More than 7 million people follow some form of a vegetarian diet, according to a study by "The Vegetarian Times," and 1 million of those follow a vegan diet, which eliminates all animal-derived products. Once you get acclimated to it, sticking to a vegetarian diet becomes easy. At first, though, determining what a healthy vegetarian diet looks like can seem complicated and overwhelming.
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Types of Vegetarianism
Becoming a vegetarian is a personal choice, as is how strict of a vegetarian you decide to be. As a beginner, determining what foods you're comfortable with eating can help you determine an appropriate meal plan. For example, an ovo-lacto vegetarian can consume eggs as a protein source, but lacto-vegetarians will need to find an alternative protein source because they don't eat eggs. Vegans do not eat any animal-derived products, including honey.
Easy Vegetarian Meals
As you ease into a new way of eating, make things easier on yourself by adapting some tried-and-true meals. For example, chili is easily made vegetarian by eliminating ground beef and upping the amount of beans. Layer your lasagna with roasted vegetables instead of beef or sausage, and top your pasta with a blend of leafy greens like kale, chickpeas and strong cheese for a flavorful dish. For breakfast, skip the breakfast meats such as ham, bacon and sausage, but avoid falling into the trap of eating carb-heavy bagels, cereal or pastries. Instead, eat eggs or Greek yogurt for protein, if those are acceptable to you, oatmeal topped with fruit or whole-wheat toast spread with nut butter.
Focus on Nutrients
Vegetarians need the same amount of protein as omnivores – 5.5 ounces a day, based on a 2,000-calorie diet – but it doesn't have to come from animal sources. Plant-based sources of protein include soy, legumes, seeds, nuts and whole grains. Eat a variety of plant proteins each day to ensure you get all the necessary amino acids. Vegetarians should also aim to get enough iron from dried beans, dark green leafy vegetables and iron-enriched products, as well as vitamin B-12, which is only found naturally in animal products. Look for fortified breakfast cereals and soy beverages. Vegetarians also run the risk of being deficient in zinc, so take in plenty of grains, nuts and legumes. If you don't eat dairy products, obtain calcium from plant sources such as spinach, kale, broccoli and fortified soy products.
Picking Healthy Foods
It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking your diet is healthy just because you're avoiding meat. But vegetarians are at risk of selecting less-than-healthy foods to replace meat, including full-fat cheese eaten in excess, processed snack foods and sugary desserts. Make fruits and vegetables the basis of your diet, and supplement it with lean plant-based protein, low-fat or fat-free dairy and complex carbohydrates.