gauging how you feel along the way.
Andrews also cautions that going vegan is a much more drastic lifestyle change than vegetarian, as a vegetarian diet still includes eggs and dairy. If you want to go vegan, you might consider starting with vegetarian and moving in steps toward your ultimate goal.
Keep in mind that some of the foods you eat may already be vegan or vegetarian. "Many people already consume veggie meals without even really thinking about it," Andrews says. "For instance, pasta and a marinara sauce can be a really easy meal, especially when you add extra veggies to the sauce, like peppers and mushrooms. Additionally, there are many meat alternatives that can be added to the sauce." But while familiar meals are great, she stresses the importance of trying new foods.
Variety is key.
Contrary to some stereotypes, vegans and vegetarians don't live on kale and tofu. According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, the key to a well-rounded, satisfying meat-free diet is incorporating a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, beans, lentils, seeds and legumes. As with any diet, it’s best to limit your intake of sweets and fatty foods.
Vesanto Melina, a registered dietician for BecomingVegan.ca, recommends setting aside an evening each week for food prep. While listening to your favorite music or watching TV, you can put together hearty soups, entrees and a big salad that will last for a few days in your fridge. "People typically have about 10 favorite recipes or meals that they rely on, so when you switch to plant-based, you’ll want to find some that you really like," Melina says. "It can help to think of a whole new world of plant foods that you’ve never tried becoming available to you. You can get the same full range of flavors by preparing whole foods or by using veggie meats and cheeses, which have come a long way in recent years."
For those busy weeknights when you haven't prepped and don't have time to cook, Mangels recommends keeping some quick-to-prepare veg foods on hand. Some ideas include canned beans, hummus, nut butters, quinoa, whole-wheat couscous, good whole-grains breads and crackers, veggie burgers, fruits and vegetables. "There has never been a better time than now when it comes to finding vegan alternatives at the supermarket," says Andrews.
You may need to supplement.
Depending on the type of meat-free eater you decide to be, there are several nutrients you may need to monitor and/or supplement. Nutrition expert Toby Amidor points out that vegans are most at risk of being deficient in certain nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin D, iron, protein and vitamin B12.
In particular, B12 is an essential vitamin that maintains cellular health. Some side effects of deficiency include fatigue, difficulty reasoning, weakness, anemia and paranoia. Vegans need to include plenty of B12-fortified foods in their diet, and may also want to take a B12 supplement.
Iron is of special concern for women entering into a vegetarian or vegan diet. Although vegan diets contain some iron, it's a different type that's not as easily absorbed by the body as animal-based iron, so you may need to supplement. Non-meat iron sources include leafy greens, sunflower seeds, dried raisins and legumes.
Also, it's best to take a daily multi-vitamin to ensure that you meet the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for essential nutrients.
There are plenty of non-meat protein sources.
According to the Institute of Medicine, adults should consume a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per day for every kilogram of body mass. For a 150-pound woman, that equals about 54 grams, or just under 2 ounces.
As any healthy vegan or vegetarian can attest, meat isn't the only source of protein.  Andrews recommends choosing unprocessed protein-packing foods, like beans, lentils, tofu, quinoa, natural soy, seitan, edamame or tempeh. Avoid eating too much processed non-meat foods, like vegetarian hot dogs and soy nuggets, as they tend to be higher in sodium and preservatives.   
#4. Not everyone will be on board—and that's okay.
Going meatless requires a lot of willpower and dedication, and it becomes even more challenging when the rest of your family and friends are meat eaters. Explain that this is an individual choice you are making for yourself, ask for their support and try to be non-judgmental of their choice to continue eating meat or animal foods.
If your spouse is still eating meat, you can ask him or her to prepare it for the rest of the family. Another option is to make meals that can easily be customized for meat eaters. For example, you can stir fry some vegetables with rice, and then others can add their individual choices of meat.
If people ask questions about why you're changing your diet, you can share your reasons—whether it's out of concern for your health, animal welfare, the environment or finances—or you can politely tell them it's none of their business. In lieu of explaining, you might also share a book or documentary that influenced you.
"Become knowledgeable and confident in yourself so you're empathetic to others' feelings and beliefs, not challenging or defensive," Mangels recommends. "They may just want reassurance that you know what you're doing and that this is a healthy way to eat. Above all, it's important to be kind, sincere and concise."
Some final advice from Andrews: "Keep in mind that changing one's eating habits from the 'norm' can result in others feeling challenged in their choices. It's important for both parties to have an open mind and learn the art of compromise. Take pride in going veg, lead by example and don't underestimate the power of a delicious vegan baked good when trying to win over friends and family."
Quick Tips to Kick-Start a Meatless Diet 
  • Consider hiring a registered dietician to go shopping with you for nutritious options.
  • Educate yourself about basic nutrition, so you can combat many of the common myths. Andrews recommends the website The Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group and the book "Vegan for Life: Everything You Need to Know to Be Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet."
  • Consider taking a vegan or vegetarian cooking class, or invite a few friends over to try out new recipes together.
  • Seek out other vegans or vegetarians, either locally or online. Your new network can suggest meal ideas, recommend meatless restaurants and provide ongoing support throughout the transition.
  • The Vegetarian Resource Group recommends getting a good cookbook that fits your cooking style. If you're a novice in the kitchen, look for a quick and easy vegan or vegetarian cookbook; if you delight in gourmet meals, find one with more complicated recipes. Borrowing cookbooks from the library or finding recipes online can help you decide what works for you.
  • Be prepared to read (and understand) food labels. This is especially important for vegans, as not all meat and dairy ingredients are obvious. Start by reviewing the Vegetarian Journal's Guide to Food Ingredients
Any dietary change requires some degree of planning and adjustment, but with the right preparation and support, a meatless diet can be easy, delicious and healthy. Andrews compares it to driving a car: "Before you start, it seems hard. But once you are driving (or eating vegetarian/vegan), it just becomes second nature."
What do you wish you'd known before going vegan or vegetarian?

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Member Comments

  • Meat is just a small part of my diet and I rarely eat red meats. I eat steamed fish at least twice a week, and love beans and pulses, especially in stir-fries, curries, soups and risottos. I'll also substitute meat for quorn or tofu in some dishes. I never liked TVP.

    I was vegetarian in my twenties for health reasons so I probably eat more plant based proteins than most but I would miss my occasional roast dinners. I like variety.
  • I was a happy vegetarian for about 10 years, but the grains and beans had enough additional carbs to nudge me into Type 2 diabetes. But I did acquire a lot of cooking skills. And of course all the veggie dishes carried over into low carb.
    I have been on a plant base diet (vegan) for two years. A couple of years ago a parent had heart issues and borderline diabetic. We were all overweight as well. The family in support went on a very strict vegan diet that included no oils, nuts, refined sugars or white flour. I was the cook and made many wonderful dishes. We all felt full and satisfied. If we wanted lasagna, shepherds pie, burger we had it only vegan. I use to love cheese and eat it everyday, but now when I go out for a bean burrito (no cheese or sour cream) I don't even miss it and even ask for a cheese-less pizza. Since going vegan my own health has since improved considerably, as well as my parents. Lost weight, no more bad digestive problems, no migraines, allergies decreased 80%, low sugar cravings and feel more focus. When I think back to the old days I used meat and dairy foods to fill me up and little amounts of fruit and vegetables. I was like lots of people eating very high amounts of animal protein and fat and low amounts of fiber. We do not need large amounts of protein to be healthy. We can get healthy amounts of protein from plants. YES plants do have protein!! and fiber the best of both worlds!!! Being on a plant base diet I always feel satisfied and full. I would never go back to the old life. When people ask me don't you miss BBQ ribs, hamburgers, steak etc? Honestly I do not. Because I feel I have found a whole new cuisine that tastes good and most of all makes me feel good.
  • I would give up BREAD, DAIRY and SUGAR lonnngggg before giving up meat. They are far worse unless your bread is made from grain-free, and your dairy comes from grass-fed sources. You can carefully choose delicious and healthy meats by paying attention to the animals' living conditions, treatment protocols, and feed.
  • Going meatless really isn't a big deal. A registered dietician going shopping with you is definitely overkill. The Vegetarian Times and PETA both have wonderful resources, including free starter kits.
  • I actually DID throw myself into vegetarianism "cold-turkey," and remained vegetarian for about 6 or 7 years. I became interested in adopting a vegetarian diet in high school, but my parents wouldn't let me. Once at college, however, I found it easy to maintain a vegetarian diet, especially since I was now cooking for myself. Most of my friends and roommates were also vegetarians, and we would get together about once a week for a pot-luck; this allowed us to learn from each other. Although I eventually went back to eating wild game (which I can no longer eat due to a red-meat food allergy) and seafood, my diet is still primarily plant-based.
  • Might give it a try -- thanks!
    Thanks for sharing
  • BTW I have never had to take any supplements.
  • I'm glad you included the part about what other people think because it is very true. Other people want to know WHY all the time, then they ask if you are getting enough protein, or iron or this or that, or whatever they have heard you can't get if you don't eat meat.

    I would also mention that you'll come across the other half of things - people who are full on vegan or vegetarian who question you for not being "vegetarian" to their standards. So after years of giving up meat, I finally declared "I just don't eat meat". I eat chicken broth, I eat fish, I eat dairy, etc. I don't label myself, I just say I do not eat meat and that is that.

    It's definitely a good idea to go slow as well. I gave it up pretty quickly after high school, but a few years ago my friends wanted to go completely vegan. I was like "are you sure about that?" So now they did learn that they are better off just eating a mostly vegetarian diet and that going cold turkey was not very practical, especially for people like my friends who loved some good steak.

    The difference with me is I gave it up mostly because it started to gross me out. So for me it was easier to just say no to meat. If others are giving it up for health reasons or moral reasons, it can definitely be harder if you crave those things. I never had that problem since I never liked steak and barely liked hamburgers or chicken.
  • I am not a vegetarian or vegan, I do enjoy many vegetarian meals but find it more time consuming to plan meals with proper nutrition without including meat, and I enjoy meat. The cost factor does not concern me since all the meat I consume is raised here by me on my farm, along with most of the veggies and fruits. I feel your food choices are an individual thing, not including meat, carbs or sugar is up to each person, and as long as your choice does not affect me I don't concern myself with it. I do agree with one other commenter, that I thought by the title that this article was going to go through the pros and cons of each lifestyle, but it failed on that. I do not agree that a vegan lifestyle is any more healthy then one including meat, the problem with most people that eat meat is that the portions are way out of line and not proportional to the other items consumed in a meal.

  • I've been a vegetarian for 20+ years. I have come to expect that on an article like this, some meat eaters feel compelled to tell us all how terrible/unhealth
    thical being a vegetarian is.

    Hopefully, someday we will reach a point when the mere existence of a pro-vegetarian article doesn't make those folks feel so threatened.

About The Author

Melissa Rudy Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.