Chances are, you’ve been raised and you grew up as a meat-eater like me. You might even hate vegetables. But you’ve realized that going vegetarian is the right way to go and you have little to no idea where to start or how to transition to a vegetarian diet.
In a nutshell, vegan pun not intended, don’t rush things and take a fast-enough approach that it is manageable. But slow-enough that you don’t experience the unnecessary side effects of switching diets. Starting out with a non-strict vegetarian where you would still be able to eat the types of food that you are used to. After this, swap out the non-plant-based ingredients with an alternative. Finally, when you get the hang of things with your new diet, explore meals that are strictly vegetarian or even vegan if that’s your goal.
The reasons for deciding to become vegetarian may vary a lot from person to person. Some do it for the health benefits while others do it to minimize the cruelty to animals. Some choose plant-based because they like the taste of these types of foods.
Switching diets can be hard. Especially if you are used to a general diet where you eat anything from meat to veggies to seafood and anything edible. Believe it or not, some people can switch diets easily without any fuss. But for most people like myself, switching diets need to be a process.
If you experience the same challenge or doubts, you’re not the only one. It can be daunting so let’s start from the beginning.
How to start a vegetarian diet?
So you’ve decided to become a vegetarian. I am going to have an assumption that you’ve come from a diet that basically eats anything that can be eaten.
Start out with almost the same diet, but this time consciously choose meals that are plant-based. Those meals that are centered around vegetables or the main ingredient is plant-based. Milk, eggs, and even fish are still in if you like them.
Now you’re a pescatarian-lacto-ovo vegetarian. It’s a mouthful I know, but that basically means your diet includes veggies, fruits, grains, fish, dairy products like milk and cheese, and eggs. We’re not there yet but we are a step closer to the goal of transitioning fully to a vegetarian diet.
Then, you are going to want to have a little fun. The next logical step is to go with salads, fruit slices, and shakes. Remember when you eat these when you want to try something healthy? Guess what, these types of food will now be your regular.
The goal here is to transition smoothly, so don’t rush. Take things slowly to avoid failing to hit your goals and potentially just giving up. At this point, do not limit yourself with your food choices. When you’re shopping or choosing your meal, do not actively avoid meat and animal products.
Instead, think about the benefits of plant-based foods and how good they taste. So instead of closing yourself from meat, open yourself up instead to vegetarian choices.
Make it a habit.
It should be common knowledge by now that the best way of developing a new habit is by linking it up to an existing habit. What better way to develop an eating habit than linking it with another eating habit.
I guess it’s safe to say that, generally, most people eat breakfast regularly. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day as it kickstarts your body to function for the whole day. The night before, prepare the ingredients for a full plant-based meal. This will allow you to easily prepare a vegetarian or at least a plant-based meal for breakfast.
An additional way to make you committed to transitioning to a vegetarian diet is to tell your family and friends. Claiming that you are doing something and announcing it to the people close to you can also be a challenge. Just remember to focus only on the positive support you’ll get back.
How to maintain a vegetarian diet after starting?
By the time you get the hang of it, you should have a different mindset towards plant-based food now. Oh, and your body, the digestive system to be precise, should be more accustomed to the new diet.
At this point, the name of the game is replacing the non-vegan stuff with plant-based substitutes. Just like when you were starting out, taking things slowly is key. One by one, replace meat with meat alternatives like tofu or Seitan (wheat gluten).
Your meal choices would now be inclined towards the plant-based side. If a situation arises where you have a craving for a meat-based dish, ask for a vegan option.
For convenience, try out ready to eat options like soups or meals that require little to no preparation time like oats.
Try swapping out a non-vegetarian ingredient with a plant-based alternative each week. Keep a list of animal products and by-products that you still eat regularly. Cross out one each week and try not to buy or consume this product from now on. Don’t beat yourself up if you fail on one ingredient though. Just add it back to the list and tackle it later.
There are only a handful of common animal-based products so you should be meat-free in a couple of months.
One other thing to try at this point is to start cooking more. Cooking means you have more control over your food choices. Based on experience, cooking and preparing plant-based food is easier than preparing meat-based food.
When doing your groceries, choose more and more plant-based products in the produce section. Less and less in the meat section. Eventually the habit of visiting the meat section should fade out.
Stockup on vegetables and plant-based ingredients, even if you don’t know what to do with them yet. There are lots of recipes found on the internet for every little thing you would pick up.
To easily find more ideas for recipes and ingredients, don’t hesitate to make new friends that are members of the vegan and vegetarian communities. There are Facebook groups, forums, blogs like this one, and even local clubs dedicated to choosing healthy plant-based food.
What are the side effects of starting a vegetarian diet?
During the transition to a vegetarian diet, you will find that there are other obstacles aside from the mentality shift and the obvious hardships when changing a diet or any habit. Your physiology might also react differently and you could experience some side effects.
A few people experience less of these side effects, some do not, but most people do and just remember: don’t be too hard on yourself.
An quick example that comes to mind is an allergy to soy-based products. Tofu is a famous meat substitute and it is made from soy. So if you have an allergic reaction to tofu, try switching to other meat substitutes like seitan.
Depending on your previous diet, the chemical composition of what you were used to eating may be very different from your new plant-based diet. A large difference could introduce hormone imbalances. The effects when you have unbalanced hormones because of your diet, the effects could vary so much that it deserves its own article.
One of the toughest side effect of transitioning to a vegetarian diet is one that is connected to how you and I interact with our friends and its not even a real side effect.
Imagine going out to eat with friends and you go to a restaurant with very limited vegetarian options or none at all. Another scenario would be visiting a friend and you get invited to dinner and they have prepared heavily meat-based food. What do you do?
You could refuse and state your reason and leave, politely. Or you could also insist on having something vegetarian brought up, again politely. If you’ve been cooking your own plant-based food, you would know that it is easier and faster to prepare vegetarian food, most of the time.
But my suggestion is just go for it. You have eaten meat in the past right?
Remember there was a time that you were non-vegetarian and there’s this one time when you choose to eat “something healthy” and you go for a plant-based dish. It is like that, but the situation is flipped.
Now this could lead to relapse, especially if being vegetarian is not yet deeply ingrained in your personality. To stay dedicated, immediately after eating meat or after a few hours, go for a vegetarian snack or shake. This should remind you that plant-based food tastes better and is healthier.
Are there enough nutrients when going vegetarian?
It’s a common misconception that vegetarians get fewer nutrients than meat-eaters since they eat fewer types of food. Mainly in the protein department. It is a misconception though because, as you can see in the go-grow-glow image above, all sections are almost dominated by plant-based foods.
Go foods contains lots of carbohydrates which powers your body. It may not be obvious from the image but bread and donuts are made from flour which is plant-based.
Grow foods give you protein. Protein are the building blocks of the body and are required repair tissue and replace the ones that are too old. Beans, grains, and other vegetables contain plenty of protein that the body can break down and rebuild with.
Glow foods contain the other vitamins and minerals that the body needs. This group is mostly composed of vegetables and fruits. These foods have a direct effect on the skin and general outward physical appearance, hence the name.
According to a study, beans contain complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, and most importantly, protein. All these while having insignificant negative nutritional effects. These make beans an almost complete powerhouse of a food. And it’s easy to find recipes and ideas on how to prepare beans into delicious dishes.
Some people might not like vegetables, but I do not know anybody who doesn’t like fruits. Each individual might have different choices on fruits but I think it is safe to say that people really like fruits. This is good news.
Fruits contain lots of vitamins and minerals which should cover the glow part of your daily diet. They are also cheap and require little to no preparation. Some even need just a basic wash with running and water and they are good to go.
Can I transition to vegan from vegetarianism?
So now you are a vegetarian. You have decided and chosen what type of vegetarian you are. Pescatarian, lacto, ovo, lacto-ovo, or any combination of these. You might even get a bite of poultry now and then.
What if you decide to go all in and take it to the next level?
Cut back on all animal products and become a full vegetarian. The steps should be clear cut from this point and it’s the same process. Slowly wean off the animal products that you are still eating. Week by week remove them and how fast depends on you.
You might even want to adapt to the vegan lifestyle and become and advocate for animal welfare.
Transitioning to a vegetarian diet could be a long and tough process. But it doesn’t have to be. Just remember, you are the one in control and you set your own pace. Take it slow and one by one, remove pick out an ingredient that doesn’t belong to your target diet, and try to never use it again. If you do not succeed, all is good because you can start again as many times as you like.