Not so long ago, vegetarians were thought to be somewhat extreme, reserved for your hippy Uncle Ernest or crunchy friend Blossom. But the more we’ve learned as a society about healthy eating and the impact raising livestock is having on the environment, the more commonplace it is to go veg. However, even if you’ve done the math and think you want to make the shift to vegetarian, you may start to worry that it will be harder to actually achieve in practice than you thought.
We sought out experts to give us realistic, salient approaches, so you can follow your health needs and your ideals without adding stress to your life. “These days it’s easier to eat more plants and be a vegetarian than ever,” says Derek Sarno, former Whole Foods Market global executive chef.
Vegetarian food doesn’t have to be boring or repetitive. Southern chef Rebecca Lang, famed for her book Fried Chicken: Recipes for the Crispy, Crunchy, Comfort-Food Classic, wrote her follow-up book on cooking with vegetables (The Southern Vegetable), proving vegetarian dishes can even include comfort food, with delicious options like squash casserole, salty fried green tomatoes, and fluffy cinnamon sweet potatoes.
While we may think of heavy, meat-centric meals like barbeque pork and fried chicken as Southern food, Lang says the majority of their heritage cuisine was built on seasonal, local vegetables. “The cool thing about vegetables is they can satisfy any craving, from salty to sweet, crunchy to creamy, and earthy too,” she says. “And if you choose those with more substance like cauliflower, mushrooms, and eggplant, you won’t even miss the meat.”
The reasons you may decide to go vegetarian can include everything from religious restrictions to health concerns, ethical issues with treatment of animals to environmental impact. But whatever the impetus for the change, be clear on why and how you’ll make it happen. Here’s a running start to both.
Improve Your Health
There are plenty of reasons people choose to be a vegetarian, with good health and wellbeing topping the list. In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) showed processed meats to be as bad as smoking. Mindy Komosinsky, dietitian at Capital Health’s Outpatient Nutrition Counseling Service, says studies have associated a vegetarian way of eating with reduced risks of chronic diseases, like heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
Well-planned vegetarian diets tend to be high in fiber, which can reduce cholesterol levels, keep you feeling full longer, and prevent blood sugar spikes. High-fiber foods like beans, oats, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can also help with weight management, which in turn reduces many risk factors for disease. Since vegetarian diets exclude processed and red meats, which are often loaded with hormones and/or antibiotics and are associated with heart disease and certain types of cancer, going veg is a no-brainer for overall wellness.
Help the Planet
We’ve been heeding warnings of climate change for decades, but in 2006, the United Nations confirmed raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world. The World Watch Institute estimates at least 51 percent of the world’s greenhouse emissions can be attributed to livestock and their byproducts. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports about 80 percent of ammonia emissions in the United States come from animal waste and that agricultural runoff and fertilizer is the No. 1 source of pollution in our waterways. Those daunting facts make a compelling case for going veg.
Once you decide to be vegetarian, how do you maintain it? Komosinsky keeps it simple and goes with the everything-in-moderation approach. She says we are more likely to eat well when we are flexible with our food choices and that you shouldn’t feel guilty or like a failure if you make a non-vegetarian choice once in a while. She says to focus on good plant-based options to add to your meals and snacks and not focus on what you are taking away. Foodies like former New York Times Columnist Mark Bittman suggest going vegan before 6 p.m. But no matter the technique, chefs, foodies, and healthcare professionals agree that variety is the key to success.
Advice from a Die-Hard Vegetarian
K.C. Schafer, from Bucks County, Pa., has been a staunch vegetarian since 2004, and she says it’s easy to maintain the lifestyle, as long as you’re prepared for the reality. Here are three essentials to surviving the shift.
1. Prepare to cook. When it comes to vegetarian options, food from scratch is preferable to most store-bought offerings.
2. Get pegged as picky. Hosts often over-accommodate and single you out. It can be a little uncomfortable, but just take it graciously and in stride. You’ll get used to it.
3. Dig the sides. If you’re skipping the meat, go for the sides. Typically, that’s your safest bet, especially at a restaurant.
Follow the Chefs
Boston-based brothers Chad and Derek Sarno are chefs and self-proclaimed plant pushers. Chad is 100 percent vegan, and Derek holds the position of global executive chef for Whole Foods Market. Their plan is to support and change the way people eat and even think about plants as food, starting with their own families. They call themselves plant-pushers because they believe they can influence what people cook and eat in a positive way with minimal effect on the environment. Plant-based, sustainable cooking and eating is becoming mainstream, and they are forging ahead with their Wicked Healthy movement, which includes tons of plant-focused, delicious and healthy dishes and recipes.
The Sarno brothers say it’s easier than ever to be vegetarian or vegan. As our food system becomes more transparent, many new plant-based companies are popping up, offering plenty of options and alternatives, including Beyond Meat, Gardein, Miyoko’s Kitchen, Heidi Ho, Field Roast, and Follow Your Heart. From meat and cheese alternatives to faster convenience foods, the options are constantly expanding. The Sarno brothers say it’s only going to get better as many major companies are starting to realize vegetarianism is not just a temporary trend.
Going vegetarian sounds exciting and even sexy, right? With all good things, though, there are some pitfalls. When it comes to your health, Komosinsky says there are key nutrients you must incorporate, including protein, iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D. People are always concerned about getting enough protein in their diet, but she believes it’s quite easy, as long as you eat a variety of foods throughout the day.
One risk to watch out for is anemia. Vegetarians tend to have lower iron stores than people who eat meat. That’s because our bodies don’t absorb iron from plants as well they do from meats. Women are especially at risk for developing anemia, because of their monthly blood loss. An iron supplement is often necessary to prevent and treat low iron stores, especially in teens and women. Vitamin B12 is an important nutrient that is not naturally found in plant foods. Vegetarians can get B12 from milk, yogurt, cheese, and eggs. Some plant foods are fortified with B12. Nutritional yeast can be sprinkled on foods to add vitamin B12 as well as some protein. Use it with or in place of cheese in recipes. Low-serum vitamin D concentrations have been found in many people following vegetarian diets. Vitamin D is found in fortified foods, such as cow’s milk, soy or rice milk, orange juice, ready-to-eat cereals and eggs, and from skin exposure to sunlight.
Although she always encourages people to get their nutrients from foods, she says vegetarians should consider taking iron, vitamin B12, and vitamin D supplements, in order to get all the nutrients they need for good health.
Making Your Menus
Rebecca Lang suggests thinking in terms of color to help plan everyday meals. Four colors a day is an attainable goal. It ensures variety, and it’s a smart, easy way to involve the kids. When feeding her own crew, leafy greens are the go-to, she says. Aside from the great nutrients they pack, greens are incredibly versatile—she serves them raw, sautéed, or even made into chips.
On the health front, Komosinsky says to be sure to keep good sources of protein, such as beans, lentils, soy-based foods, nuts and nut butters, whole grains, meat substitutes, dairy products, and eggs in the mix. Also be sure to include iron-rich foods, such as those green, leafy vegetables (the darker green the better), fortified breads, cereals, and dried fruit. Consuming a good source of vitamin C (citrus fruits, orange juice, bell peppers, and tomatoes) at each meal increases iron absorption. Also, she says to drink coffee and tea between meals rather than with them, as they decrease iron absorption.
Adequate calcium can be obtained from eating a variety of foods such as, kale, collard greens, broccoli, tofu, almonds, calcium fortified juices, fortified cereals, dairy products (yogurt, cheese, milk), and non-dairy soy, rice, or almond beverages.
When it comes to taste, the Sarno brothers say restaurants that only have a salad for the vegetarian option will wind up on the losing end. Instead, the restaurants and food manufacturers who embrace the movement toward getting creative with vegetables will come out on top. “Vegetarian food is far from boring,” says Lang. “So get those veggies off the sideline and give them the starring role.”