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12 Tips to Getting a Vegetarian Diet Right

author image Sharon Palmer, RDN
Sharon Palmer, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian™, is an award-winning nutrition expert and journalist. She is author of "The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Health, Beginning Today," "Plant-Powered for Life: Eat Your Way to Lasting Health with 52 Simple Steps & 125 Delicious Recipes," and The Plant-Powered Blog.

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12 Tips to Getting a Vegetarian Diet Right
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Are you a vegetarian, or are you thinking about jumping on the plant-based bandwagon? There’s never been a better time! Research is pouring in on the many rewards you can reap with a vegetarian eating style. A plant-focused diet can fend off chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It can even help you stay slimmer: Vegetarians (especially vegans) weigh less than their meat-eating brethren. Going plant-based can even help you slash your carbon footprint by 30 percent, and you’ll make a big impact on reducing the suffering of farm animals. All that from one little diet. Read on for these 12 tips from our plant-based nutrition experts to help make sure you’re doing the vegetarian diet right.

1. Start Out Small
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Some people need a gentle nudge into vegetarianism. “You don’t have to become 100 percent vegetarian today. Allow yourself time to make the transition comfortable and manageable, especially if your family is making the transition to a vegetarian lifestyle with you,” suggests Emily Cope-Kyle, M.S., RDN, owner and consulting dietitian of Emily Kyle Nutrition. One such way to transition to plant-based eating is to start with Meatless Monday, a simple idea with big benefits. Just go meatless one day a week. And why not start the week right by doing it on Monday? Once you get Meatless Monday down, then you can make other goals, such as maintaining a vegetarian lifestyle before dinner, limiting meat-eating to one day a week or going full-throttle vegetarian.

Related: Plant-Based Recipes for Meatless Monday (or Any Day)

2. Do Your Homework
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Do a little research, suggests Emily Cope, M.S., RDN. “With so many talented food bloggers on the Internet, you can surely find your favorite traditional recipes remade into delicious vegetarian alternatives.” You also can find amazing nutrition and meal planning resources, such as Oldways Vegetarian & Vegan Diet Pyramid and The Vegetarian Resource Group, to make sure you plan a nutritionally balanced diet that meets all of your needs for optimal health. Invest in a few classic vegetarian cookbooks, which will become lifesavers as you increase your knowledge base of cooking sans meat. And discover vegetarian restaurants in your neighborhood.

Related: 12 Vegetarian Meals Under 400 Calories

3. Focus on What You Can Include
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“Instead of focusing on the burden of limiting animal products, think about all of the new foods you can include on a vegetarian diet,” stresses Stephanie McKercher, M.S., RDN, nutritionist and blogger at The Grateful Grazer. Jack Norris, RD, a plant-based nutrition expert, co-author of “Vegan for Life,” and president of Vegan Outreach, suggests that you think of the switch to a plant-based diet as adding plant foods, not taking away animal foods. There are tens of thousands of edible plant species on the planet. Each plant offers it’s own unique color, texture, flavor and aroma to your plate. Bottom line: There’s no reason to feel stifled on a plant-focused diet.

Related: 13 Surprising Vegetarian Sources of Protein

4. Enjoy Your Favorite Foods


Just because you’re ditching meat doesn’t mean you have to give up your favorite meals. “You can still enjoy your favorite recipes by making simple meatless substitutions to them. For example, I love chili, but instead of using ground turkey I’ll substitute lentils. All the spices and herbs stay the same, it’s just simply the source of protein that changes,” says plant-based dietitian Angie Asche, M.S., RD, LMNT, of Eleat Sports Nutrition. The same rule applies to other classic dishes, such as lasagna (swap ground beef for tofu or soy crumbles), tacos (trade taco meat for refried pinto beans) and meatloaf (substitute lentils and nuts for ground beef).

Related: The 10 Best Homemade Veggie Burger Recipes

5. Get Adventurous
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Now is the time to throw caution to the wind and try it all, from exotic and ethnic foods to silken tofu and seitan. “Always be willing to try something once: You may be very surprised to find that you love a vegetarian food or dish that you have never tried before,” says Emily Cope, M.S., RDN. Some of the best vegetarian foods on the planet are ethnic, such as Indian, Latin American, Ethiopian, Lebanese, Vietnamese and Thai. Start visiting your local ethnic hot spots to try flavorful dishes, such as Indian chana masala (chickpea curry) or Mediterranean tabouleh (wheat parsley salad). And don’t be afraid to bring some new products home from the market, including tofu (made from soybeans) and seitan (made from wheat), which are traditional, protein-rich foods that can be added to stir-fries, stews and casseroles.

Related: 12 Vegetarian Meals Under 400 Calories

6. Play Around With New Proteins
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Taking meat off the menu is a signal to dive into the world of plant-based proteins. “Don’t be afraid to try new proteins. Beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, nuts and nut butters can be delicious and hearty when added to meals. Try experimenting with a new vegetarian protein source each week,” says Sarah Fitzgerald, RDN, of RDelish Nutrition. Other protein sources include dried peas (black-eyed peas, split peas and pigeon peas), seitan (seasoned wheat gluten) and seeds (chia, sunflower and hemp). In addition to these, vegetarians can get protein from eggs and dairy products like cheese, cottage cheese, milk and yogurt. Try to include at lease one serving of these foods at each meal and snack to boost protein levels. Keep in mind that whole grains, such as quinoa, wheatberries and barley, and vegetables, such as spinach, green peas and broccoli, can help contribute protein too.

Related: 13 Surprising Vegetarian Sources of Protein

7. Remember That Vegetarian Doesn’t Always Equal Healthy
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Sure, a vegetarian diet offers plenty of health benefits, but you can crowd it with junk food just as easily as you can with any diet. After all, cola and French fries are vegetarian! “Whether you include animal products or not, try to limit heavily processed food products and focus on getting lots of whole vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds,” suggests Stephanie McKercher, M.S., RDN. That means filling every meal with healthful food choices, such as whole-grain porridge with fruit, nuts and milk or soymilk for breakfast; bean or lentil stew with whole-grain crackers and fruit for lunch; and stir-fried vegetables with tofu and black rice for dinner. Yum!

Related: The 21 Best Muscle Building Foods For Vegetarians

8. Make It Easy
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You may think vegetarian eating is going to be difficult -- chopping loads of vegetables and searching for special food ingredients, etc. -- but don’t make it any more difficult than it has to be. Find easy meal solutions, such as simple pasta dishes, tofu stir-fries, bean stews and burritos. Lisa Stollman, M.A., RDN, CDE, CDN, CEO of The Trim Traveler, suggests keeping frozen vegetables on hand to add to pasta, stir-fries, soups and smoothies. You also can stock canned beans, baked tofu, precooked whole grains and bagged lettuce as easy ingredients for creating plant-based meals in a jiffy.

Related: The 21 Best Muscle Building Foods For Vegetarians

9. Variety Is Key


When following a plant-based diet, it’s important to open your horizon to a greater diversity of plant foods in order to meet your nutritional needs, advises Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, a lifelong vegetarian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Instead of relying only on one source of vegetarian protein, such as cheese, it’s important to include a variety of proteins. The same goes with grains, nuts and vegetables -- each contributes its own variety of nutrients. For example, almonds are high in vitamin E, and Brazil nuts are selenium superstars. Sheth also suggests making an appointment with a registered dietitian (find one in your area at eatright.org) who can help you plan the perfect vegetarian diet that meets all of your needs for key nutrients like protein, vitamin D, vitamin B-12 and iron.

Related: 10 Vegetables You've Probably Never Heard Of

10. Balance Your Meals
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Make sure your meals have a nice balance of protein, healthy fat (such as avocados, nuts, seeds or olive oil), whole grains and produce, says Amy Gorin, M.S., RDN, a 15-year vegetarian and dietitian in Jersey City, New Jersey. While traditional meal planning usually starts with meat at the center of the plate, vegetarian meal planning puts the focus on plant foods. Here’s what a well-planned plant-based meal looks like: simmered red beans over brown rice, roasted Brussels sprouts, baby kale salad with avocados and tomatoes and, for dessert, an apple. One of Gorin’s favorite go-to meals is a bowl of low-fat plain Greek yogurt with shelled pistachios, whole-grain cereal and blueberries.

Related: 12 Vegetarian Meals Under 400 Calories

11. Boost the Flavor
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The worst thing you can do is fall prey to bland and boring vegetarian foods. “People go to great lengths to season, marinate and tenderize meat, so they need to treat non-meat foods the same way,” says Ginger Hultin, M.S., RD, CSO, LDN, owner of ChampagneNutrition. For tofu-based dishes it’s essential to use a flavorful marinade or sauce, such as a cacciatore sauce, soy sesame vinaigrette or ginger lime sauce to lend flavor to this neutral food. Don’t just simmer your beans, lentils or whole grains in water, cook them in vegetable broth and add onions, garlic, herbs and spices to bring them to life. Saute or roast vegetables with a drizzle of olive oil, lemon juice and herbs, and don’t forget to toss your salads with flavor-drenched vinaigrettes.

Related: 12 Vegetarian Meals Under 400 Calories

12. Discover Meat Alternatives
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While the healthiest plant-based diet focuses on whole plant foods (legumes, whole grains and vegetables), don’t be afraid to try some of the fabulous faux-meat products, such as burgers, sausages, deli “meat,” “chicken” strips and “meat” crumbles, available in increasing numbers at supermarkets today. “Using meat alternatives can be a great way for people who love meat to go veggie, especially in the beginning of their diet transition. Many people find that they really enjoy the texture and flavor of the many vegetarian meat alternatives, and it helps them not miss their previous diet,” says Ginger Hultin, M.S., RD, CSO, LDN. Don’t forget to flip the package over and read the ingredients list, looking to make sure that they provide good sources of protein (at least seven grams per serving) to replace meat on your plate as well as moderate amounts of sodium.

Related: 12 Vegetarian Meals Under 400 Calories

What Do YOU Think?
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Do you follow a vegetarian diet or just try to eat more plant-based meals? If so, what are some of your best tips for being a healthy vegetarian? What are some of your favorite foods? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Related: 28 Eating Secrets to Help You Lose Weight (and Save Money Too!)

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