Vegetarianism has become more popular than ever, as an increasing number of consumers forego steaks, burgers, and chicken nuggets in favor of entirely plant-based diets. Whether it's for reasons of conscience, nutrition, environmental sustainability, or one of the many others, vegetarians are taking the world by storm! Meat-free dishes are showing up on restaurant menus everywhere, and meat imitation products are experiencing huge success in an expanding market. Which means now's a great time to go vegetarian if you're thinking about giving the meatless life a try. As with any change in diet, it can be tough to know where to begin. Here's what you can do to make the transition from carnivore to herbivore as smooth as possible:
One of the best ways to start your journey into vegetarianism is to give real thought to why you're making this lifestyle change. The more you're confident in your reasons, the more likely you'll be to stick it out instead of eating meat if you have a craving from time to time.
It's hard to think about just how many animals suffer every day to provide food for humans - especially when you consider factory farming and the horrific methods slaughterhouses use to kill livestock. Every year, 39 million cows, 120 million pigs, 300 million turkeys, and 9.5 billion chickens are killed for food in the U.S., and it's no secret the way these animals are treated from their birth to their death is usually inhumane. When you give up meat, you're contributing to a greater dent in demand for the meat industry, which means fewer animals are born just to suffer and be slaughtered.
Processed meat is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and a 20% higher mortality rate. And while meat is packed with protein, iron, and vitamin B12, it also has a high-fat content and products like bacon and sausage are full of saturated fat. Additionally, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels are associated with meat-heavy diets; red meat in particular. Because vegetarians tend to replace the meat in their diets with more nutritious foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, grains, and nuts, going vegetarian could work wonders for your overall health.
When you consider how many millions of animals are slaughtered for food each year, it's not a stretch to imagine that all those bodies would require a fair amount of space. Almost 80% of agricultural land use is devoted to animal grazing and growing food for livestock. Of all arable land in the world, one-third of it is devoted to growing animal feed, while grazing alone takes up 3.4 billion hectares of land worldwide. All of that land being used for raising livestock and their food means trees are cut down for grazing, animal waste pollutes nearby waterways, and crops for feeding humans aren't being grown everywhere they could be. Over 80% of corn and 95% of oats grown are fed to farm animals - with cows alone consuming enough food to meet the caloric needs of everyone on earth. Not to mention, according to a report by the Worldwatch Institute, raising livestock is responsible for contributing 51% of annual greenhouse gasses worldwide.
Before going through any lifestyle change, it's a good idea to have a plan for how you're going to adjust to the new routine. There are various ways to go about beginning a vegetarian diet, and there's no right or wrong way to make the transition. Whether you give up meat cold turkey one day or you take a few weeks to switch your diet over, the important thing is finding a method that works for you.
If you're not keen on throwing out a fridge full of frozen meat products, it's perfectly okay to work your way through those over several days until your fridge has been gradually purged of the evidence you were ever a meat-eater. Similarly, if you feel the need to transition to a fully vegetarian diet very slowly, there's nothing wrong with going veggie on certain days of the week for a while to test and see what the challenges will be. Some find it easier to work their way into an entirely plant-based diet by going vegetarian two days of the week to start, then three or four days a week, until they gradually become vegetarians 24/7. Others find it's more realistic and practical to give up specific types of meat overnight while continuing to eat others as they adjust to their new diet. Often, this means continuing to eat poultry or fish (or both!) while giving up red meat, until one feels they're in a position to fully commit to vegetarianism.
Get excited about all the new dishes and combinations you're about to try! There are plenty of excellent cookbooks for vegetarians, and the internet is full of veggie-centric blogs and recipe inspiration. Before you take your first trip to the grocery store as a new vegetarian, you'll want to get an idea of what types of ingredients and protein substitutions vegetarian recipes call for. Even before you commit to going 100% meatless, it's a good idea to build up a list of plant-based dishes you know you already enjoy. From there, try out a new recipe every week, working towards discovering fresh ones so you can constantly be adding more to your repertoire. One of the best ways to stick with vegetarianism is to always be trying new and exciting food combinations so you don't get bored.
Stock your kitchen with vegetables, fresh fruit, grains, beans, and nuts before your first official day of vegetarianism. It'll be much easier to distract yourself - if you do start craving meat - when you've got a fridge full of exciting flavors you know you love, or ones you've never tried before. Remember that going vegetarian doesn't mean you can't enjoy a lot of the same foods you used to love just because they had a meat component. Vegetarianism is only gaining popularity, and grocery stores are definitely cluing in! Meatless meat imitations - from ground beef to turkey substitutes - are taking the market by storm, and making it possible for you to continue to enjoy many of your favorite dishes (without the risk of food poisoning that you get with meat!).
Ultimately, any diet change is about forming new habits. Make sure you're setting yourself up for success - that means planning for more than just salads every day. (For one thing, you would go crazy, and for another, your body would not be getting the nutrients it needs.) If you're a particularly busy person, you might have loaded up your fridge with enough frozen meat to last you weeks, but as a vegetarian, you'll have to learn which fruits and veggies you enjoy eating defrosted, as these foods have a reputation for having a short shelf life.
Make it a habit to carry protein-heavy snacks wherever you go. People who eat meat tend to take in way more protein on a daily basis than is necessary, but that doesn't mean you should be neglecting protein consumption. Protein bars, peanut butter cups, and oat bars are great sources of protein, super portable, and will fit in your bag for any of those midday emergencies.
By far, one of the most difficult habits to get into when converting to vegetarianism is checking food labels for gelatin in the ingredients. As a substance that appears in foods you'd never expect to contain animal byproducts, gelatin is the bane of a vegan or vegetarian's existence! Gelatin is mainly made of cow bones, cow skin, and pigskin, though poultry and fish are sometimes sources as well. Essentially, gelatin contains a lot of natural collagen, which is perfect for giving stuff like Jell-O, gummy bears, and marshmallows their gooey, dense texture. But it doesn't end there. Gelatin is lurking in all kinds of products you wouldn't expect: Pop-tarts, frosted cereals, hot chocolates, mousses, yogurts, chocolate bars, chocolate milk, and even mints can contain gelatin, so always check the ingredients.
Particularly at the start, it may be difficult to walk by a barbecue and smell meat cooking without wanting a burger of your own. Just try to remember all the important reasons you've stopped eating meat, and how many delicious alternatives there are out there. Eventually, you'll find those cravings do disappear.
The more you tell people in your life you're making a change, the more likely you'll be to see it through! It's one thing to try forming new routines on your own, it's another thing to have those around you checking up on how your new diet is working out and holding you accountable for whether you're sticking to it. Basically, if you proudly tell all your coworkers that you're going meatless from that point forward, you'll be way less likely to show up the next day with a bacon sandwich for breakfast. Plus, when you spread the word, you never know who else you may find out has experience with vegetarianism, and who may be able to offer recipes, dining recommendations, and great meat substitute brands.
The other thing you'll want to consider is restaurants. There are more vegetarian and vegan options out there than ever before, but that doesn't mean all restaurants have modernized. So next time you're planning a night out with friends, or a date, or an office lunch, remember to check the restaurant for vegetarian options or tasty, workable substitutions that will still make your experience great. It's worth looking up menus online, but if a menu isn't available on the website or you still have questions, give the restaurant a call beforehand to confirm your options. Nobody likes being the one person in a group who doesn't look like they're having fun because there's nothing on the menu they can order, so make it a habit to check beforehand when you go out somewhere new.