Becoming Vegetarian: 10 Beginner's Tips

When executed right, becoming vegetarian can have significant and beneficial impacts on personal health and environmental impact.

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by
Alicia Buchter
— Signos
Health writer
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Reviewed by

Alicia Buchter
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
February 29, 2024
February 8, 2024
— Updated:

Table of Contents

How do you make the switch to vegetarianism, and what does it mean for your health and the environment?

Vegetarian options are becoming increasingly available at restaurants, events, and grocery stores as vegetarianism grows in popularity. If you are thinking of making the switch, you won’t be alone. The myriad of health and environmental benefits from whole food plant-based diets are becoming well-known, creating a vast community of vegetarian eaters across America.1 Read on to learn about what it means to follow a vegetarian diet, whether it’s right for you, and how to implement a successful transition.

The vegetarian diet is generally defined by its exclusion of meat and poultry, but there are a variety of vegetarian diets that differ in what foods they include. Transitioning to vegetarianism usually requires significant changes to your daily diet. Diets falling under vegetarianism include: 

  • Lacto-Vegetarian: Excludes meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs. Includes dairy products
  • Ovo-Vegetarian :Excludes meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products. Includes eggs
  • Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian: Excludes meat, poultry, and seafood. Includes dairy products and eggs
  • Pescatarian: Excludes meat and poultry but includes seafood. Some people include dairy products or eggs
  • Vegan: Excludes all animal products like meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy. Sometimes honey, gelatin, and supplements sourced from animals are also excluded

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Benefits of Becoming Vegetarian

Making the change to vegetarianism can be a healthy choice. Meatless diets high in plants are known to offer several health benefits.

Benefits may include but are not limited to:

  • Reduced Risk of Heart Disease: Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.2 Eating foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol can raise your risk of heart disease by creating an imbalance of LDL and HDL cholesterol in your body.3, 4 Animal products usually contain higher amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol than plant-based foods, so cutting meat from your diet can lower your risk for heart disease
  • Lower Blood Pressure: Apart from being a major risk factor for heart disease, high blood pressure can also cause damage to the brain through strokes or dementia as well as to the eyes and kidneys.5 Vegetarian diets are associated with a decrease in blood pressure.6 This may be a result of decreased intake of saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol, and the weight loss that vegetarians often experience
  • Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes: Eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts can stabilize blood sugar and has been shown to decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes, while red and processed meat has been shown to increase risk7
  • Decreased Asthma Symptoms: Some research has shown that increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables and decreasing saturated fat and dairy intake could reduce the risk of asthma development and exacerbation.8 This may be because of how dietary components like antioxidants, fiber, polyunsaturated fatty acids, fats, and vitamin D affect immune pathways
  • Reduced Cancer Risk: Research has shown that those who eat less meat experience a lower occurrence of cancer.9,10  One reason may be that vegetarian diets exclude processed meat, which has been classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization. Also, replacing meat with plants means you’ll be getting more cancer-preventing phytochemicals like carotenoids and antioxidants that protect the body from damage and prevent processes that can lead to cancer11

What Are the Risks of Becoming Vegetarian?

Most of the risks related to vegetarianism have to do with deficiencies in certain nutrients. It can be harder for vegetarians, especially vegans, to get enough protein and certain vitamins and minerals like vitamin B-12, vitamin D, iron, and calcium. Nutrient deficiencies can sometimes affect things like energy levels, the immune system, mental functioning, or muscle, heart, and bone health. 

Some people also find it can be easier to grab unhealthy vegetarian options when you know meat is off the table. Eating too little protein and having a more limited variety of available foods can give power to your cravings. While going vegetarian is likely safe for most people, it will require some research and planning to make sure you are getting adequate nutrition.

How Does Becoming Vegetarian Help the Environment?

The livestock industry takes an enormous toll on the planet due to its significant use of natural resources and greenhouse gas emissions. Raising livestock usually involves great amounts of land and water, leading to deforestation and a dwindling freshwater supply. For example, research shows that of the 90-99% of tropical deforestation caused by agricultural expansion, half is for cattle pastures.12 Also, animal husbandry releases about the same amount of greenhouse gas as the transportation industry, with cattle and sheep contributing 18% of total global emissions.13 The less meat that people eat, the more we’ll be able to preserve our natural resources and prevent the disastrous effects of climate change.

Nutrients You Should Pay Attention to When Going Vegetarian

Becoming vegetarian up your intake of certain nutrients – but it can also become easier to miss other key nutrients that you usually get from meat. Be mindful about consuming enough of these nutrients:

  • Iron: Iron is a necessary mineral that is important for the function of hemoglobin and myoglobin in red blood cells. Iron helps transport oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body. While red meat is highest in iron, vegetarian foods like spinach, eggs, sweet potatoes, broccoli, shellfish, and legumes like black beans and chickpeas also have high amounts.

    Iron need varies between people depending on age, sex, diet, and other factors. Adult women generally need twice as much iron (18 mg) as adult men (8 mg), and vegetarians are advised to consume twice as much iron as recommended for meat eaters because the non-heme iron in plants is less bioavailable than heme iron found in meat.14 Vitamin C and iron supplements can also be used to increase iron uptake.
  • Protein: Protein provides the essential building blocks for almost all parts of the body. This macronutrient is important for muscle, skin, hair, hormones, intercellular components like enzymes, and many other parts of the body’s structure and functioning. The National Academy of Medicine recommends that adults get about 7 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight per day.15 Eggs, broccoli, fish, milk products like Greek yogurt and cottage cheese, nuts and seeds, and legumes are all good protein sources. Plant-based protein powders can also be added to smoothies or baked goods for a boost in protein.
  • Vitamin B12 and D: Vitamin B-12 is necessary for producing red blood cells and preventing anemia. It’s found almost exclusively in animal products, so most vegans take supplements or eat foods fortified with B12, like milk, nutritional yeast, and cereals.

    Vitamin D is important for bone health. It is high in some fish and often added to fortified foods like milk and cereals. If you don’t eat fish or many fortified foods and have limited sun exposure, you may want to consider supplementation.
  • Calcium: Calcium is also necessary for building strong bones. Dairy products are highest in calcium, but milk alternatives are often fortified with calcium to at least match the content of dairy milk. Dark greens like broccoli, spinach, kale, and collard greens are also high in calcium.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href="vitamin-b12-for-vegetarians">Vitamin B12 for Vegetarians: Best Sources and Foods Explained</a>.</p>

How to Become a Vegetarian: Explained

There are many reasons why people choose to become vegetarian. Some are interested in the health benefits, some want to protect the environment, and others are motivated by religious reasons or animal rights. If you’ve decided vegetarianism is right for you, first select which type of vegetarian diet is best for you and do some research. Take inventory of your current diet and think about ways you’ll replace meat and other foods you’re planning to cut out. Read on for tips to implement the transition successfully and reap the benefits of vegetarianism.

10 Tips for Becoming a Vegetarian

elderly-women-preparing-a-salad

When executed right, becoming vegetarian can have significant and beneficial impacts on personal health and environmental impact. Making the switch usually requires large-scale changes to your daily eating patterns. 

  • Make Sure to Get Enough Protein: Include high-protein vegetarian foods at every meal. Comparing the macros of different foods can be useful for making sure you are getting the quantities you need
  • Plan Your Meals Beforehand: Meal planning can be a powerful tool for designing well-balanced meals, fighting cravings, and making life easier at the moment you get hungry! It’ll be easier to make sure you are getting the right nutrients and avoid last-minute decision fatigue while on a new diet. Try taking a look in your fridge, making a shopping list, and writing down your plans for balanced meals throughout the week. Lots of foods can be prepped in advance, like roasted veggies, beans, and grains
  • Consider Whether Full Vegetarianism Is the Right Choice to Begin: It can be easier to make a slow transition instead of going cold turkey on meat. Consider starting “flexitarian” the first few weeks by cutting your meat consumption in half, refraining from certain types like red meat, or deciding on a couple of “meatless days” per week
  • Find Your Favorite Substitutes: Giving up meat doesn’t mean you have to give up your favorite meat-based dishes. With vegetarianism’s rising popularity has come an abundance of great vegetarian and vegan alternatives. The Impossible Burger, Tofurkey, and dairy-free yogurt and cheese, not to mention oat, almond, and soy milk have made their way to grocery stores and restaurants alike. Tofu, seitan, jackfruit, and mushrooms are also popular meat stand-ins
  • Check the Packaging of Everything You Buy: Foods that may appear to fit into your diet may include hidden animal-based ingredients. Also, foods touted as vegetarian or vegan can have processed and unhealthy ingredients like certain fats and flavorings. Read the nutrition labels before buying to see what you’ll actually be consuming
  • Do Not Make Carbs Your Go-to Option: Just because carbohydrates are vegetarian doesn’t mean you should increase your intake when you go vegetarian. Balance your carb intake with vegetables and protein, and avoid using carbs to replace meat or other animal products
  • Make Sure You Get Enough Vitamin B12: Because B12 is found exclusively in animal products, it can be hard to get enough if you eat a mostly plant-based diet and nearly impossible while following a vegan diet. Make sure to eat foods high in B-12 or supplement accordingly
  • Get the Right Equipment: Having the right tools in your kitchen can make it much easier to prep food and tackle new recipes. Some basics include high-quality knives, a blender or food processor, a baking sheet, a large skillet, and storage containers
  • Use Aromatics:Are you worried you’ll miss out on flavor by giving up meat? Imagine your favorite spicy curries, tangy salad dressings, and savory soups. So much flavor can come from herbs, spices, and aromatic vegetables like garlic, onions, shallots, scallions, and peppers. Learn to use aromatics in your cooking, and you might forget to miss the taste of meat
  • Make it Experimental: Have fun browsing cookbooks, learning about new cuisines, and trying out recipes to find ways to make vegetarianism exploratory, delicious, and enjoyable

Learn More About How to Improve Blood Sugar Health With Signos’ Expert Advice

Nutrition is central to maintaining good health, but everyone responds to food differently, and it can be hard to know what strategies are best for you. With Signos, continuous glucose monitoring is paired with expert advice to give personalized strategies for better metabolic health. Discover more about how Signos works and learn about the link between nutrition, blood glucose, and overall health on Signos’ blog. Not sure if Signos is right for you? Find out by taking a quick quiz.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Read: </strong><a href="how-to-eat-more-vegetables">Smart Ways to Eat More Vegetables Everyday</a>.</p>

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References

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About the author

Alicia Buchter is a content writer for Signos and earned her degree in Biochemistry, Biophysics, and Molecular Biology from Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA.

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