Greatest Things About Being Vegetarian

Fitness
People become vegetarians for many reasons, including health, religious convictions, concerns about animal welfare or the use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock, or a desire to eat in a way that avoids excessive use of environmental resources. Some people follow a largely vegetarian diet because they can’t afford to eat meat. Becoming a vegetarian has become more appealing and accessible, thanks to the year-round availability of fresh produce, more vegetarian dining options, and the growing culinary influence of cultures with largely plant-based diets.


Why Do People Become Vegetarians?

For much of the world, vegetarianism is largely a matter of economics: Meat costs a lot more than, say, beans or rice, so meat becomes a special-occasion dish (if it’s eaten at all).

In countries like the United States where meat is not as expensive, though, people often choose to be vegetarians for reasons other than cost. Parental preferences, religious or other beliefs, and health issues are among the most common reasons for choosing to be a vegetarian. Many people choose a vegetarian diet out of concern over animal rights or the environment. And lots of people have more than one reason for choosing vegetarianism.

Vegetarian and Semi-Vegetarian Diets

Different people follow different forms of vegetarianism. A true vegetarian eats no meat at all, including chicken and fish. A lacto-ovo vegetarian eats dairy products and eggs, but excludes meat, fish, and poultry. It follows, then, that a lacto vegetarian eats dairy products but not eggs, whereas an ovo vegetarian eats eggs but not dairy products.

A stricter form of vegetarianism is veganism (pronounced: VEE-gun-izm). Not only are eggs and dairy products excluded from a vegan diet, so are animal products like honey and gelatin.

Some macrobiotic diets fall into the vegan category. Macrobiotic diets restrict not only animal products but also refined and processed foods, foods with preservatives, and foods that contain caffeine or other stimulants.

Following a macrobiotic or vegan diet could lead to nutritional deficiencies in some people. Teens need to be sure their diets include enough nutrients to fuel growth, particularly protein and calcium. If you’re interested in following a vegan or macrobiotic diet it’s a good idea to talk to a registered dietitian. He or she can help you design meal plans that include adequate vitamins and minerals.

Some people who have eliminated red meat but may eat poultry or fish consider themselves semi-vegetarians.

Are These Diets OK for Teens?

In the past, choosing not to eat meat or animal-based foods was considered unusual in the United States. Times and attitudes have changed dramatically, however. Vegetarians are still a minority in the United States, but a large and growing one. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) has officially endorsed vegetarianism, stating “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”

So what does this mean for you? If you’re already a vegetarian, or are thinking of becoming one, you’re in good company. There are more choices in the supermarket than ever before, and an increasing number of restaurants and schools are providing vegetarian options — way beyond a basic peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

If you’re choosing a vegetarian diet, the most important thing you can do is to educate yourself. That’s why the AND says that a vegetarian diet needs to be “appropriately planned.” Simply dropping certain foods from your diet isn’t the way to go if you’re interested in maintaining good health, a high energy level, and strong muscles and bones.

Vegetarians have to be careful to include the following key nutrients that may be lacking in a vegetarian diet:

iron
calcium
protein
vitamin D
vitamin B12

zinc

If meat, fish, dairy products, and/or eggs are not going to be part of your diet, you’ll need to know how to get enough of these nutrients, or you may need to take a daily multiple vitamin and mineral supplement.

Iron

Sea vegetables like nori, wakame, and dulse are very high in iron. Less exotic but still good options are iron-fortified breakfast cereals, legumes (chickpeas, lentils, and baked beans), soybeans and tofu, dried fruit (raisins and figs), pumpkin seeds, broccoli, and blackstrap molasses. Eating these foods along with a food high in vitamin C (citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, and broccoli) will help you to absorb the iron better.

Girls need to be particularly concerned about getting enough iron because some iron is lost during menstruation. Some girls who are vegetarians may not get enough iron from vegetable sources and may require a daily supplement. Check with your doctor about your own iron needs.

Calcium

Milk and yogurt are tops if you’re eating dairy products — although vegetarians will want to look for yogurt that does not contain the meat byproduct gelatin. Tofu, fortified soy milk, calcium-fortified orange juice, green leafy vegetables, and dried figs are also excellent ways for vegetarians (and vegans) to get calcium. Remember that as a teen you’re building up your bones for the rest of your life.

Because women have a greater risk for getting osteoporosis (weak bones) as adults, it’s particularly important for girls to make sure they get enough calcium. Again, taking a supplement may be necessary to ensure this.

Vitamin D

We need vitamin D to get calcium into our bones. Your body manufactures vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight. Cow’s milk is top on the list for food sources of this vitamin. Vegans can try fortified soy milk and fortified breakfast cereals.

Some people may need a supplement that includes vitamin D, especially during the winter months. Everyone should have some exposure to the sun to help the body produce vitamin D.

Protein

Before, it was thought that vegetarians needed to combine incomplete plant proteins in one meal — like red beans and rice — to make the type of complete proteins found in meat. We now know that it’s not that complicated. Current recommendations are that vegetarians eat a wide variety of foods during the course of a day.

Eggs and dairy products are good sources of protein, but also try nuts, peanut butter, tofu, beans, seeds, soy milk, grains, cereals, and vegetables to get all the protein your body needs.

Vitamin B12


B12 is an essential vitamin found in animal products, including eggs and dairy. Fortified soy milk,fortified breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeast also have this important vitamin. It’s hard to get enough vitamin B12 in your diet if you are vegan, so a supplement may be needed.

Zinc

If you’re not eating dairy foods, make sure fortified cereals, dried beans, nuts, and soy products like tofu and tempeh are part of your diet so you can meet your daily requirement for this important mineral.

Fat, Calories, and Fiber

In addition to vitamins and minerals, vegetarians need to keep an eye on their total intake of calories and fat. Vegetarian diets tend to be high in fiber and low in fat and calories. That may be good for people who need to lose weight or lower their cholesterol but it can be a problem for kids and teens who are still growing and people who are already at a healthy weight.

Some vegetarians (especially vegans) may not get enough omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are good for heart health and are found in fish and eggs. Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids include some vegetable oils, (such as soybean, canola, and flaxseed), chia seeds, ground flax seeds, and walnuts.

High-fiber diets tend to be more filling, and as a result strict vegetarians may feel full before they’ve eaten enough calories to keep their bodies healthy and strong. It’s a good idea to let your doctor know that you’re a vegetarian so that he or she can keep on eye on your growth and make sure you’re still getting adequate amounts of calories and fat.

Getting Some Guidance

If you’re thinking about becoming a vegetarian, consider making an appointment to talk with a dietitian who can go over lists of foods that would give you the nutrients you need. A dietitian can discuss ways to prevent conditions such as iron-deficiency anemia that you might be at an increased risk for if you stop eating meat. Ask your doctor or dietitian if you need to take a daily multivitamin or other supplement.

Tips for Dining Out

Eating at restaurants can be difficult for vegetarians sometimes, but if you do eat fish, you can usually find something suitable on the menu. If not, opt for salad and an appetizer or two — or ask if the meat can be removed. Even fast-food places sometimes have vegetarian choices, such as bean tacos and burritos, veggie burgers, and soy cheese pizza.

You may also find that the veggie burgers, hot dogs, and chicken substitutes available in your local grocery store taste very much like the real thing. Try the ground meat substitute as a stand-in for beef in foods like tacos and spaghetti sauce.

Regardless of whether you choose a vegetarian way of life, it’s always a healthy idea to eat a wide variety of foods and try out new foods when you can.

What about bone health?

Some women are reluctant to try a vegetarian diet especially one that doesn’t include calcium-rich dairy products because they’re concerned about osteoporosis. Lacto-ovo vegetarians (see “Varieties of vegetarians”) consume at least as much calcium as meat-eaters, but vegans typically consume less. In the EPIC-Oxford study, 75% of vegans got less than the recommended daily amount of calcium, and vegans in general had a relatively high rate of fractures. But vegans who consumed at least 525 milligrams of calcium per day were not especially vulnerable to fractures.

Certain vegetables can supply calcium, including bok choy, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, collards, and kale. (Spinach and Swiss chard, which also contain calcium, are not such good choices, because along with the calcium they have oxalates, which make it harder for the body to absorb calcium.) Moreover, the high potassium and magnesium content of fruits and vegetables reduces blood acidity, lowering the urinary excretion of calcium. Some research suggests that eating too much protein (in particular, animal protein) is bad for bones because it has the opposite effect.

People who follow a vegetarian diet and especially a vegan diet may be at risk of getting insufficient vitamin D and vitamin K, both needed for bone health. Although green leafy vegetables contain some vitamin K, vegans may also need to rely on fortified foods, including some types of soy milk, rice milk, organic orange juice, and breakfast cereals. They may also want to consider taking a vitamin D2 supplement (vitamin D3 comes from animals).

20 Tips for Becoming a Vegetarian

So, if you’d like to become a vegetarian, without too much trouble, here are my suggestions:

Have good reasons. If you just want to become vegetarian for kicks, you probably won’t stick with it for long — not because it’s hard, but because any lifestyle change or habit change requires a little bit of motivation. You need to first think about why you want to become vegetarian, and really believe in it. The rest is easy.

Read up. Before starting anything new, I tend to read as much as possible about whatever it is that I’ll be doing. I suggest you do so with vegetarianism. Check out a couple of good books from the library (or better yet, borrow from vegetarian friends). And there are tons and tons of good sites on the Internet. One of my favorites is GoVeg.com.

Find good recipes. You don’t need to go out and buy a bunch of new cookbooks, although that’s certainly an option. But again, there are many great recipes online. Try GoVeg.com … another favorite of mine is Post Punk Kitchen (also see their forums). In fact, it can all be a little overwhelming … but don’t worry, you don’t need to decide on anything. Just look through the recipes, take note of a few that look really good, and decide to try a few of them. You have the rest of your life to test out other recipes!

Try one recipe a week. My suggestion is just to try one new vegetarian recipe a week. If you like it, add it to your collection of staple recipes that you eat on a regular basis. If the recipe isn’t that great, try another next week. Soon, you’ll have a good list of 5-10 great recipes that you love to cook and eat. And really, whether you’re vegetarian or meat eater, that’s probably all you really eat on a regular basis anyway (for dinner, at least). Most people only have 7-10 recipes that they cook regularly. Once you have that many vegetarian recipes, you are good to go.

Substitutions. Also try your regular recipes that you love, but instead of using meat, use a meatless substitute. So if you love to eat spaghetti or chili, for example, substitute a ground-beef alternative from Bocca or Morning Star and just cook it the way you normally would. There are alternatives for just about any kind of meat, and some of them are quite good. You can go on eating what you normally eat, but meatless.

Start with red meat. I suggest a gradual transition into vegetarianism … although you can do it all at once, I’ve found that for many people, a gradual transition works better. There’s no need to give up all meat at once. Try a few new recipes, maybe eat one vegetarian meal for the first week, two for the second, and so on. If you do this, start with red meat, as it is typically the least healthy.

Then the other meats. After a couple of weeks of going without red meat, try cutting out pork for a couple of weeks. Then cut out chicken, the seafood. With this two-week approach (and you can even make it 3 weeks or a month for each stage if you want to go more slowly), you’ll hardly notice the difference. I’ve found that I don’t crave meats anymore, although I did for about a week.

Consider dairy & eggs. Vegetarians vary widely on this, so there’s no mandate to give up dairy or eggs if you’re giving up meat. Do what feels right for you. But if you go meatless for awhile, and want to try to go a little further (in terms of health, the environment, and helping animal suffering), consider these foods. For one thing, they are often high in saturated fat, especially compared to soy alternatives. It was easy for me to give up eggs, as I’ve never been a huge fan, but transitioning to soy milk took a few days to get used to … although I can’t stand the taste of milk now.

Think about your staples. A useful exercise is to make a list of foods you regularly eat, for breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts and snacks. Not meals, but ingredients. And then think about vegetarian alternatives, and make a new list. For example, instead of eating chicken in a stir-fry dish, you might try tofu. With a new list of staples, you should have no trouble stocking your fridge and pantry.

All in one go. Some people prefer to give up meat all at once. While this takes a little more determination than the gradual solution I advocate, it’s not that hard, really. Just prepare yourself by taking some of the steps above (finding recipes, substitutes, a new list of staples, and reading as much as possible), and then give it a shot. It should only take a few days to get used to it, and then you’ll have very little trouble after that. The only issues you’ll have to work out, once you’re used to going without meat, are things like eating out, eating at others’ houses, and other similar issues. Read on for more on these.

Adequate protein. One myth about vegetarianism is that you don’t get enough protein. Actually, meat eaters usually take in way more protein than they need. Protein requirements for the average adult are lower than people think. If you eat a varied diet (not just junk food, for example) that includes vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, soy protein and the like, you will be fine. It would hard to create an eating plan where you’re getting inadequate protein (the junk food example would be one).

Another myth is that you need to eat different types of protein within a single meal (or even a single day) to get complete protein from plants … actually, as long as you eat varied proteins (such as those listed above) over a few days, you’ll be fine. And soy protein is a complete protein, just like meat.
Junk food. Again, you can be a vegetarian and be very unhealthy, if you eat junk food. Being a vegetarian is not a license to eat junk food (although you can probably indulge yourself a little more often now that you’re not eating meat). Try to stick with fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans, nuts, soy protein, low-fat dairy and other nutritious foods for the most part.

Ethnic food. One of the great things about becoming a vegetarian is that it often spurs people to try new and interesting ethnic foods (or reminds them of foods they love but don’t eat much). Great vegetarian dishes can be found all over the world, from Italian pasta to many Indian dishes to spicy Thai food to Chinese, Ethiopian, Moroccan, Mexican, South American and more. It can be interesting to do a series of theme weeks, trying vegetarian dishes from a certain country for one week, and then moving around the world and sampling other great ethnic foods.

Tell friends & family. If you’re really going to become a vegetarian, you’ll have to talk to the people you know and love about it. You’ll still be dining with them, at restaurants, at their homes, at social gatherings, at work, and so it’ll be better for everyone involved if they know what you’re doing (they might prepare a vegetarian dish for you, or you might bring one for them to try), and if they know the reasons why. Some people might have a hard time with it. Just try to explain it to them, without getting defensive or argumentative, and ask them to be understanding (and maybe to give some of your food a try). Don’t try to force vegetarianism on anyone, or sound preachy, but do give them more information if they’re interested.

Have fun. Most of all, don’t make becoming a vegetarian be a restrictive, grueling ordeal. If you feel like you’re depriving yourself, you won’t last long. But if you feel like you’re doing something good, and trying out some great-tasting food, you’ll stick with it for much longer (for life, I hope). Have a great time along the way.

Plan ahead. Often what gets in the way of new vegetarians is that they go somewhere, and don’t think of what they might have to eat. Going to a party or a dinner can be much better if you prepare a great dish and bring it along (let the host know about it first). An errands trip doesn’t have to result in you going to McDonalds, starving, if you pack a lunch or bring some snacks.

Cook ahead. Another problem is when we don’t have any vegetarian food ready to eat, and so we resort to whatever is easiest (if we don’t feel like eating or are too hungry to wait). Instead, you could cook a big pot of vegetarian chili or soup or something, and have it in the fridge for when you’re hungry and don’t have time to cook.

Vegetarian snacks. I love to eat fruits and cut-up veggies, but there are lots of other great snacks you can eat. Roasted (or raw) almonds, hummus and pitas or veggies, blue corn chips and salsa, low-fat granola, berries with soy yogurt, whole-grain cereals, Kashi crackers … dozens and dozens of snacks, actually, if you take a look around. Have plenty on hand, at home, at work, and on the road.

Vegetarian restaurants. There’s only one vegetarian restaurant on Guam, and unfortunately it’s closed on nights and weekends (it’s a Seventh-Day Adventist joint, open for lunch on weekdays, and it’s great). But you might live in an area with dozens of great vegetarian restaurants. Give them a try! You might discover some wonderful food, and thank your lucky stars you decided to give vegetarianism a try. Otherwise, most restaurants will have some vegetarian options, or can cook you a vegetarian dish on request.

Vegetarian convenience foods. In your supermarket’s frozen section, you’ll probably find a lot of vegetarian foods that can be microwaved. You might give some of these a try (I love the Amy’s brand). Beware that, like most convenience foods, these are more expensive than home-cooked stuff, and most likely not as healthy. But you can find some fairly healthy foods there too. At any rate, it’s always good to have a couple of convenience foods in the freezer, just in case.

Better sex?


Whether vegetarians really have “better sex“ is up for debate, as it seems unlikely that any head of broccoli has ever come with sex tips. But eating red meat may lead to decreased libido and lower blood flow, which could contribute to erectile dysfunction. Sperm quality also might be better in vegetarians, although the study on this was conducted on monkeys.

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