|Getting Started As a Vegetarian|
It’s Easier Than You Think
You’ve decided to stop taking half measures to fight
your high cholesterol. Or maybe you’re asking yourself
why, if you love animals called pets, you eat animals called
dinner. Or you’re feeling guilty about using up more
than your fair share of the earth’s resources by eating
an animal-based diet. Whatever your reasons, you want to
become a vegetarian. Congratulations!
But then the doubts surface. Will I make myself sick if I
don’t do it right? Will I get enough protein? Enough
calcium? Enough iron? Don’t I need to know a lot about
nutrition? Is the food expensive? Do I have to shop at a
special store? What if I don’t have time to cook?
Relax! Being a vegetarian can be compatible with anyone’s
lifestyle and food preferences. All you need is a little
knowledge, some common sense, and a few good recipes. Once
you make up your mind to try, you can move along the path to
We all have our own style for making major changes. Some of
us like to do it all at once, to “get it over with.”
Others prefer to move gradually, taking further steps as we
feel ready. Do what works best for you.
In becoming vegetarians, we want to improve our health,
not make it worse. So most of us are interested in good
nutrition. Don’t believe those who tell you it’s
hard to plan a good vegetarian diet! The US Department of
Agriculture’s most recent Dietary Guidelines for
Americans affirm the healthfulness of meatless eating: “Vegetarian
diets are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines and can meet
Recommended Dietary Allowances for nutrients.”
To make health-promoting food choices as a vegetarian, this
is all you need to know:
- Eat a variety of foods from the New Four Food Groups
suggested by the Physicians Committee for Responsible
Medicine--grains, legumes (including tofu and soy
milk), vegetables, and fruits (dairy and eggs,
- Strictly limit saturated fats, partially hydrogenated
and trans fats, and simple sugars (not just white
sugar, but honey, molasses, maple or rice syrup, etc.).
These “empty calories” displace nutrient-rich
foods in your diet and can promote heart disease,
cancers, obesity, and tooth decay. Also keep down the
total fat in your diet.
- Instead of refined foods, choose whole starches like
whole wheat and pasta, brown rice, whole cornmeal,
other grains, potatoes.
- Eat dark leafy greens every day, foods like broccoli,
kale, green cabbage, bok choy, sea vegetables,
romaine, and dark green leaf lettuce. These supply
calcium, iron, riboflavin, and vitamins A and C.
Spinach and chard are also rich in iron and calcium,
but the body may not absorb them as well.
- Eat enough calories from nourishing foods to maintain
- Replace the meat in your diet with grains and
legumes, not dairy products.
You may lower your iron level to the point of anemia if
you substitute cheese for meat. This is because dairy
products are very low in iron, whereas meat is high in iron.
Grains and legumes also supply iron, which the body absorbs
better if you eat something with vitamin C, such as citrus
fruit, strawberries, tomatoes, or broccoli, at the same meal.
If you eat this way, you will get enough protein and the
other nutrients you need. You do not need to worry about
“combining proteins” by eating grains with legumes
or other combinations. In the 1997 position paper on
vegetarian diets of the American Dietetic Association, we
read: “Plant sources of protein alone can provide
adequate amounts of essential amino acids if a variety of
plant foods are consumed and energy needs are met. Research
suggests that complementary proteins do not need to be
consumed at the same time.”
What about B12?
The only nutrient which cannot be reliably supplied in a pure-vegetarian
diet is vitamin B12. Our bodies can store and recycle B12
with varying efficiency, so signs of deficiency may not
appear for years. Given the serious and permanent
consequences of B12 deficiency, vegans should use supplements
or fortified foods as sources of this vitamin. If you eat
eggs or dairy, you may be getting adequate B12 from these
foods. If you avoid all animal-source foods, reliable sources
of B12 include fortified cereals, fortified non-dairy milks,
and other fortified foods (check the label), or a microbial-source
B12 pill or multivitamin a few times a week. Using a vitamin
D supplement or fortified foods is also important for people
who do not get enough sunshine.
Getting plenty of the B vitamins folate, B6, and B12 helps
reduce blood levels of homocysteine, which appears to be
associated with increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Folate and B6 are abundant in vegetables, fruits, whole
grains, and legumes common in good meatless diets, but B12
may be low or lacking unless you use fortified foods or
Consuming a better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids
may reduce your risk for heart disease and other health
problems. Some ways to do this are to use monounsaturated
oils like olive and canola for cooking and salads rather than
polyunsaturated oils like safflower, corn, and cottonseed.
Daily use of flaxseed oil, hemp oil, or ground flaxseeds on
salad or over cooked foods will supply omega-3 fatty acids (no,
you don’t have to eat salmon or tuna!). Flaxseed oil and
hemp oil break down easily and are not suitable for cooking.
Replacing the Tripartite Plate
Vegetarian nutrition is a non-problem if you follow these
simple suggestions. But what do you eat instead of meat?
Here, a good cookbook is essential (although you can just eat
some whole grains with lots of raw or cooked vegetables or
fruit, if you prefer simple food).
Get out of the tripartite-plate mindset (meat, starch,
vegetable) and think of new meal patterns, like grains with
vegetable sauces, or hearty soups with bread and salad. Make
meatless versions of foods you already enjoy, like spaghetti
with marinara sauce, split-pea soup, chili, bean enchiladas,
stir-fries, curries, vegetable soups, wholegrain waffles with
fruit, and meatless sandwich spreads.
Needed: A Good Cookbook
There are many excellent vegetarian cookbooks available. Look
for one that emphasizes low-fat selections rather than foods
high in oil, nuts, or cheese. The New Laurel’s
Kitchen is a classic that is comprehensive and has a
reliable, though somewhat dated, nutrition section. The
New McDougall Cookbook by John and Mary McDougall
features recipes low in fat, sugars, and salt and free of
animal products. Meatless Meals for Working People,
sold by the VVS, concentrates on easy, mainstream recipes
using common ingredients. Any bookstore or natural foods
store can order these books for you if they don’t have
them in stock.
You can buy all the foods you need for your vegetarian
diet in the supermarket. However, natural foods stores offer
a better selection and organic foods, besides. You can be
adequately nourished with conventional food if you can’t
No Money, No Time?
If you need to save money, stick to basic whole foods and
avoid expensive nuts, exotic imports, and prepared foods. If
you don’t have time to cook, you can buy frozen and
packaged convenience foods at natural foods stores.
Supermarkets, too, carry meatless foods, such as vegetarian
beans, soups, and pasta sauces. Magazines like Vegetarian
Times and Vegetarian Journal regularly feature
quick and easy recipes.
Do It Your Way
Eating out can present a challenge, though vegetarian foods
are becoming more common on restaurant menus. Chinese,
Indian, and Italian restaurants usually have a good selection
of vegetarian choices, as do Mexican restaurants if they don’t
use lard routinely. Even a steak house salad bar can contain
many appetizing and filling meatless items. Fast-food
restaurants still don’t have much to offer vegetarians;
those with salad bars are often the best choice. Vegetarian
Journal magazine regularly surveys fast-food companies
and some, such as Taco Bell, Subway, Little Caesar’s
Pizza, and TGI Friday’s, do offer vegetarian and vegan
selections. Be sure to let the manager know of your desire
for vegetarian choices. Supply will follow demand.
Dealing with a reluctant spouse or children can be another
challenging situation. Remember that there are many
successful “mixed marriages,” and you can work out
most problems with good communication and mutual
Becoming a vegetarian, then, need not be complicated,
difficult, or expensive. And there are no “Vegetarian
Police” checking up on how you’re doing. You
decide what your goals are, and why. And as you progress, you’ll
find the rewards are not long in coming.
©Copyright 1998, 2001 by Judith L. Miner.