How to Become a Vegetarian: Steps to Embrace a Meat-Free Diet

Diet fads come and go. They can be based on eating a single food (in the 70’s the cabbage soup diet was briefly popular), meal replacement (like SlimFast), elimination of a certain kind of food (low-carb, low-sugar, and low-fat diets target a problem item), or even pseudo-scientific (the paleo diet suggests eating like a caveman). However, after a few years, all the diets seem to give way to a shiny new option, such as eating gluten-free.

Yet there is one diet that has remained popular for several decades that offers health benefits and a minimal impact on the earth: vegetarianism. A 2008 study concluded that about 3.2 percent of Americans were vegetarians, and another 11.9 million people said they were interested in becoming vegetarians. That means over 5 percent of the population has expressed interest in a vegetarian diet but have yet to try to eliminate meat products.  

Why is there such a disparity in people who are interested in becoming vegetarian and those who actually do it? The reluctance of people to make the switch comes down to several misconceptions. Some people believe becoming vegetarian is expensive and it is cheaper to eat meat. Others are concerned about being able to replace meat with accessible protein sources. And still, others are concerned that it simply won’t be convenient for busy people on the go.

These are misconceptions that actually create a viable roadmap for people who want to give vegetarianism or veganism a go. Let’s examine how to become a vegetarian in five simple steps.

Step 1: Identify Your Rationale

People become vegetarians (or vegans) for many different reasons. Some avoid certain foods because of religious convictions, some for ethical reasons, and others for health purposes. If your religion limits certain products, then you’ll need to have a list ready to make sure you are observant with religious dietary laws. If you have ethical objections to eating animal products, you should consider whether you just object to eating meat, poultry, and fish, or whether you want to refrain from eating any product derived from animals (if so, you’ll want to follow the principles of veganism). If you have specific food allergies or other health problems (like celiac disease), then be sure to pay attention to those as well. If you are one of the people who are interested in vegetarianism for a combination of reasons, then you can simply experiment to find out what makes sense for you.

Whatever your interest in a vegetarian diet, you should know that scientific studies show that vegetarian and vegan diets have documented health benefits. The American Dietetic Association says “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”

The important part of that sentence is the phrase “appropriately planned.” Vegetarianism is like any other diet. What you get out of it is what you put into it. If you replace meat, poultry, and fish with cookies, french fries, and cheese, your results will not be very good!

Step 2: Start Eating More Fruits and Vegetables

Start with adding more fruit and vegetables to your diet before you eliminate meat. Vegetable side dishes don’t need to be steamed or boiled, so stop envisioning mushy carrots, green beans, or peas. Nobody is going to force you to eat vegetables that way!

Start learning different ways to bring out deeper flavors in the vegetables that you eat. Cauliflower, for example, can be baked in the oven at high temperatures to bring out a nuttier, richer flavor than what you get when you pair raw cauliflower with ranch dip. Carrots can be used to satisfy your sweet tooth. Brussels sprouts may have seemed like a horror story as a kid, but they can be prepped in many ways that make them the star of the show. Get familiar with recipes online to help you on your way. Foodie.com has Vegetarian and Vegan recipes right here!

Step 3: Start With A Grain, a Bean, and a Green

Rather than eliminating all meat, poultry, and fish right away, give your body and your chef skills some time to adjust. First, start with what you have. You do not need to shop at Whole Foods or limit yourself only to organic food. The jury is still out on whether eating organic has long-term health benefits. Still, if you are concerned about harmful chemicals, avoid the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen most contaminated foods and buy these fruits and veggies from organic farmers.

A basic vegetarian combination is a grain, a green, and a bean. This is an affordable meal template you can use again and again in an almost endless combination. Start replacing meat for two dinners a week following the grain-green-bean format.

For example, make red beans and rice and top with red peppers, avocadoes, and cilantro. This is a delicious and cheap meal with plenty of protein that doesn’t require meat to please your taste buds.

Vegetarianism does not need to be an expensive proposition. A 2018 Gallup poll revealed that most American vegetarians and vegans earn less than $30,000 a year. When you think of most meals as a combination of grains, beans, and greens, it’s easy to see how much money you will save.

Step 4: Find Substitutes

Being a vegetarian doesn’t mean never enjoying delicious food again. In fact, it should open up new and exciting foods that will delight your palate. More companies are offering meal alternatives than ever before, such as burgers, hot dogs, and sausage that are made from plant products. Even fast food restaurants are getting into the act. White Castle vegetarian burgers come in two varieties, black bean and veggie, and have been such a huge hit that they are now sold in stores.

Thankfully, most restaurants are health conscious and offer vegetarians and vegans more than just a salad and a smoothie. Try Indian, Mexican, and Thai restaurants, which traditionally have menus packed with dishes that are vegetarian or vegan – and 100% delicious.

Step 5: Eliminate One Protein at a Time

Eliminating red meat and pork from your diet will rid your body of a lot of protein, but also a lot of unhealthy fat. Studies show that most meat eaters consume a lot more protein than their bodies actually need. When you stop eating red meat, find replacements for that protein. Beans, nuts, and soy protein are complete proteins.

After a few weeks without red meat and pork, stop eating poultry. Do the same with fish. As long as you eliminate one meat at a time, you will drastically reduce your cravings. If you can’t stop eating all meat entirely, consider being flexible. Some people are “fishetarians” who only eat fish. It’s your diet, so you have the right to find out what’s best for you.

Make these changes, plan for proper nutrition, and look for vegetarian-friendly recipes to guide you on your journey.

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