A balanced vegetarian or plant-based diet can be varied, delicious and healthy. A little planning will make the transition to becoming vegetarian a lot easier.
If you are thinking of becoming vegetarian (or vegan, with no eggs, dairy and in some cases, honey) here are a few basics to keep in mind. It’s also a handy reference for “accidental vegetarians” or flexitarians; omnivores who might only eat meat once or twice a month.
How to become vegetarian
There is no right or wrong way to become vegetarian. While some people ease into a new diet gradually by giving up meat at home and only eating it on special occasions, for others it’s a case of “all or nothing”. When making a diet change for health reasons (rather than purely ethical considerations), an in-between vegetarina plus seafood diet is an option. Though technically not vegetarian it provides an easy compromise, while working out if a plant-based or vegetarian diet suits you.
For new vegetarians in omni households, think about meat being the add-on, rather than the focus of the meal. For example, make a bean or grain based dish as the main attraction, with grilled meat on the side for those who still demand it.
If you’re choosing to go flextitarian or strictly vego, check out some of the websites and books below for ideas on diet and nutrition. It if you’re not a confident cook, consider doing a vegan or vegetarian cooking course, especially one that focuses on beans and grains.
It is a good idea to tell your friends and family that you have changed your diet and ask for their support. If they don’t know what to cook for you, make some suggestions or offer to bring part of the meal.
Eating out as a vegetarian in large cities like Melbourne or Sydney is relatively easy. Some restaurants even have a separate vegetarian menu, but tend to only bring out if you ask for it. Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines have lots of legumes and wholegrains, Lebanese restaurants often have a vegetarian platter with stuffed vine leaves, dips and salads. For a special meal at an expensive restaurant it is always a good idea to call them first to let them know about your diet. If you are traveling overseas or interstate, do some searching online to find good vegetarian options in an unfamiliar city. Remember to book a vegetarian or vegan meal when flying.
Beyond cutting out the meat – consider your nutritional needs
It does take a little work and knowledge to create a balanced meat-free diet, but it’s easy to get the hang of. Restaurant vegetarian standbys like pizza and pasta, tend to rely on carbohydrates to fill you up but skimp on providing a full range of vitamins, minerals and protein you need to stay well.
There are four primary vegetarian sources of protein – beans/legumes, nuts/seeds, grains and dairy products. Each food group contains a different combination of amino acids, the building blocks of protein.
Popular consensus has swung from needing at least two out of four sources in one meal to get total protein, to having at least two different types of vegetarian protein over the entire day. For ovo-vegetarians, eggs are the only complete protein (don’t need to be combined with other vegetarian protein sources) and make a handy energy hit.
You need to eat more than just vegetables (there’s this weird myth that mushrooms are a complete protein – they’re not)! Don’t forget that when you’re still growing (children and adolescents), exercising regularly or pregnant, your need for protein increases.
All plant-based protein sources contain calcium, it’s not just dairy. In fact, the myth that dairy being the“best” source of calcium can be misleading.
Vegans in particular should include regular serves of – seeds, nuts, tahini, beans, soy products, figs, seaweed (especially kombu and nori), figs and green leafy vegetables. Muesli, hommos, bean salad, and fig and nut balls – all make high calcium (and often protein) snacks. (Note: if you have thyroid issues, you may need to avoid some of these foods. Let’s work together to tailor make a diet.)
While dairy foods are high in calcium, they’re also comparatively low in magnesium. This can create a number of problems, so to optimise your calcium absorption consider eating more plant-foods, like the protein groups, which tend to be much higher in magnesium.
Remember to avoid caffeine within 2 hours of meal or supplements and cut out soft drinks, for maximum absorption.
More information on building strong bones.
Not everyone is efficient in converting non-animal sources of iron into the most bio-available form in the body. It is a good idea to get an annual blood test to check both your iron levels and iron storage (ferritin).
The best vegetarian iron sources include – nori, lentils, seeds, peaches, apricots, brown rice, beans and barley. Eggs have some iron as well. Unfortunately tannins, oxalates (e.g. in spinach) and phytates (in those wonderful wholefoods) can decrease absorption – another reason to keep an eye on your blood levels, even for meat eaters. Vitamin C helps your body take up iron from food, take 250 mg with iron rich meals. Like calcium and magnesium, caffeine can stop your body making the most of iron in your diet.
More information on sources of iron and anaemia.
Did you know that many omnivores have low iron levels? Food allergies, caffeine consumption and over exercising are some common lifestyle causes of anaemia.
This vitamin is found only in animal foods (including eggs and dairy) so this means vegans need to supplement their intake with at least 2.4 micrograms/day. While the body can store this vitamin for years, low levels leads to exhaustion and even irreversible nerve damage.
Vegan myth: “spirulina contains B12”. Unfortunately the type of B12 in spirulina is not one we can use and may block our ability to absorb the B12 we need! Swap the spirulina for a B12 supplement.
Did you know meat eaters than vegans are diagnosed with low B12 levels? Low stomach acid and some pharmaceutical drugs (including the contraceptive pill) can interfere with B12 absorption and use.
Vegan and vegetarian resources
Zen Habits shares ideas on making the transition in How to become vegetarian.
A good cookbook to start, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall River Cottage Veg Everyday!
For more vegetarian cookbooks and more than one hundred original vegetarian recipes, check out my resources section.