If you're thinking about crossing over to the veggie side, you're in good company: According to a study by the Vegetarian Times, approximately 7.3 million Americans are vegetarians and an another 22.8 million eat a primarily plant-based diet.
There's a wide range of reasons why people decide to give up meat, from religious and ethical beliefs to health issues and allergies to concerns for animal welfare.
Related - 6 Vegan Supplements You Should Consider
Benefits of Leading a Vegetarian Lifestyle
Aside from the personal or ethical fulfillment that may come with giving up meat, you could enjoy some important health and wellness benefits:
- Reduced risk of heart disease: Research suggests that people with meatless diets have less risk of heart disease and heart attacks, and could be 25 percent less likely to die from a cardiac event.
- Less chance of diabetes: There is some evidence that vegetarians slash their risk of type 2 diabetes in half.
- Lower cholesterol: Eliminating meat from your diet will reduce your intake of saturated fats, which will naturally bring your cholesterol down to a healthy level.
- Reduced risk of certain cancers: Although more research is needed, some studies have linked plant-based diets to a lower risk of developing certain cancers. In particular, rates of colorectal cancers are reduced with a diet that doesn't include red meat.
What You Should Know Before Giving Meat the Heave-Ho
There's never been a better time to make the leap to vegetarian life - with the expansion of farmers' markets, year-round produce offerings and vegetarian restaurants, it's easier and more delicious than ever to embrace a meatless lifestyle.
That said, giving up meat can be a big adjustment, especially if you've been carnivorous all your life. Knowledge is the key to a smooth and successful transition. Here are a few things every would-be vegetarian should know.
#1. There are different levels.
Depending on your goals and beliefs, there are several different levels of meat-free eating. Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat no animal flesh, but do consume hybrid products like eggs and dairy.
Pesco-lacto-ovo vegetarians eat fish and hybrid products, which has the added benefit of the heart-healthy fats found in fish. The strictest form of meatless eating, veganism, refers to a diet that contains no animal products or byproducts.
#2. You can ease into it.
Just like any dietary change or habit, giving up meat cold turkey could lead to a backslide. A sudden absence of meat could be quite a shock to both your body and your brain, leading to irritability and frustration. Instead, try gradually easing into vegetarianism.
You might try giving up meat just one day per week, then after a couple of weeks make it one meal per day, and so on. Or, you could just choose one type of meat to give up first, and then slowly eliminate others.
#3. It's not a guaranteed way to lose weight - and you might even gain.
It may seem like cutting out bacon and burgers is a surefire way to drop pounds, but you may be surprised to find that many vegetarian dishes are high in fat. This is especially the case if you often eat at restaurants, where the meatless choices are often centered around pasta, rice and cheese.
#4. You'll need to be aware of bone health.
Depending on what type of vegetarianism you choose, you may end up consuming less calcium than meat eaters. You can compensate by taking a multivitamin and by including calcium-rich vegetables in your diet, such as broccoli, kale, spinach, soybeans and collard greens.
Meatless diets are also lower in vitamins D and K, which are both essential for strong, healthy bones, so you may need to supplement with vitamins or fortified foods.
#5. You may need to supplement.
Vegetarians need to be more vigilant about incorporating the nutrients into their diet that they would have otherwise gotten from meat. In addition to protein, which is key to building muscle, other key nutrients include iron, zinc, calcium, iodine and fatty acids. There are also some vitamins - such as vitamins D and B-12 - that aren't typically found in fruits, veggies or beans, so a daily multivitamin is essential.
There are plenty of non-meat protein sources, including quinoa, beans, tofu, lentils, edamame and tempeh. Also look for foods and recipes with soy protein, which is made from soybeans and offers the same benefits as animal protein.
#6. You might need a nap.
Until you figure out the right mix of foods and supplements to deliver the vitamins and nutrients your body was accustomed to getting from meat, you might find that you feel tired at first - or, if you're completely derived, you could even get sick. In particular, lack of iron is a common cause of fatigue.
To keep your energy levels up, be sure to include meat-free sources of iron, such as fortified cereals, dark-green leafy veggies, pulses, legumes and wholemeal breads.
#7. Be prepared for some backlash.
There will inevitably be people who question or outright denounce your choice to become an herbivore, especially those who are closest to you and have always known you as a meat eater. Even after you've shared the reasons behind your choice (which you shouldn't have to do, unless you want to), some simply won't understand or accept your new lifestyle.
Ultimately, it's your body and your choice about what to put in it, and you don't owe anyone an explanation. If you receive any harsh comments or endless third-degrees, keep your responses short and polite and then change the subject.
#8. Not everything that seems vegetarian actually is.
You're safe to order the refried beans with your veggie burrito, right? Not unless you're okay consuming pork fat. You might also be surprised to hear that BBQ potato chips contain chicken and beef fat, some cheeses have an enzyme that comes from calf stomachs, Jell-O contains gelatin derived from animal products and that vegetable soups are often made with beef or chicken stock.
And who knew that Worcestershire sauce has anchovies, or that some tortillas contain lard? To ensure that no meat-based ingredients sneak into your new plant-based diet, be sure to carefully read the nutrition labels before adding a product to your meal plan.If you've already given up meat, what do you wish you'd known before making the switch? If you're considering becoming a vegetarian, what are some of your biggest concerns and questions?