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Everything you need to know about going vegetarian — explained

Yes, you can get enough protein. But in order for vegetarianism to be healthy, you need to know the facts.
Image: A bowl of quinoa with avocado, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, orange peppers, chickpeas and cilantro.
By switching to a plant-based diet, getting enough fiber is never a problem.John Brecher

It can happen at just about any social gathering where food is present: a well-meaning carnivore wants to know why I’m vegetarian, and more pointedly, how on earth I can survive without meat; as in, how am I alive?

I can answer the first question just fine: I’m a vegetarian because I love animals and would rather not eat them when given the choice. But the second question, often more aggressively framed, tends to break down into a dozen other queries: Am I getting enough protein? Am I getting enough iron? What supplements do I take? If I were to eat meat now, just a little, would I get sick?

Most people are trying to lower their carbon footprint, and a really easy way to do that is to opt for a vegetarian diet.

Standing there with my plate piled with greens, potatoes and the sad Boca burger somebody threw in the microwave last minute, I start to feel a lot of pressure — like a PhD student trying to defend her thesis but not doing a very good job at it. It has occurred to me that even though I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my adult life (starting in college), I’ve never really done my homework on the nutritional pros and cons. I followed my heart, heaped on the hummus and didn’t look back or delve into the science behind the choice I was making. Oh sure, I’ve watched some disturbing documentaries about factory farming, and I loyally click on articles discussing the planetary gains of going meat-free. But there was still so much I didn’t know, still so many unanswered questions of my own.

So I made a list of everything I wanted to understand and consulted nutritionists, clinical dietitians, a bioengineering professor and even a plastic surgeon for enlightenment. This is what I learned — it was much more than I anticipated.

How Much Protein Do I Need, And Where Do I Get It?

There’s a plethora of ways that vegetarians can get protein — and you may not even need as much as you think.

“Based on a 2,000 calorie diet, 50 grams of protein per day is sufficient,” says Kaley Todd, registered dietitian and nutritionist at Sun Basket. “People are definitely exceeding this level, and very few Americans are getting inadequate amounts of protein.”

Beans, lentils, peas, nuts and even grains such as quinoa are all protein-rich options.

Are Vegetarians Prone To Vitamin Deficiencies?

Vegetarians may not have to worry too much about protein, but they should pay close attention to their vitamin intake, as they are more prone to deficiencies.

“Vegetarians may become deficient in calcium, iodine, iron, vitamin D, vitamin B -12, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids if they don't plan adequately,” explains Erin Morse, chief clinical dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. “The key is to be knowledgeable and plan ahead.”

For calcium, consider cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, which Morse says is a more viable source of calcium (and easier to digest) than cow’s milk. For zinc, Morse recommends whole grain bread and sprouted beans. You can get omega-3 fatty acids from walnuts, as well as from ground flaxseed and canola oil. All kinds of beans contain iron, while plenty of fruits, vegetables and even potatoes are chock-full of iron. Vitamin B-12 is abundant in milk and eggs (if you’re vegan, look into fortified foods, or talk with a doctor about an approved supplement).

One nutrient vegetarians tend to have no trouble finding is fiber: fruits, vegetables and legumes are packed with it, which gives vegetarians a bit of a leg up over non-vegetarians.

“96 percent of Americans don’t get enough fiber,” says Morse. “One good backspin to those who ask, ‘How do you get your protein?’ would be, ‘How do you get your fiber?’”

Should I Take Supplements?

When you switch over to vegetarianism, it could be tempting to fill up your cart with vitamins and supplements just to be on the safe side. But it’s in your best interest to resist this urge.

“Dietary supplements operate in a hazy, rarely regulated market and are often ineffective and sometimes even dangerous,” says Adrienne Rose Johnson, a postdoctoral associate at Cornell University and the author of "Diet and the Disease of Civilization." “Unlike pharmaceuticals, which go through a rigorous vetting, dietary supplements aren’t often tested to see if they work or even if they are safe. For the vast majority of vegetarians, a balanced diet, including some foods fortified with vitamins, will satisfy all their nutritional requirements.”

Are My Workouts Tougher?

Todd says clients are often concerned that if they cut out the cold cuts their workouts will become more difficult.

“But if you're conscious about what your vegetarian diet is comprised of and getting adequate protein, there’s no need to worry that your workout will suffer,” Todd says.

Is Tofu Bad For Me?

Soy is a staple in the diet of many vegetarians, but it’s attracted controversy over the years.

Todd notes that at present, there’s no conclusive research that moderate amounts of soy are harmful. And while you definitely want to talk to a doctor about whether soy is right for you (especially if you have had any thyroid issues), soy is generally a positive for vegetarians. Even mildly processed soy, like tofu, can be a healthy choice. UCLA’s Morse recommends eating tofu (always organic, and not in large amounts) because it is high in protein and has a strong amino acid profile.

What you might want to steer away from are the soy-based fake meats (personally, I find this devastating! In my book, fake bacon is the greatest thing since actual bacon). These products tend to be heavily processed and may contain a lot of junky ingredients.

“Fake meats are loaded with so much salt and sometimes chemical processing,” says Morse. “Fake tofu bacons, for instance, may have artificial colors, so I tell people to avoid those.”

Is A Vegetarian Diet Keeping Me Trim?

No responsible nutritionist or dietitian would encourage you to become a vegetarian strictly to lose weight. That said, research shows that vegetarians tend to be on the slimmer side.

“Vegetarians have a lower [body mass index],” says Morse, adding that vegetarians are also at lower risk for abdominal obesity.

What Disease Risks Are Minimized?

Vegetarians aren’t immune to any diseases solely because of their diet, but science shows that their odds are better for preventing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and even certain cancers such as prostate cancer and colorectal cancer (risks for this last one are minimized “due to the high fiber content,” Morse adds).

Cutting out meat is one piece to the puzzle of why vegetarians are less prone to certain health issues (as Morse points out, meats may be high in saturated fats and cholesterol which can be problematic). But it’s not just about what you’re eliminating, it’s about what you’re adding — vegetarians tend to consume more “whole grains, fruits and vegetables, all of which provide so much nutrition,” said Morse.

It's important to remember that dairy products like milk, cheese and sour cream are all animal-based saturated fats. If your diet consists of more cheese and refined carbs than plants, you won't reap these benefits.

Are My Skin and Nails Healthier?

A case can be made that the right vegetarian diet can do wonders for your skin.

Water is an essential part of staying healthy and nourishing the cells in our bodies. Skin cells are no different. A plant-based diet will help provide a good portion of the daily need for water,” says Kirit Bhatt, MD, a plastic surgeon. “As the cells become engorged with water, they help improve skin tone, reduce wrinkles and smooth out the skin texture. The vitamin B in kale and vitamin C in citrus fruits will help you achieve wrinkle-free, smooth and radiant skin.”

Vegetarians may be more inclined to eat these foods than non-vegetarians if only because they have fewer choices, but anybody can incorporate them to see the benefits. Bhatt adds that you should eat apricots to get vitamin A, and cucumbers to get silica, noting that both these nutrients promote healthy nails.

If I Eat Meat Again, Will I Get Sick?

I’m no saint and have cheated quite a lot with fish and poultry over the years, but it’s been at least a decade since I knowingly consumed beef or pork and I’ve heard from meat-eaters and vegetarians alike that if I were to eat either now my body would be unable to process it and I would become violently ill.

This isn’t quite the case.

“So long as you don’t have an allergy your body will be able to recognize the food and digest it,” says Morse.

Just because you can digest it though, doesn’t mean it will be a totally comfortable experience.

“A common complaint among vegetarians who start eating meat again is that they feel like they’re not digesting smoothly,” adds Todd. “Fish and poultry tend to be better tolerated, but anybody reintroducing meat to their diet should take it slow.”

Am I Meant To Eat Meat? I Have Canine Teeth, After All

One line I hear a lot: “If you weren’t meant to eat meat, then you wouldn’t have canine teeth.” (These are also called cuspid or eye teeth, and they’re the slightly pointed pair usually near the front of our upper and lower jaw).

This argument makes no sense, plain and simple. Why? Most mammals have such teeth, including herbivores. Consider the chimpanzee, which Morse points out is the animal that most resembles humans. It’s got ferocious fangs — but its diet is plant-based.

You may be vegetarian and then decide to eat meat one week and then go back to a vegetarian diet. It doesn’t have to be an end all be all.

Is It Necessarily Better For The Planet To Quit Meat?

A vegetarian lifestyle may not be for everyone, but it’s worth trying for the sake of the planet.

"We are using about half of the earth’s ice-free land for growing food and 3/4 of all that is used for meat and dairy," said Jennifer Ayla Jay, professor of environmental engineering at UCLA, adding that a natural result of some livestock’s digestion is the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that has been proven to drive global warming.

“Most people are trying to lower their carbon footprint, and a really easy way to do that is to opt for a vegetarian diet,” adds Jay.

The more I learn about vegetarianism, the more I want to get it right — but just about every expert I consulted reminded me that I shouldn’t feel too bad if and when I stray.

“It’s okay to be a flexitarian,” says Morse. “You may be vegetarian and then decide to eat meat one week and then go back to a vegetarian diet. It doesn’t have to be an end all be all. Sometimes there are just foods you want to have — and that’s okay.”


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