While being a vegetarian is a seemingly easy avenue to being healthy, it’s easy to create more bad habits.
Since I decided to become a vegetarian, I've gotten mixed responses—everything from excitement to slight outrage to jokes about vegetarians. And people always ask me the same questions: Do you eat eggs and dairy? Do you still eat seafood? How will you get adequate protein? And then folks remind me that a vegetarian diet doesn't mean I will automatically be healthy and lose weight.
Don't waste your breath telling new vegetarians this—it's the first thing we figure out. Chips are vegetarian, even vegan in some instances. Fries are vegetarian unless fried in animal fat. If you choose to eat dairy, cheese sticks and ice cream are vegetarian. It's not like you stop eating meat and suddenly become the picture-perfect vision of health.
It takes a vegetarian the same amount of determination to choose healthy food. I personally think it's an easier path to being healthy, but you still have to grit your teeth and eat your vegetables.
The first step to being a healthy vegetarian is deciding what you do and don't want to eat. Many people don't realize the term "vegetarian" means different things to different people. The styles include:
Vegan: a totally animal-product-free diet. No cheese. No eggs.
Lacto-vegetarian: a vegetarian that still ingests dairy but doesn't eat eggs.
Ovo-vegetarian: a vegetarian that still eats eggs but no dairy.
Lacto-ovo vegetarian: no meat, but you eat eggs and dairy (aka, classic vegetarian).
Flexatarian: not actually a vegetarian but an omnivore who eats a primarily plant-based diet and animal products only occasionally.
Pescatarian: stays away from red meat and poultry, but still eats seafood.
For me, the choice was fairly simple. Meat is one thing that makes me feel sluggish, so I didn't want a diet that included it. I gave up seafood three months ago, but I love eggs and dairy. By process of elimination, I decided to be a lacto-ovo, or classic, vegetarian. Step one complete.
Step two is a little trickier. This is where willpower comes into play. No matter which type you are, you take away a part of your natural eating habits. Being a vegetarian may deplete certain nutrients, so you have to put nutrients back in. To do this, vegetarians and vegans have to get a little creative and welcome different types of food. But the key, just like any major diet change, is balance.
Various sources outline the different nutrients vegetarians should focus on.
Protein is in a lot of animal products, but you can find plenty of nonmeat sources, including nuts, nut butter, peas, soy, tofu and egg whites. (source: nutritiondata.self.com)
Iron functions as a carrier of oxygen in the blood. Sources for vegetarians and vegans include spinach, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, turnip greens, whole wheat breads, raisins, dried apricots and prunes. (source: choosemyplate.gov)
We need calcium for strong bones and teeth. Sources include milk products and dark green leafy vegetables such as collard greens, turnip greens, bok choy and mustard seeds. On a side note: the liquid left over after boiling those greens (called "pot liquor" in the south) includes essential vitamins and minerals. (source: npr.org)
Zinc is required for many biochemical reactions and to keep your immune system working. Sources include many types of beans, wheat germ, milk products and pumpkin seeds.
Vitamin B12 keeps the nervous system and blood cells functioning, and prevents megaloblastic anemia (source: choosemyplate.gov). This vitamin primarily comes from shellfish and organ meats (source: livestrong.org), but it is also found in breakfast cereals, soymilk, veggie burgers and nutritional yeast. To be sure that you're getting enough, I'd consult your doctor and maybe consider a B12 supplement.
In the end, it comes down to research, planning, flexibility and balancing diet with exercise. Good luck!