People choose a vegetarian diet for many reasons, including health benefits — to help lower the risk of heart disease and cancer — and the environmental and cost-savings benefits.
If you are considering whether a vegetarian diet may be right for you, it’s important to plan for the transition. Mallory Doolan, a registered dietitian at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, and Patti Ennis, a registered dietitian and manager of clinical nutrition at Sharp Chula Vista, share these four tips for transitioning to a vegetarian diet.
1. Decide what type of diet you want to follow
“There are a variety of plant-based diets,” says Doolan. “It’s important to consider what works best for you.”
Plant-based diets include:
- Vegan — excludes all animal products, including eggs and dairy
- Lacto-vegetarian — includes dairy products, but not egg products
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian — includes eggs and dairy products
- Ovo-vegetarian — includes eggs but not dairy products
Try experimenting with these different types to see which one you prefer.
2. Start with what you know
When you are first starting out, try including plant-based meals with which you are already familiar. You do not have to give up all meat right away. You can try picking one vegetarian meal a week and slowly increase from there. “Start with foods you know you like. Then, start to incorporate other recipes into your routine,” says Doolan.
3. Make substitutions
In addition to finding new recipes, you can modify meals you already enjoy with some simple swaps. “For recipes that use meat, substitute with a plant-based protein alternative,” says Doolan. “Try tofu, beans or lentils.”
4. Have a plan
Having a plan for your transition can help ensure your new diet is healthy and well-balanced. “A well-planned vegetarian diet can adequately meet all nutrition needs,” Doolan says. “It’s important to have a plan and keep certain nutrients in mind.”
Key nutrients to incorporate include:
- Protein — A well-balanced vegetarian diet should include beans, lentils, grains and vegetables to fulfill your protein needs.
- Vitamin B12 — This vitamin is found in animal-based foods. Fortified foods (foods with added micronutrients) are a great way to ensure adequate B12 intake, for example, fortified cereals, soymilk or nutritional yeast.
- Calcium — This mineral is essential for bone health. Good sources of calcium include kale, bok choy and turnip greens. Some foods are also fortified with calcium, such as plant-based milks (like almond or soy), orange juice and cereals.
Remember that the transition to a fully plant-based diet will take time. Try different recipes, read up on vegetarianism and decide what works best for you.
“Sustainable changes happen over time,” says Doolan. “If you are contemplating a change or have more questions about a vegetarian diet, consider meeting with a registered dietitian for a more specialized and specific diet plan.”
And if you are looking for meal inspiration, you can find some delicious vegetarian recipes on Sharp Health News.