If you'd like to join the growing population of vegetarian eaters, which could help protect you against cardiovascular disease and some cancers, you'll be giving up meat, poultry and fish. Approximately 5 percent of Americans follow a strictly vegetarian diet, reported the journal Nutrients in 2014.
Simply giving up meat doesn't mean you're eating a quality, sustainable plant-based diet, though. An optimal vegetarian diet includes ample amounts of fruits and vegetables; protein from eggs, dairy, beans, soy and nuts; and healthy fats from seeds, avocados and certain vegetable oils.
Giving Up Meat
Vegetarians consume no meat, poultry or fish; they also avoid products made with these foods, such as chicken broth and gelatin. Vegans take it a step further and shun eggs and dairy products. You might ease your way into vegetarianism by giving up red meat first and then, after a few weeks, removing poultry from your diet. Seafood and fish might be the last thing you remove to become a full vegetarian. Of course you could always give up all animal products at once, but you'll have less time to adjust to the new diet plan and may become overwhelmed.
Easing into a vegetarian diet allows you to become familiar with cooking and ordering vegetarian protein replacements, including tofu, nut butters, lentils, black beans and veggie burgers. A common error vegetarians make is to replace meat or chicken with carbohydrates, such as pasta or starchy vegetables. You need 10 to 30 percent of your daily calories to come from protein, which helps maintain and support tissue and cell growth. Today's Dietitian notes that, due to the less digestible nature of plant-based proteins, vegetarians need about 20 percent more protein than meat eaters -- or a minimum of 0.45 gram of protein per pound of body weight daily. Lacto-ovo vegetarians -- those who consume eggs and dairy -- have an easier time getting all the protein they need.
Careful planning is necessary on a vegetarian diet to ensure you get all the vitamins and minerals needed for good health. Animal products are good sources of the B vitamins and vitamin D, as well as the minerals calcium, iron and zinc. A vegetarian diet can easily provide these nutrients, too, but you must plan carefully.
Include fortified grains, cereals and breads, which usually contain extra B vitamins, iron and zinc. Many alternative milks and cow's milk are fortified with vitamin D and calcium. Leafy greens, including broccoli and spinach, are sources of iron and calcium. In some very restrictive vegetarian diets, particularly vegan ones, you may need to take a supplement of vitamin B-12 and/or iron; consult your doctor to see if you require one.
Unsaturated fats help make vegetarian foods satiating; sources of these include vegetable oils -- including olive oil -- nuts, nut butters, seeds and avocados. Avoid overloading on high-fat cheese, which contains unhealthy saturated fat, to make up for missing meat.
Because vegetarians do not eat fish, they miss out on one of the best sources of a particular type of unsaturated fat known as omega-3 fatty acids: fatty, cold-water fish. Omega-3 fatty acids can't be produced by the body but are essential to fight inflammation and support brain health. Flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds are vegetarian sources of omega-3. Sprinkle them on top of cereal, blend them into smoothies or add them to salads.
Identify What You Already Eat
To start, consider vegetarian meals you already enjoy, or meals that you can easily make vegetarian -- including yogurt parfaits, oatmeal with nuts, bean burritos, tofu stir-fry, lentil soup, vegetable lasagna, grilled cheese, hummus wraps, vegetable pizza and veggie burgers. Plan your week around these foods and then begin to experiment with less common vegetarian foods such as grilled tempeh, sauteed seitan -- a wheat gluten with a texture like chicken -- and pea protein powder. At snack time, enjoy crackers with peanut butter, cheese with an apple or a handful of trail mix.