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7 Things to Know Before You Go Vegetarian

by James Han

Whether you’re thinking about going vegetarian for your health, the environment or another reason altogether, cutting meat products out of your life is more than just a shift in diet. With animal protein out of the way, you’ll find yourself making up for those calories and nutrients with adjustments to both what you eat and the way you do it. In fact, everything about your lifestyle — including the restaurants you go to, the number of meals you eat, your creativity in the kitchen and more — is set to change. 

You may have questions about what it’s like to be a vegetarian. Will I get enough protein, iron and other vitamins? Will I always feel slightly hungry? Here, we’ll share seven things you should know before you cut out meat, so your journey can be as smooth as possible.

Related: Here’s What You Need to Know About Going Vegan

Read Labels Carefully

As you purge your kitchen of meat, you’ll quickly discover that a lot of other products you love aren’t actually vegetarian. From Worcestershire sauce (which contains anchovies) to marshmallows, gummies and even Pop Tarts (which all contain gelatin), you’ll need to get familiar with reading labels carefully and pinpointing animal-based ingredients that might be buried two or three lines in. Some items might be even more counterintuitive: some hard cheeses, for instance, are made with rennet, an enzyme from cow intestines. (Yes, that means that parmigiano-reggiano isn’t technically vegetarian — and neither is pesto.) 

Here are some common household goods to look out for:

  • Frosted Mini Wheats (gelatin)
  • Altoids (gelatin)
  • Caesar salad dressing (anchovies)
  • Pie pastry (sometimes made with lard instead of butter)
  • French fries (beef or duck fat used to fry)
  • Some beers and wines (“isinglass,” from fish bladders, is used to filter out the beverage during processing)
  • Anything with red dye #4 food coloring (made from carmine, or crushed up beetles)

Fill Your Kitchen With Vegetarian Staples

With your pantry, fridge and freezer clear of items you want to avoid, the next step is filling them up with vegetarian staples that can help you whip up a comforting, nutritious meal even when you’re running low on groceries. In addition to all your cooking oils, spices, seasonings, here are some things to add to your next shopping list that you may not already have:

  • Canned chickpeas
  • Dried lentils and beans
  • Grains (rice, millet, quinoa, farro — which you can omit if you’re gluten-free)
  • Nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts, macadamia nuts)
  • Dried apricots, dates, raisins, prunes
  • Nut and seed butters (tahini, almond butter, cashew butter, sunflower seed butter)
  • Maple syrup, coconut nectar and other plant-based sweeteners that haven’t been processed using bone char
  • Miso (you can use chickpea miso if you’re sensitive to soy)
  • Soy sauce (substitute with coconut aminos or tamari if you’re gluten-free)

“Plant-Based” Doesn’t Always Mean Healthy

It’s a blessing to be a vegetarian (or vegan) in the 21st century. With plenty of convincing faux meats and plant-based frozen dinners, fast foods, replicas of your favorite childhood snacks and more, you have plenty of convenient options within reach. That said, just because something is “vegetarian” or “plant-based” doesn’t mean it’s actually good for you, even though it may be made with more vegetables than what you’re used to eating. If you cut out meat but continue to consume products that are high in added sugars and refined grains, you’ll nix some of the potential health benefits (which may include improved heart health) that come with the vegetarian diet.

Eat With a Global Mindset

If you love eating meat, you may be worried that going vegetarian will mean the same boring rotation of broccoli and brussels sprouts week in and week out. But when a piece of steak or chicken isn’t the main character of your plate, you’ll start to see vegetables shine on their own — and just how many ways you can prepare them. There’s nothing wrong with simply roasting or sauteing your veggies with salt and pepper, but opening yourself up to new herbs, spices and cooking techniques from around the world can elevate your meals and add a rich breadth of complexity, depth and enjoyment to your vegetarian experience.

Here are just a few excellent vegetarian recipes to add to your docket (and that you or your whole family can enjoy):

  • Mujaddara. This Lebanese rice-and-lentil dish with caramelized onions is hearty, savory and comforting any time of the year, but especially in the fall and winter. Serve with yogurt or zhoug and other veggie sides as its own meal. (Oh, and it’s a one-pot stop!)
  • Chana masala. This Punjabi stew takes chickpeas to a whole new level, with spicy, sweet and tangy flavors as well as plenty of health-promoting nutrients from turmeric, cumin and other spices. We guarantee it’ll even have your kids begging for seconds. 
  • Mango sticky rice. This classic Thai dessert is simple and irresistible, pairing ripe mangoes with rice and a sweet, silky coconut milk sauce. 

You’ll Be Fine on Protein

But what about protein? Chances are you’ve had this question pop up a number of times since you started thinking about going vegetarian. And while it’s true that a serving of meat can be an efficient way to meet your daily protein needs, plenty of the things you’ll naturally be eating and snacking on as a vegetarian are naturally protein-rich. Eggs, yogurt, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils all contain significant amounts of protein, and sometimes getting enough involves simple tweaks to your diet — for instance, ditching wheat pasta for lentil pasta (which can contain 11 or 12 grams of protein per serving) or opting for quinoa instead of rice (quinoa has about nine grams of protein per cup). Keeping a jar of vegan protein powder isn’t a bad way to supplement when you’re in a pinch, especially if it’s added-sugar-free and made with pea, hemp, brown rice and other whole foods.

Eating Out Will Involve Extra Research

Even if you don’t live in a major city, vegetarian options are becoming more and more available at restaurants around the country. That said, eating out won’t be as easy as sitting down at a restaurant and pointing at the menu. You may need to do research ahead of time, finding the menu online and (if no vegetarian items are explicitly marked) calling in before you arrive to see if they can accommodate your dietary needs. When you’re in a restaurant, it’s best to have specific questions about ingredients and/or menu items, rather than simply asking, “Is this vegetarian?” Ask the server if they can check with the chef to make sure there’s no gelatin, lard, beef/chicken broth and other sneaky non-vegetarian culprits. Keep in mind that some restaurants are okay with substitutions and swaps, while others can’t modify their menu.

Pro tip: If none of the main dishes are vegetarian or calling to you, see if you can order an assortment of vegetarian appetizers or sides and build your own plate.

Baby Steps Are Just Fine

Going vegetarian isn’t easy (or right) for everyone, and taking your time to make the transition can sometimes be the difference between happily embracing the lifestyle change or backing out a few weeks in. Being a pescatarian (i.e., eating a plant-based diet with fish, but no other animal meats) or flexitarian (i.e., eating a primarily vegetarian diet with occasional meat consumption) can still help you live a healthier life without quitting meat cold turkey.

Make Sure You’re Getting Enough of These Nutrients

Vegetarians and vegans need to pay even closer attention to key nutrients that most people get from eating meat or meat-based foods. These include:

  • Iodine (found primarily in seafood)
  • Iron (found in its most bioavailable form in mostly in red meat or dark poultry meat)
  • Omega-3s (found typically in fatty fish like salmon)
  • Vitamin B12 (found only in animal foods)
  • Zinc (found often in pork, beef and lamb)

The easiest way to make sure you’re getting enough of these nutrients is by supplementing smartly. SmartyPants makes formulas for kids and adults that contain many of these (and other) essential vitamins and minerals, formulated to be just the right amount. All the organic formulas, multi capsules, sleep formulas and immunity formulas are vegetarian, and are made with extensive research and testing to make sure they’re safe, effective and delicious.

James Han is a writer, editor and content strategist based in Los Angeles. When he’s not deep in a Google Doc, you can find him reading, watching films and taking long walks.
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