Ask a roomful of vegetarians why they decided to make the meat-free leap, and you’ll likely get a roomful of answers. Some might love animals. Some might have ecological reasons. Some might have eschewed their steak-eating days to lose weight.
Me? I did it for yoga. I read that yogis are vegetarian, so I decided to try it for a month, and after two weeks, I realized I’d probably never go back. I felt better. I felt less dense, physically and mentally.
Sure, I’ve since eyed a piece of bacon and thought, Mmmmm, bacon, with my inner Homer Simpson voice. I’ve even confessed that if I ever return to my meat-eating ways, it would be for a chicken wing. But here’s the truth: I’ve never once questioned the wisdom of becoming a vegetarian, and my health has remained stellar since I did.
I must admit, when I became a vegetarian over a decade ago, I (like many veggie converts) really didn’t have a clue what I was getting myself into. And, perhaps more importantly, I couldn’t tell if my body was ready for my new, meat-free experiment. I didn’t know where I was getting my protein—everyone’s favorite vegetarian question—and I wasn’t sure if the rice and beans and veggie burgers I was eating instead of chicken and beef and fish would give me all the nutrients I needed.
Thankfully, I worked all of that out. And, also thankfully, the voices supporting the wisdom of my choice are growing stronger.
Why plants promote good health
According to Brooke Alpert, MS, RD, a nutritionist in New York City, a well-planned vegetarian diet can be very beneficial. “Vegetarian diets are often lower in saturated fats and cholesterol, and higher in fiber, folate, and anti-oxidants than meat-based diets,” says Alpert. Because of this, vegetarians tend to have a lower risk of high blood pressure and heart disease than meat eaters. Which is all very logical when you consider that saturated fats come almost exclusively from animal products, and animal fat is the sole source of cholesterol.
Fiber—often lacking in Americans’ diets—comes part and parcel with eating a plant-based diet. Vegetables, fruit, legumes, and grains are all loaded with both soluble and insoluble fiber. “I’m feeling irregular” will be a sentiment you can pretty much put to rest when you’re a vegetarian.
A small sampling of recent studies shows how the wisdom of vegetarianism, and subsequent reduction in disease, is being borne out by science. In Japan—a country widely lauded for its healthy eating habits—a study found middle-aged vegetarians get more nutrients than their meat-eating counterparts, including higher calcium, iron, and fiber levels. In Australia, adolescents who followed a mostly vegetarian diet were found to be healthier, with better body mass index scores, waist circumference, cholesterol levels, and other markers of cardio-vascular health. David Simon, MD, medical director of the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California, isn’t surprised. “Most scientific studies that compare herbivore and carnivore diets find that vegetarians have overall better health, including a reduction in cardiovascular disease, cancer rates, and depression.”
Notice a trend, though, of experts citing a well-planned and balanced vegetarian diet. Trading out meat for potato chips and pasta every night doesn’t cut it.
When vegetarianism doesn’t work
“If you’re going to try a vegetarian or vegan diet, you can’t just give up meat and dairy and think, Now I’m a vegetarian or vegan,” says Ann Gentry, founder and CEO of Los Angeles–based vegan restaurants Real Food Daily and author of The Real Food Daily Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2005). “A varied plant-based diet is crucial,” says Gentry. Translation: A poorly planned, imbalanced, same-foods-all-the-time vegetarian diet—also known as a “junk food vegetarian” diet loaded with simple carbs like bread and french fries—can cause a host of nutrient deficiencies. My sister tried this and, of course, her vegetarian days didn’t last long. She was in college. Becoming a vegetarian was a phase. And because she wasn’t able to get off the french fries and on the stir-fries, her experiment in vegetarianism became an experiment in not eating well—antithetical to going vegetarian in the first place. “A poorly planned vegetarian diet can make you tired, prevent healthy metabolism, and cause nervous system damage, weak bones, vision issues, and poor brain function,” says Alpert.
Luckily, before I became vegetarian, I was a fairly robust eater. I liked food. All food. It turned out to be a trait that served me well in those early years after I switched to a plant-based diet. I easily avoided eating the same vegetarian foods over and over again because I traded meat for any and all vegetables and veg-friendly products I could get my hands on. But for those who think the main concern when it comes to being a vegetarian is getting enough protein, here’s some news: rice and beans—complete protein. Soy—complete protein. Peanut butter and whole-wheat bread—complete protein. It’s that simple. And to be clear, a “complete” or “perfect” protein supplies all the amino acids that must be consumed because the body cannot make them on its own.
However, there are other serious nutritional deficiencies that can result from a poorly planned vegetarian diet. When you cut out meat and chicken and don’t eat enough beans, iron deficiency can result and lead to anemia. Not eating fish or dark leafy greens? You may not be getting enough omega-3 fatty acids, which can lead to inflammation in the body. And a lack of iodine—found in shellfish and some cheeses—can lead to thyroid enlargement and goiter.
Some of these deficiencies will be easy to detect. You’ll know if you’re tired. A goiter, well, you’ll know that too. But will you know if your brain’s cell membranes are starving for fatty acids? Maybe not.
“Making sure you’re getting the right amount of nutrients may require more attention than you’re used to and force you to become more aware of how your body feels in relation to what you’re eating,” says Simon. “But every study that looks at vegetarianism finds that if you follow a healthy, balanced diet, you can get all the nutrients you need.”
Despite the potential drawbacks, eating a well-planned vegetarian diet is less complicated than you think. It just takes a little more planning—and a new mind-set. “There’s a large contingency of people, whether they’re vegetarian or not, who want to eat more vegetables and whole grains, but they find it hard to do,” says Gentry. “Getting past the resistance in your head is a good first step.”
Another important one: Make sure you stock the right kinds of foods. Is your pantry full of processed and prepackaged foods? Ditch those, and start storing rice, beans, legumes, and other basics of a good vegetarian diet (for a list of smart choices, see “8 Must-Have Foods for Vegetarians, above). Also, prepare yourself for spending more time planning and cooking meals—especially at first. But the more comfortable you get experimenting with new foods, the easier preparation will become.
And keep that little reminder voice in the back of your head: varied, balanced, well-planned. This mantra will be your guide to healthy vegetarianism. “The best tactic for vegetarians is to make sure each meal includes foods with a variety of colors,” says Alpert. “It’s an easy way to cheat to help you get all the nutrients you need.” And that’s good advice for everyone.
Bryce Edmonds is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer.
Flexitarian. Do you eat a vegetarian diet most of the time, but still love a burger every so often? Are you concerned about health issues but need those chicken wings? Congratulations, you’re a flexitarian.
Pescatarian. So you love sushi and just can’t give it up. (You’ve tried, but it’s just so good.) Not to mention a nice piece of salmon or ceviche or maybe even a crab cake or two. OK, then, pescatarian it is.
Vegetarian. You don’t eat meat—not chicken, not fish, not steak, not any. You do, however, probably enjoy your morning yogurt and an egg sandwich. That sits you in the lacto-ovo vegetarian section. Don’t do the eggs, and you qualify as a lacto vegetarian. Mix and match as you please, but don’t start adding beef flavoring. (See “Poseurtarian” below.)
Vegan. Do you run screaming from any animal product? You won’t eat dairy or honey. You probably tossed your leather belts and wear canvas shoes. Wave your vegan flag proudly.
Poseurtarian. Ever uttered these words? “I’m a vegetarian.” Pause. “But I sometimes eat fish and chicken and maybe a burger now and again.” Well, then, you are a poseurtarian.
8 Must-Have Foods for Vegetarians
Quinoa. The United Nations labels this “grain” (actually a seed) a “super crop” because it is a complete and nutrient-dense protein. Good source of iron, protein, and zinc.
Almond butter. It’s loaded with protein, iron, zinc, and calcium. And kids love it.
Wheat germ. The core of the wheat kernel teems with iron and zinc.
Pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Two more great sources of iron and zinc.
Nutritional yeast. This is a natural source of vitamin B12, especially important if you’re following a vegan diet.
Tempeh. This fermented soy product is an excellent source of protein.
Miso. Made from fermented soy, this paste is loaded with protein, vitamin K, and iron.
Quinoa Vegetable Soup
From Real Food Daily, Los Angeles
serves 10 to 12
3/4 cup quinoa
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 onions, finely diced
3 carrots, peeled and finely diced
3 stalks celery, finely diced
2 zucchini, finely diced
1/2 cup yellow corn kernels
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons sea salt
12 cups low-sodium vegetable stock
1 28-ounce can whole, peeled tomatoes
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Rinse quinoa well, and drain. Heat large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add quinoa, and stir constantly for 10 minutes, or until the moisture evaporates and the quinoa crackles and becomes golden. Transfer quinoa to a bowl, and set aside.
2. Heat oil in large, heavy stockpot over medium-high heat. Add onions, carrots, and celery. Sauté for 12 minutes. Add zucchini, corn, red pepper, garlic, and salt. Sauté 3 minutes longer, or until vegetables begin to release their juices.
3. Add stock, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Stir in the toasted quinoa, and simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes or until quinoa is almost tender.
4. Squeeze the tomatoes into the soup, and add the juices from the can; then stir in the cumin and coriander. Simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until quinoa is tender.
5. Stir in the cilantro, and season to taste with pepper and more salt, if desired.
nutrition info: 156 calories; 4 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 9 g protein; 23 g carbohydrates; 152 mg sodium
Grain & Vegetable “Meat” Loaf
From Josie’s Restaurant, New York City
1 cup millet
2 tablespoons tamari soy sauce
1 1/2 cups soy granules
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced shallots
1 cup chopped onions
1 cup chopped zucchini
1/2 cup chopped red bell peppers
1/2 cup white wine
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 cup julienned fresh basil
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
2 teaspoons of tamari soy sauce
1 cup cooked brown rice
1 1/2 cups cooked lentils, pureed
2 tablespoons egg whites (from 1 egg)
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Simmer the millet in 21/2 cups of water for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand for 20 minutes. Fluff the millet with a fork before using.
2. Meanwhile, in another saucepan, bring 1 cup of water to a boil with the soy sauce. Add the soy granules. Remove the pot from the heat, and let it sit covered for 10 minutes. Fluff the granules with a fork before using.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a nonstick skillet over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add the garlic and shallots, and cook, stirring, until golden, about 1 minute. Add the onions, zucchini, and red peppers, and cook, stirring, for 4 to 6 minutes. Add the wine, coriander, basil, and parsley. Simmer until the liquid is reduced 75 percent, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a mixing bowl.
4. Mix soy sauce into cooked rice.
5. Add the rice, lentils, soy granules, millet, and egg white to the sautéed vegetables, and season with salt and black pepper to taste. Mix thoroughly.
6. Spray a nonstick loaf pan with canola oil spray, and firmly press the mixture into the pan. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes. Let cool for 20 to 30 minutes before slicing.
nutrition info: 236.1 calories; 3.2 g fat;1.1 g saturated fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 23.6 g protein; 33.9 g carbohydrates; 276 mg sodium
Sweet Potato, Carrot, and Onion Dip
From Josie’s Restaurant, New York City
Makes 2 1/2 cups
1 pound sweet potatoes, scrubbed
1 medium carrot, peeled
and thinly sliced
1/2 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon tahini
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Wrap the sweet potatoes in foil, and roast for 50 minutes or until cooked through. Uncover, and let sit for 10 minutes. Remove the skin, and chop the potatoes into medium-size pieces.
2. In a small saucepan, bring 1 cup of water to a boil. Add the carrot and onion, return to a boil, reduce the heat, simmer for 10 minutes. Do not drain; set aside.
3. In a food processor, combine the sweet potato, the carrot-onion mixture with the cooking liquid, and the remaining ingredients. Puree until smooth. Refrigerate, covered, till ready to serve or for up to three days.
nutrition info (per 1/4 cup): 63 calories; 0.9 g fat; 0.1 g saturated fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 1.2 g protein; 12.9 g