Feel squeamish about eating things that have a face? Looking for ways to lose weight and feel healthier? Do you just find yourself losing your taste for red meat?
There are plenty of good reasons to become a vegetarian. But there are a few things you should know before you make the transition.
What kind of vegetarian?
Are you still a vegetarian if you ate one hamburger last year? How about two?
The good news is that there are no vegetarian police who will take away your title if you slip. However, there are terms generally used to describe various kinds of vegetarianism. The word vegetarian itself can be used loosely, depending on who is defining the term. Some people who call themselves vegetarians will eat fish (or shellfish). Others will claim the term even though they occasionally eat poultry.
An ovo-lacto vegetarian is defined as someone who will not eat meat but who will eat dairy products and eggs. A vegan will not – no animal products. There are also vegetarians who follow a strict macrobiotic diet and others who will only eat their food uncooked.
For many people, becoming a vegetarian is a journey, not a destination. Removing red meat from the diet is the first step, then stop eating chicken and then maybe fish. The goal is to find the level that feels right for you, taking into account that it can take two years for your body to adjust to the point where your tastes change and your digestive system fully adjusts.
The goal is to avoid making your diet yet another stressor in your life. Pick the level of vegetarianism that feels right for you. But remember that the more items you remove from your diet, the more care you must exercise care to make sure you receive all the nutrients and vitamins you need.
Getting what you need
Vegetarianism is a truly healthy way to eat, even though there are plenty of meat eaters who will still argue the point. Eating meat automatically ensures you will get enough of certain essentials such as iron and B vitamins. But if you eat a well-rounded vegetarian diet, you will usually cover all bases. Just to make sure, here is a checklist of items that vegetarians should keep track of:
- Iron – If we do not get enough iron in our diets, we can become anemic (not enough red blood cells). This can be particularly important for women, since menstruation causes women to lose iron each month. Tofu, soybeans, dried fruit and molasses are high in iron. If you like Japanese cooking, seaweed is also a great source. You can also eat cereals fortified with iron. Combining those foods with other foods that are high in Vitamin C (oranges, tomatoes, broccoli) can help your body absorb all the iron it needs.
- B Vitamins – The B vitamins include thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, B6 and B12. Most can be found in fortified grains, as well as dairy products, leafy vegetables, nuts and soybeans. Vegans can find it more difficult to take in enough B vitamins. A vitamin supplement can help, as can nutritional yeast.
- Calcium – Again, vegans who remove dairy products from their diet have to work a little harder to ensure they take in enough calcium. Green, leafy vegetables and figs are also good sources. Caucasian women, at the greatest risk of osteoporosis, should be especially vigilant about getting enough calcium.
- Vitamin D – There are only two ways our bodies get enough of this important vitamin, which plays a critical role in building strong bones – through diet or through sunlight. The sun prompts our bodies to produce Vitamin D, but especially in winter, we may not get enough without dietary supplementation. Cow’s milk is often fortified with Vitamin D to ensure most people will get enough, but if you do not eat dairy products, try fortified soy milk and fortified cereals instead. Again, you can also select a good vitamin supplement.
- Protein – When I became a vegetarian years ago, I was warned that the hard part would be eating the right kinds of complementary proteins. I never did figure that out and I still feel healthy 20 years later. Now research confirms that vegetarians typically take in enough of the right kinds of protein without much effort. Just make sure to eat lots of good whole grains in cereals and breads, as well as tofu, nuts, peanut butter, beans and vegetables.
- Zinc – If you do not eat dairy products, remember to eat fortified cereals, legumes and soy products like tofu and tempeh to get enough zinc.
Cooking vegetarian food also requires changing your mindset – which can be quite liberating. How about putting a roasted corn and kiwi salsa made with sweet Vidalia onions on those otherwise dull potatoes? You will find yourself needing a good food processor for chopping, a sturdy juicer and a steamer. What a great excuse to redo a tired kitchen!