I can remember the day I became a vegetarian pretty clearly. It was 5 years ago now–before I had even decided to become a dietitian and around the time my interest in nutrition was slowly starting to peak.
My older sister had already been a vegetarian for a few years at the time and I was finally at the point where my mom’s threats of “if you become a vegetarian, you have to cook for yourself” didn’t jolt me anymore.
So I set a date that was going to be day #1 of no meat…and then I drove to Panda Express and ordered orange chicken.
Believe it or not, it was a total accident. Mid-bite, I realized that I had forgotten about my new vegetarian diet but it was already too late. I finished the rest of my meal and then haven’t had meat since that day (minus the occasional slip up, usually involving soups and mysterious floating ingredients…oops).
The first few months of being a vegetarian were a hot mess. Let’s just say it involved a lot of Ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese, and spaghetti. So while I certainly wasn’t lacking in the carb department, I was deficient in basically every other area of my diet.
I was constantly drained and hungry. And it became a vicious cycle because sometimes it seemed like the foods I was eating only made me even hungrier.
Looking back and knowing what I know now, I totally wish I could give myself some tips for vegetarians to avoid the pitfalls of becoming an “unhealthy vegetarian.”
Until they invent a time machine, however, I’ve decided to do the next best thing: put together a mini nutrition guide with tips for vegetarians on how to optimize your diet. Keep reading for the quick and simple version of what you need to know if you’re looking to make the switch to meatless!
1. Protein is important, but you don’t need meat to get it.
Tell anyone that you’re a vegetarian/vegan and their first question is always the same: “But what about protein?”
Yes, protein is absolutely essential. Everything in our bodies, right down to our very cells, requires protein to function. Protein is also important because it moves slowly through the body and helps keep us fuller for longer, helping us to sidestep cravings and keep our intake under control. Paying attention to protein is one of the most important tips for vegetarians.
A quick way to determine how much protein you should be getting in a day is to take your weight (in kilograms) and multiply it by 0.8 to 1.0. If you’re 150 pounds, for example, that translates to 68 kg, which means you’d need somewhere between 54-68 grams of protein each day.
For most of us, this is a pretty good estimate of about how many grams of protein are needed per day. If you’re an athlete, that number can increase to about 1.2-1.4 g/kg for endurance athletes and 1.2-1.7 g/kg for power athletes. If you have certain health conditions or are pregnant/breastfeeding, that number can change even more.
So how do you get all that protein into your diet? The good news is that your choices aren’t limited to chicken, fish, or beef.
A few other high-protein plant-based sources include:
- Lentils (18 grams/cup cooked)
- Quinoa (8 grams/cup cooked)
- Tofu (10 grams/1/2 cup)
- Beans (~15 grams/cup cooked)
- Seitan (18 grams/3 oz serving)
- Almonds (6 grams/1 oz serving)
If you’re including them in your diet, eggs, milk, and cheese are also pretty high up there in protein too.
The bottom line is that you should include a good source of protein with each meal and with your snacks as well. Not only does it keep you energized and prevent your stomach from grumbling, but it is also absolutely essential to keeping things running smoothly in the rest of your body.
2. Make sure you’re picking good sources of carbohydrates.
Even though they’ve gotten a bad reputation over the years, carbohydrates are a critical component of our diet. When we eat carbs, they’re broken down into glucose, which supplies our body with energy.
Without enough carbohydrates, the body has to turn to other sources of energy. Instead of breaking down carbohydrates, it might start to use fat as fuel or even pull proteins from the muscles to use for energy.
(Side note: I know burning fat in place of carbs sounds like a pretty sweet deal, but it’s actually not. It can lead to a condition known as ketosis where the body is exclusively using fat and protein for energy and producing something called ketones. A build-up of these ketones can become dangerous, which is just one reason I don’t recommend very-low carbohydrate diets unless you suffer from epilepsy).
That being said, one of the best tips for vegetarians that I can offer is to opt for healthy carbs instead of refined, sugary junk. Examples of healthy carbs are things like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. All of these foods are full of fiber, so they can keep you satisfied and also prevent chronic disease.
Including plenty of fiber in your diet can also keep your blood sugar in check, stopping that sugar crash you might sometimes get after indulging in a sweet snack…only to feel ravenous and totally wiped out an hour later.
A few examples of healthy carbohydrate sources include:
- Fruits and veggies–any of them!
- Whole wheat bread
- Whole wheat pasta
- Brown rice
Swap out the refined grains for these healthier alternatives and include some with your meals. Remember to keep it in check, though; pay attention to serving size and don’t overdo it (more is not always better).
3. If you don’t eat fish, get some plant-based healthy fats in there!
I have never been a fan of fish, so considering pescetarianism was totally out of the question for me. However, if you do still eat fish, that’s great! You should try to include two servings of fatty fish in your diet each week to get plenty of heart-healthy omega-3 fats.
But if you don’t eat fish, not to worry–there are plenty of plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids and other healthy fats as well.
Let’s back up a bit, though and get in a little more background information.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of essential fatty acid, meaning we have to get them through our diet because our body can’t produce them on its own. Fetal development and cardiovascular health depend on omega-3 fatty acids and there’s even evidence suggesting that omega-3s could play a role in cognition and weight management (4).
There are three kinds of omega-3 fatty acids: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). DHA and EPA are long-chain fatty acids derived from fish and are well-known for their beneficial effect on health. ALA is found in plant-based foods and is the pre-cursor to EPA and DHA. The body can convert it to EPA and DHA, but only in small amounts.
Vegan DHA and EPA, which comes from algae, is available in supplement form, but it’s also possible to get in ALA omega-3s through the diet. A few good sources include:
- Chia seeds
- Nuts (especially walnuts)
Other healthy sources of fat should be included in the diet as well to promote optimal health and prevent heart disease. That basically just means cutting out artery-blocking trans fat, which is found primarily in processed foods, and replacing saturated fat found in milk and cheese with unsaturated sources of fat. This is one of my favorite tips for vegetarians, because it means increasing your intake of things like peanut butter, avocados, and olive oil…yum!
4. Don’t overlook the small stuff–micronutrients are key.
These days, most micronutrient deficiencies have been pretty much eradicated. You really just don’t hear about people getting scurvy or Rickets anymore–thank God.
That being said, there are a few micronutrients that you should definitely be aware of if you’re transitioning to a meat-free diet.
Vitamin B12 is naturally found only in animal products. If you’re not eating any meat, eggs, or dairy, supplementation might be a good option. Of note, many foods like breakfast cereals are now enriched with vitamin B12, which can help you get the amount that you need.
Iron is another big one. It’s found in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is better absorbed by the body while non-heme iron is less bioavailable.
Meat contains a mix of both heme and non-heme iron, but plant foods contain only the less bioavailable non-heme iron.
It’s important to be mindful of iron in the diet and eat plenty of dark, leafy greens, legumes, and whole grains to get enough in the diet. Pair iron-rich plant foods with vitamin C from fruits and veggies to increase absorption.
Finally, calcium is crucial to maintaining healthy bones, teeth, and muscles, and it’s essential to be mindful of your intake if you’re not including dairy in your diet. High-calcium plant foods include kale, broccoli, bok choy, soybeans, and tofu.
One of my best tips for vegetarians is to try tracking your diet for a few days in an app like MyFitnessPal to see how you stack up in terms of micronutrients.
5. It’s all about balance.
Between healthy fats, high-quality proteins, and micronutrient deficiencies, it can seem like a lot think about. A nutritious vegetarian diet is a lot easier than it seems, however.
The key is balance. Include plenty of whole foods in your diet and get in plenty of variety. A healthy and delicious meat-free diet is totally achievable.
Now that I’ve shared a few of my top tips for vegetarians, what are your tips for vegetarians and vegans looking to switch up their diet? Leave your thoughts in the comments!