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May 16, 2016 / Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RDN

Plant Power: Tips for Starting Your Vegetarian Diet

Tofu tostada

It seems like every day there is another word to describe a plant-based diet of some form or another. Besides vegan (a person who eats no animal products) and lacto-ovo (a person who eats no meat, but does consume dairy and eggs, terms like flexitarian, reducetarian, pescetarian, pegan (yes, paleo/vegan) are creeping into our vocabularies

It’s no surprise when you consider the number of people cutting down on meat in some form. While only 3.2% of Americans say they follow a vegetarian diet, according to research from Harris Interactive and Vegetarian Times, another 10% say their diet is “vegetarian inclined;” 5.2% say they’re interested in following a vegetarian diet in the future.

Are you one of those people making the shift to a more plant-based diet? It can seem simple enough to transition to meat-less (or less-meat) eating. But to really thrive as a plant-based eater, it’s about more than just skipping the meat.  

Here are 5 vegetarian diet tips to get you started:

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Prioritize protein.

It’s super easy to be a vegetarian by eating the same old meals sans meat. But doing so leaves a little protein-sized hole on your plate. In addition to helping you repair and build muscle, protein helps you feel satiated, or pleasantly full. If you make your special spaghetti and meatballs and just leave out the meatballs, you’re left with a plate of carbs—you’ll fill up your belly in the short term, but that meal will not tide you over until the next.

Instead, look for a good source of plant-based protein to add to that dish. A side of white beans cooked in garlic and oil, crumbled tempeh added to make a faux meat sauce, or black-bean balls are all good ways to balance out your plate. You can also add some cheese or an egg if you’re lacto-ovo.

Be prepared.

When you’re home, you get to control what foods are available. But when you’re on the go, you don’t know what to expect. That’s why I always recommend my vegetarian clients keep a couple of protein rescue packs—bags of protein-containing snacks or meal add-ons—on them for whenever the need arises.

A small bag of almonds, roasted chickpeas, or my new favorite, shelled watermelon seeds all make good snacks on their own, but they can also turn a side salad (when that’s all you can find on the menu to order) into a more satisfying meal. 

Try new foods.

Despite popular belief, you do not have to eat tofu to be vegetarian. But if you’ve tried it in the past and didn’t like it, maybe give it another shot—prepared well, it can be pretty delicious. And other foods like tempeh (an Indonesian fermented soybean product that has a grainy texture and nutty flavor) and seitan (pure wheat gluten, often used as “mock chicken” or “mock duck” in Asian restaurants) can also be great additions to your diet.

Know that vegetarian does not equal healthy.

A vegetarian diet can be a nutritious one, linked with decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and more. But this can depend greatly on what type of vegetarian you are. After all, dill pickle-flavored potato chips, Swedish Fish, and Sour Patch Kids are completely vegan foods. So are plain bagels the size of your head.

Go for balance—aim to fill half of your plate with produce, ¼ with protein, and ¼ with whole grains, and you’ll be just fine. The occasional snack won’t hurt you either—just don’t be fooled into thinking “no animals harmed” = nutritious.

Have fun!

Whether you’re going veg because you want to or because your doctor told you to (or you watched Food Inc and now feel really guilty eating meat), bringing a sense of playfulness and excitement to the plate will help you stick with it.

Sick of basic salads? Try roasting some veggies, throwing them on top of quinoa, and topping it all with a lemon-tahini sauce instead (it’s not much more work but it has a lot of new flavors). And try  making veggie “bacon” out of your favorite ingredient (eggplant, shiitake mushroom, coconut, tempeh…)—they don’t exactly replicate the real thing, but they do taste pretty fantastic and will help you get creative in the kitchen.  

Go vegetarian the easy way. Get $10 off custom meal plans from PlateJoy to make healthy eating easy!

Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist @ RMW Nutrition

Rachel Meltzer Warren is a New York area-based registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of RMW Nutrition. She is the author of two books, The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian and A Teen’s Guide to Gut Health.

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