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10 Tips to Becoming a Healthy Vegetarian

Vegetarianism is becoming increasingly popular as books, television shows, and movies have exposed popular farming and slaughtering practices in this country.  If you or someone you know is considering becoming a vegetarian, here a few things to consider in order to stay healthy:

  1. When you cut protein sources, you need to ADD protein sources – a variety of them. Omitting meat from your diet is simple but the nutrition and health implications of omitting protein are complicated.  Meat is the main (and most easily accessible) source of protein in the US so it is important that vegetarians consume other protein sources such as beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and dairy products.
  2. Meat is complete. Most vegetarian sources of protein are not COMPLETE proteins (meaning that they do not contain all of the essential amino acids that humans need to maintain health).  Therefore, vegetarians need to work harder and combine protein sources in order to get all of the essential amino acids.
  3. You’ll need alternate sources for some vitamins and minerals. Start by focusing on getting adequate amounts of vitamin B12.  The B vitamins play a role in energy metabolism, and a deficiency of these vitamins will mean less energy and poor resistance to infection.  The RDA (recommended amount) for B12 is 2.4 micrograms (for adults, not including pregnant or lactating women).  Dairy is a good sources of B12 (i.e. one cup (8 oz) of skim milk contains 0.9 micrograms).  Vegans will have to seek out fortified sources such as some yeast extracts, certain vegetable stocks, veggie burger mixes, textured vegetable protein, soya milks, and breakfast cereals (breakfast cereals contain up to 6 micrograms per serving).
  4. Start increasing your vegetable consumption. Oftentimes, a transition from a carnivorous diet to a vegetarian diet means increasing grains like pasta and breads.  While whole grains are important, it is also important to eat more calories from fruits and vegetables.  Try to work up to at least 6 servings of vegetables per day, and remember: eat the rainbow!
  5. Think about the foods you’ll eat instead of meat. Do a lot of your favorite dishes to cook include meat?  What kinds of main dishes do you enjoy that are meat-free?  Consider picking up a vegetarian cookbook and think about the changes you’ll have to make on a daily basis.  Planning dishes is critical and learning to make vegetarian food might be a big change.  Start with small changes and do your research!
  6. Eat healthy foods. When you switch to becoming a vegetarian, you don’t want to simply eat vegetables, you want to pay attention to the quality of food you’re having.  Don’t substitute fried vegetables for raw ones.  It’s important to consume fresh fruits and vegetables and foods low in saturated fat – Adding lots of cheese or butter to your vegetables is not a healthy option (i.e. pizza should not become a staple food in your diet)!
  7. Learn how to read food labels. Sometimes processed and packaged vegetarian foods contain a lot of sugar and salt to add flavor.  You want to make sure that the foods you’re having are LOW in sodium (aim for 5% or less of the DV, according to the label).
  8. Know hidden sources of sugar! The ingredient list on a package tells you what ingredients are in the food, in order from main ingredients (greatest amount) to least.  Added sugar may appear in this list as: agave nectar, corn syrup, dehydrated cane juice, dextrin, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, maltodextrin, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, rice syrup, saccharose, sorghum, sucrose, turbinado sugar, or xylose.
  9. Learn rich sources of nutrients. For example, eat at least one serving of dark leafy greens per day (lots of calcium) and eating lentils is a great way to get adequate iron.  A good rule of thumb: the brighter and more colorful the vegetable, the higher it is in nutrients.  For example, sweet potatoes are more nutrient dense than white potatoes; broccoli is more nutrient dense than celery).
  10. The more foods you omit, the more cognizant you have to be.  Decide what kind of vegetarian you want to be.  It’s ok to be a vegetarian who eats fish (pescetarian), who eats poultry, or animal products (like eggs and dairy)!  Just be aware, by choosing to omit seafood, you will need to make sure to have a good source of omega-3 fatty acids; by choosing to omit dairy, you might need to find alternative calcium sources.

Consider your reasons for wanting to become a vegetarian, and make smart food choices.  Within every food group there are choices that are better for the environment and for you!

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