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Getting started on a vegetarian diet

September 24, 2019 | UCI Health
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Whether to minimize their carbon footprint, get healthier or both, many Americans are adding plant-based options to their diets.

Some wonder how to start and stick with a vegetarian diet, how to get all the essential nutrients, enjoy tasty food and feel satisfied.

It’s eminently doable says Sherry Schulman, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at the UCI Health Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute.

Getting started on a plant-based diet

People used to eating a high-fat, meat-loaded or fast-food diet are bound to fail if they try to go all vegetarian at once, Schulman says, because they won’t feel satiated.

Neither will someone who switches to a salad of iceberg lettuce with a little cheese on top for lunch. To feel satisfied, you need to load up on a variety of denser choices. Think beets, mushrooms, nuts, cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, squash and other nutritious offerings.

“Make it simple,” Schulman says. “Start with one meal.”

She suggests beginning with an easy breakfast:

  • Cook three handfuls of spinach in avocado oil in a pan with a little lemon pepper until slightly wilted.
  • Add an egg and scramble together until done.
  • Serve with one-quarter of an avocado sliced and a little salsa on top.

Over the course of several days, gradually increase your plant-based meals from one to two, then three. Or you may want to try eating only plant-based foods on certain days, meatless Mondays, for instance./p>

Types of vegetarian diets

Vegetarians actually follow a variety of diets:

A vegan diet eliminates all animal products, including fish, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy, as well as gelatin and honey.

Then there are partial vegetarians. They include:

  • Pescatarians, who eat fish but avoid all other meat
  • Pollo-vegetarians, who eat poultry but no other meat or fish
  • Flexitarians, who mostly eat plant-based foods but occasionally include dairy, eggs, fish meat and poultry in small amounts

Whole foods are always better

Whether you are a vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian or meat-eater, Schulman advises sticking with whole foods.

She recommends choosing unprocessed meat, fish, high-fiber whole grains, vegetables and fruit. They’re easier to digest than processed foods, which is one reason we tend to feel better when eating them. Processed foods also often contain unhealthy oils, sugars, nitrates and other ingredients.

Reading labels also is essential to eliminating highly processed food in your diet.

For example, look for peanut butter that’s primarily peanuts and oil and forego a frozen meal that includes dozens of ingredients you can’t pronounce.

Switching your diet successfully

As you shift to a new diet, Schulman recommends cleaning your kitchen of processed foods and animal-based products, like chips, ice cream and salami.

Instead, fill your refrigerator and drawer at work with healthy snacks, such as:

  • Yogurt
  • Apples
  • Oranges
  • Berries
  • Nuts

It’s also important to get plenty of restful sleep. Otherwise, sticking to a vegetarian diet will be hard because you will be tempted to get a boost with sugar or carbohydrates.

How to boost flavor 

Adding color and spices can boost flavor, eye appeal and variety to your diet.

Schulman recommends:

  • Eating a rainbow of seasonal fruits and vegetables
  • Adding mint leaves, lemon or cucumbers to water
  • Try sprinkling turmeric, rosemary, cumin or other spices on your meals

Saffron, for instance, matches well with rice.

Another advantage of colorful fruits, vegetables and spices are their anti-inflammatory properties, which are great for improving overall health.

Making meatless fun

Trying out new foods can be a great adventure. Schulman recommends a few strategies:

  • Get to know the person at the farmer’s market or grocery store who sells fruits and vegetables. They’ll tell you what’s in season and point you toward what’s on sale.
  • Buy a vegetable you’ve never eaten before and find a recipe on the internet.
  • Take a couple of ingredients you have on hand and see what kind of tasty plant-based recipes you can whip up.

Health benefits of vegetarianism

Schulman says plant-based diets offer many health benefits. They are good for:

A vegetarian diet is also thought to lower the risk for cancer in general.

Pay attention to how you feel

Changing dietary habits takes practice.

“If you fall off the wagon and eat some processed, junky food, don’t give yourself a hard time about it,” Schulman says. “Just get back on the horse and ride again.”

Try to seek out new recipes and ingredients to keep your meals interesting and flavorful.

But the real trick to staying on a vegetarian diet, she adds, is to pay attention to how you feel. Most people feel better once they start eating better.

Know your essential nutrients

That includes making sure you are getting the right nutrients, including vitamin B12. Our bodies need nine essential amino acids, which we can get from:

We also need the right amount of three essential fatty acids found in foods such as fatty fish. However, if you are vegan, you'll mainly be consuming alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which can only be converted into small amounts of two other essential fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). So vegans should consider supplementing with algae oil.

If you’re feeling tired, though, you may need a little help in achieving a balanced diet. It’s a good idea to see your doctor or a nutritionist for an evaluation.

Schulman says many of her patients are eagerly making the switch.

“I think younger people really want this information. I also have some older patients who say they’ve never felt better in their lives after switching to a plant-based diet.”

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