As someone who lives a mostly vegetarian lifestyle (besides when buffalo chicken dip is present), I’ve taken a lot of time figuring out which way of eating works best for me and makes me feel fueled and healthy. It certainly wasn’t easy for me at first! I was used to eating chicken every single day, and I very quickly felt the effects of cutting it out – but not specifically because I was giving up meat. It was because I was swapping it for way too many carbohydrates, not getting in enough vitamin B12, and didn’t educate myself on healthy vegetarian proteins. I essentially went in a bit blind not knowing what I should be eating and what nutrients I should be conscious about, which left me tired and cranky on most days.
Ever tried doing meatless Monday’s? Reducing meat consumption has become much more popular as of late due to media shedding light on the health benefits of a plant-based diet, as well as how it impacts our environment and climate. To name a few, health benefits of a plant-based diet include being naturally high in fiber, low in saturated fat, and rich in phytochemicals.
While vegetarianism or veganism isn’t for everyone, I believe we all can do our part to be conscious of how much meat we’re consuming on a weekly basis. Now, if you are someone that is looking to drastically cut back or go full-blown vegetarian, there are some things you should keep in mind.
1. Watch out for nutrient deficiencies
Like I mentioned, I was severely unaware of my need for vitamin B12 once going meat free. Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA, the genetic material in cells. This is a vitamin that only naturally occurs in animal products – meat, fish, and eggs, as well as some dairy. But that’s not all. Nutrients such as vitamin D, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids are also nutrients you should make sure you’re getting in consistently. Some plant-based sources of omega-3’s include chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, and brussels sprouts. If you still enjoy fish, you can get both vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids from salmon (hopefully wild-caught), and other fish too. For vitamin B12, you can obtain it from fortified foods, nutritional yeast, or a quality supplement/multivitamin. I’ll talk more on iron next!
2. Not all sources of iron are created equal
If you don’t have enough iron, your body can’t make enough oxygen carrying red-blood cells and you end up with anemia. There are two forms of dietary iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found only in meat, poultry, and seafood, while non-heme iron is found in both animal and plant-based foods such as grains, beans, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. The way our bodies absorb these two types of iron is very different. Heme is much more easily absorbed than non-heme iron, thus posing an issue for vegetarians/vegans getting enough. If you consume eggs, dairy, and fish, this isn’t as much of a concern for you! However, if you limit those foods along with meat, it’s important that you eat an abundance of non-heme iron-rich foods. Examples include soybeans, lentils, cooked spinach, tofu, chickpeas, beans, seeds, and nuts.
3. Be wary of fake meat products
Our food industry has quickly picked up on the fact that people are more and more interested in cutting back in their meat consumption. Thus, instigating a plethora of vegetarian and “fake meat” products on the market. While it’s amazing that the industry is giving us more options than ever, some of them are still overly processed and contain ingredients less than worthy of being in our bodies on a consistent basis. A good rule of thumb is to always look at the ingredient list. Are there quite a few words you don’t understand in your fake meat product such as preservatives, additives, or chemicals? Try only eating those foods sparingly/once in a while and focus on vegetarian products that are made with real food ingredients, or proteins like tofu, tempeh, and lentils.
4. Variety in your diet is essential
Another mistake I made right off the bat was leaning on quinoa, beans, and a lot of veggie straws for who knows how many weeks in a row. I don’t know about you, but I can only handle so many servings of beans, if you catch my drift. Like I mentioned above, getting in those nutrients from a variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains is essential to making sure you’re feeling sustained and energized. Be your own nutritionist! Take a look at what you’re eating every day. Does it tend to be the exact same foods? Do your meals consist of similar ingredients throughout the day? Something I always try to do is buy two “new” fruits and vegetables each week so that I’m working in different nutrients while also avoiding letting tons of food go back in my fridge. Experiment with various proteins and meal combinations – make it fun!
5. Reduce your meat intake at a pace that works for you
If going cold-turkey is not your style, that’s a-okay. I often suggest to clients that if they’re interested in going meatless, try starting with a couple dinners a week, then a few lunches, and finally a full 5-day work week. Work your way up at a speed that feels comfortable and feasible to you. Every little bit counts and will make a difference if that’s your goal!
Going meat free doesn’t have to be hard! Having the education to set you up for a smooth dietary transition will be the key to your success. And if you come to find it’s not for you, that’s okay too. No one’s going to come knocking at your door to yell at you because you decided to eat meat again… promise!