Becoming a vegetarian isn’t as easy as it looks, although there are more and more reasons to try. Technomic cites an increase of 22% more vegetable options on American menus between 2012 and 2013, and more young people than ever converting to veganism – with a 2016 article in The Guardian citing a rise of 350% more teenagers going vegan in the UK in the past decade. Celebs like Beyonce and Ariana Grande have popularized vegetarian and vegan diets, whether permanently or for a shorter period.
However, it’s still hard to suppress your inner carnivore in the long term. In 2014, the Humane Research Council released the first lapsed-vegetarian study, in which the numbers suggested that it was far more effective for people to reduce their meat and dairy consumption than for them to give up animal products completely.
This might, on first read, feel surprising. One big part of vegetarianism’s appeal is that it seems simple — just don’t eat meat or fish, OK? But the study suggests that more flexibility and nuance applied to your diet might actually be healthier and more sustainable in the long-run.
So if you’re considering striking animal products from your diet, here are some tips that might be helpful to ease you into more vegetarian diet:
If You're Switching for Health, Do Your Research
If you’re considering switching to a vegetarian-only diet for health reasons, do your research.
A study by David Tilman of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Ecology in the science journal Nature compared vegetarian, pescetarian and Mediterranean diets (along with an income-dependent diet) and produced varied results in terms of health. While vegetarianism ranked top for reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, both a Mediterranean and pescetarian diet were healthier in terms of reducing heart disease.
According to a 2015 study, pescetarians are also far less likely to contract bowel or rectal cancer than vegetarians. Since essential fatty acids (EFAs) can’t be made by the body and must be obtained through diet, including oily fish (a natural source of omega-3 fats) in your diet may be healthier, with fish consumption being thought to help us manage stress and produce that feel-good hormone, serotonin.
This said, it’s possible to take plant-based omega-3 supplements (and more on this later).
Check Out the Carbon Footprint of Meat Substitutes
If helping the planet is your motivation for cutting animal products, then be attentive to the environmental impact of meat substitutes and consider sticking to lentils and chickpeas.
The WWF warned that soya-based products like tofu might not be as sustainable as you’d assume, claiming that, “As soybean agriculture sweeps across South America and elsewhere, fragile ecosystems such as rainforests and savannahs are feeling the strain, as are iconic species like the jaguar and giant anteater.”
Similarly, a report focused on the UK titled “How Low Can We Go?”, conducted by a research team at Cranfield University, stated:“A switch from beef and milk to highly refined livestock product analogues such as tofu and Quorn could actually increase the quantity of arable land needed to supply the UK. In contrast, a broad-based switch to plant based products through simply increasing the intake of cereals and vegetables is more sustainable.”
Don't Be All-or-Nothing About It
It’s tempting to apply an all-or-nothing approach. But, as the Humane Research Council study’s findings suggest, vegetarianism is a marathon, not a sprint.
Whether you’re motivated by compassion for animals, anxiety about global warming turning the earth into a ball of molten lava or simply wanting to treat your body better, a lower consumption of animal products over the course of decades as opposed to a couple of years of completely eliminating meat and fish from your diet has got to be a better outcome.
You’re human and it’s OK to be a little sloppy. Just do your best.
Consider Experimenting With End Dates
Some vegetarians claim that they found it helpful to apply “end dates” while embarking on their new diet. If it helps, tell yourself you’re eating just vegetarian options plus fish for two weeks and after that time, you’re under no obligation and can revert to your normal diet.
If you like how you feel and want to extend your experiment, set the next end date for a month’s time. Again, if you opt to quit after that, it’s fine. Once you get accustomed to cooking meals without meat, it becomes easier to consider living without meat as a longterm option.
Beyond this, if cutting all meat from your diet seems intimidating, consider cutting just red meat (beef, pork and lamb) for the first year. Get comfortable with taking baby steps when it comes to your diet.
Don't Stress About Perfect Nutrition At First
The first month or two of vegetarianism often involve a period where you won’t, despite your best efforts, be an incredibly competent, healthy vegetarian, à la all those Instagram food bloggers.
Get set to eat way too much pizza, pasta, chocolate and chips. Cut yourself some slack. Once you’ve adjusted to your new diet and started seeking out veggie-alternatives to your favorites, you’ll start cooking up healthier dishes.
If You Do Eat Some Meat, Pick Better Options
Being a flexitarian doesn’t have to mean being careless about consumption. Be thoughtful about the background of meat products. Eat meat in restaurants that are transparent about where they source their meat. When dining at home, eat less meat but invest the money you save in more expensive, better quality stuff.
Try to buy meat directly from farms online if possible, and check for photos of how the animals are raised – if there are only photos of the finished product available, this isn’t a good sign. If this doesn’t appeal, try to buy from a co-op or an independent grocery store.
Ideally, you’d be buying products from organic farms — this doesn’t just mean no chemical fertilizers or pesticides or the routine use of antibiotics, but also usually means a higher level of welfare for the animals, i.e. more time outside.
Other terms to look out for are “grass-fed” (where animals graze, instead of being subject to concentrated animal feed operations), “outdoor bred” or “animal welfare approved,” which ensures high-welfare slaughter practices.
Explore Other Cuisines
Turn your new diet into a culinary adventure and consider cooking recipes from other cuisines. Middle Eastern food offers a good starting point if you feel confident enough to try your hand at making your own falafel, baba ganoush and hummus, while Indian, Ethiopian and Thai cuisines also offer comprehensive ideas for healthy but delicious vegetarian food.
While Mexican food isn’t famous for its vegetarian options, it’s easy enough to swap out the meat parts for vegetables without losing much of the flavor.
Become a Diet Nerd
Be nerdy about getting a balanced diet. The beauty of eating whatever you want to is that most of the time, if you make vaguely healthy, diverse choices, you’re probably covering all your bases, vitamins and nutrient-wise.
On switching to a diet free from animal products, you’re going to need to be more attentive to what you’re putting in your body to ensure you’re getting enough of all the good stuff — especially protein, iron, vitamin C, vitamin B12, zinc and omega–3 fatty acids.
Since carnivores get most of their protein via meat and non-vegans from animal products, as a vegetarian or vegan, you’ll need to make sure you’re eating lots of nuts and nut butters, legumes like peas and beans, lentils, hummus, quinoa and meat substitutes like seitan.
If you’re just vegetarian but not vegan, you can also get protein from eggs and dairy products. You can get iron from non-animal sources — dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, for example, or beans or tofu — but plant-based iron isn’t absorbed by your body as well, so you’ll need to eat vitamin C – found not just in citrus fruits, but in versatile vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, sweet peppers and tomatoes – in the same meal to give your body a helping hand.
You need Vitamin B12 for a healthy brain and nervous system and most people get this from red meat or fish like salmon or mackerel. If you’re not vegan, you can get this from cow’s milk or eggs. If you are vegan, you’re going to want to stock up on B12 fortified foods like cereals or soy milk.
According to Vegetarian Voice, vegetarian diets inhibit the absorption of zinc. They suggest eating more foods that contain zinc like “soybeans, cashews and sunflower seeds, while reducing your intake of inhibitors by washing vegetables and grains.”
In terms of omega-3, if you’re a vegetarian, opt for eggs or milk. If you’re a vegan or don't otherwise eat eggs, then indulge in green leafy vegetables, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, mung beans and winter squashes like pumpkins and cabbages.
It's true that converting to vegetarianism isn’t as easy, joyful and Goop-esque as vegetarian Instagram would have you believe. In the early days, you’re arguably less likely to be concocting a photogenic beet salad for dinner after a 12 hour day at your desk than you are to be sticking a four cheese pizza in the oven.
But, as with so many worthwhile things in life, it’s mostly about the journey. Making peace with the messiness of the early months and prioritizing longevity over quick-fix solutions and Insta-smugness is half the battle.
So, get started. Research your legumes, take vitamin supplements and learn to cook that incredible lentil curry. We’ve got you.