Need to know
If you’ve been thinking about changing to a vegetarian or vegan diet, you might have one, two or many reasons. Maybe a high cholesterol level on a recent lab test persuaded you to eliminate red meat from your diet and, pleased with the results, you’re considering cutting out other animal products. Or maybe it’s a video your friend recommended – one showing chickens confined to crowded cages and terrified calves being separated from their mothers. You initially brushed it off but, as you’ve watched other videos and read more about factory farming, you’ve decided you no longer want to eat meat. Perhaps you were mostly vegetarian in college but gradually returned to your earlier omnivorous habits; this time, convinced of the many benefits of a vegetarian diet, you want to make it a life-long commitment.
Whatever your reasons, you are not alone in your interest in a vegetarian or vegan diet. Globally, these diets are becoming increasingly common. Generally, a vegetarian is defined as a person who does not eat meat, poultry, fish or shellfish, while vegans are vegetarians who also do not eat any animal foods, including dairy products or eggs. In the United States, a recent survey found that 6 per cent of adults are vegetarian, and about half of these are vegan. Vegetarianism appears to be slightly more common in the United Kingdom and Australia, and it is even more widely practised in India.
Why people become vegetarian or vegan
- Ethical concerns about animals. The World Economic Forum has estimated that, each year, 50 billion chickens, almost 1.5 billion pigs, and 300 million cows are killed for food. Additionally, animals used for food production are commonly confined and treated poorly. Vegetarians and vegans acknowledge that it is not necessary to eat animals, and they make a conscious decision not to do so.
- Concerns related to the environment, the climate crisis and/or sustainability. People who are passionate about protecting the environment often choose a vegetarian or vegan diet. Vegan diets are especially effective in reducing land and freshwater use and diminishing greenhouse gas emissions related to diet. Vegetarian diets that include dairy products and eggs are also associated with environmental benefits, although to a lesser extent.
- Personal health or wellbeing. Some people become vegetarian or vegan as a way to eat a healthier diet. As we’ll see, the particular food choices one makes within the context of being vegetarian or vegan make a difference. But studies of people who eat these diets find that they have lower rates of diabetes and heart disease and, on average, lower blood pressure.
You may find that your own motives change with time. For instance, you might initially consider becoming vegetarian or vegan because, as a student once told me: ‘I realised that chicken was a chicken.’ Later, you may notice that your cholesterol is lower and that you feel healthier. Perhaps you also find that you take pride in knowing that avoiding meat and other animal products is something that you can do to reduce your environmental impact. Many vegetarians and vegans have strong ethical and moral beliefs, and ethical/moral concerns are what participants in one study most frequently cited as a factor that helped them to adhere to their chosen diet. These kinds of beliefs might both motivate your change to a new diet and help you practise it for many years.
Changing your diet isn’t always easy, but the benefits are worth it
Even if you have already resolved to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may be feeling a bit anxious. You might be concerned about whether your new way of eating will be boring or hard to manage, or if you’ll be able to figure out how to eat enough nutritious food. And what will your friends and family think?
New situations often make us anxious, but the reality is that a vegetarian or vegan diet can be perfectly healthy, interesting and satisfying. As we’ll see, the concerns that you might have can be addressed with a bit of planning and an openness to new ways of doing things.
The benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets are real and achievable: you will likely feel that you’ve made a positive change that is beneficial to animals and to the planet, and you may also notice some of the health advantages that researchers have observed. As a registered dietitian who specialises in vegetarian and vegan nutrition, as well as someone who was once a meat eater and has been vegan for more than 30 years, I can address both nutritional and practical matters related to becoming vegetarian or vegan. The advice in this Guide will not only help you start eating differently, it will also show you how to make it a sustainable lifestyle change.
What to do
Describe your motives for change
Some advance planning can increase the odds that you’ll stay with your new way of eating. You can start by developing a statement of purpose, which you can refer back to or modify as time goes by.
What is it about the idea of being a vegetarian or vegan that speaks to you? Visualise the change you want to make, the positive way you’ll feel when you make the change, and the benefits that you’ll receive. How would you complete the sentence: ‘I want to be a vegetarian/vegan because…’?
Here are a few ideas:
- It’s something that I can do every day to reduce my impact on the environment.
- I believe in nonviolence against other beings.
- I want to feel healthier.
- I feel a kinship with animals and don’t want to harm them.
Record your statement of purpose in some way so that you can revisit it later: write it down, make a voice recording, save it as a note on your phone or laptop. Consider sharing it with a close friend or family member, too, if you’d like their support.
Decide on your path: vegetarian or vegan?
Once you’ve identified one or more reasons for making a change to your diet, think about your objective. Are you ultimately aiming to be vegetarian or vegan? How does your choice fit with your statement of purpose? You may want to do some further research on each diet’s effects on the environment, animals, and/or your health. (The websites listed in the Links and Books section are useful starting points for learning more.)
Some people find that it is easier to be a vegetarian who eats dairy products and/or eggs than to be vegan because they don’t have to make as many dietary changes. For others, including myself, the change to a vegan diet is not that much of a challenge. After calling myself a lacto-ovo vegetarian (a vegetarian who eats dairy products and eggs) for years, I realised that I mostly ate a vegan diet. I usually avoided eggs because of a family history of super high cholesterol. And my husband’s lactose intolerance meant that we rarely ate meals with dairy products. Making a formal declaration that I was going to be vegan was not a huge change. Others may go years avoiding all animal products except for one food, often cheese. Today’s explosion of vegan cheese does make it easier to make the change to a completely vegan diet.
Vegan diets usually get higher marks in terms of having a lower impact on the environment. In terms of health differences, research comparing disease risk in vegetarians and vegans finds that vegans have a lower risk of developing and dying from a number of common chronic diseases. On the other hand, vegans need to seek out sources of some nutrients that they may not be as familiar with: eating a bowl of steamed kale as a source of calcium, for instance, instead of drinking a glass of cow’s milk.
Being either vegetarian or vegan is a way of reducing the negative impact of one’s diet on the environment, on personal health and on animals, compared with eating a nonvegetarian diet. Whichever one you choose, know that you can change to the other way of eating at any time, perhaps as you learn more about these diets.
Set goals for changing your diet
Different people have different approaches to making changes. Some long-term vegans abruptly stopped using any animal products and, overnight, went from eating an omnivorous diet to a vegan one. Other people have taken smaller steps – such as eating less meat, then eating no meat but continuing to eat fish, then eliminating fish, and perhaps eventually becoming vegan.
Think about your personality and how you approach change. How have you approached other changes you’ve made in your life – things like starting a new exercise regimen or stopping smoking? Are you likely to be more successful with a radical lifestyle change over a short timespan or with a more gradual approach? Whichever way you choose, develop a specific plan.
One way to do this is to pick a set of dates that mark specific changes and record these on a calendar. The details will depend on what you currently eat, your ultimate goal, and the pace at which you want to get there. Here’s an example:
- 1 December – stop eating red meat; eat at least one vegetarian or vegan meal a week
- 15 December – going forward, eat chicken no more than twice a week; eat at least two vegetarian or vegan meals a week
- 10 January – stop eating chicken; eat at least three vegetarian or vegan meals a week
- 17 February – eat fish or shellfish no more than twice a week; eat vegetarian or vegan meals the rest of the week
- 1 March – stop eating fish and shellfish; eat vegetarian or vegan meals throughout the week
You could also develop a simpler and potentially quicker list of change goals. For example, you might plan to eat vegetarian meals three days a week by a certain date, four days a week by another date, and so on. As an alternative to developing your own plan, some groups offer structured plans such as the 21-Day Vegan Kickstart or the 10 Weeks to Vegan programmes.
As you proceed with your plan, be kind and patient with yourself. Change is hard, and most of us have been omnivores for most of our lives. Almost every vegetarian and vegan eventually finds themselves in a situation where they consider eating (or actually eat) something that they had decided not to. Perhaps it’s due to hunger, a craving, concern about offending a host, or wanting to fit in. Regardless, if this happens, it’s not the end of your diet. Another look at your statement of purpose can remind you why you decided to become vegetarian or vegan. You can also think about why you felt compelled to eat a nonvegetarian/nonvegan food and what you might do differently the next time.
Start building a new menu for yourself
Reflecting on your motives and setting goals are important parts of preparation. But it’s also helpful to spend some time thinking about what you’re going to eat. A way to do this effectively is to create a document, on paper or in a spreadsheet, with three columns:
- What do I already eat that is vegetarian/vegan?
- What do I eat that can easily be made vegetarian/vegan?
- What are some new foods I want to try?
In the first category, you might list basic options such as macaroni and cheese (if you’re adopting a vegetarian diet), or peanut butter sandwiches. Perhaps you already eat falafel or veggie burgers. Don’t forget to list side dishes like cooked vegetables, salads and breads.
The second category will include easy substitutes: for example, tacos and burritos filled with beans instead of meat; stir-fries cooked with tofu in place of chicken or beef; pasta sauce made with lentils or soy crumbles rather than ground meat.
To complete the third category, take a trip to a supermarket with a large vegetarian and vegan selection – Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Whole Foods Market, Tesco and Aldi are just a few examples – or check out vegetarian and vegan recipe websites, cookbooks or restaurant menus. There are more websites devoted to vegetarian and vegan recipes than you’ll use in a lifetime, but some of my favourites include Vegan Richa, Nora Cooks and Veg Kitchen. Your library or bookstore will likely have a plethora of vegetarian and vegan cookbooks; look for some that fit with your favourite cooking style (gourmet, quick and easy, lots of spice, mainstream, and so on). And there are some great resources for locating vegetarian and vegan restaurants, including HappyCow and the Vegetarian Resource Group’s restaurant guide for the US and Canada. When searching other websites that list restaurants, you can often adjust your search filters to find ones that are vegan, vegetarian or veg-friendly.
While you don’t need to know how to cook to be vegetarian or vegan, it can be helpful to have a few simple dishes in your repertoire. Knowing how to cook pasta and rice, steam or roast vegetables, and make a simple stir-fry can open up lots of options to you. If you don’t care to cook a lot or don’t have time or energy to cook, you can buy convenience foods, and order at some of the restaurants you discover.
The list of food ideas that you develop should reflect your cooking (or non-cooking) and eating style. You’ll refer to this list often as you decide what to eat from one day to the next.
Some forethought about what you’ll eat can also help you avoid a common pitfall: many new vegetarians and vegans have told me they’re hungry all the time. When I ask them what they’re eating, I learn that they have taken meat off their plate but haven’t replaced it with anything. Instead of a chicken breast, rice and a salad, it might be a scoop of rice and some lettuce. Hardly a filling meal. The chicken could instead be replaced with black beans and salsa or with marinated baked tofu. Another option is to eat combination dishes rather than a meal made up of protein food + starch + vegetable or salad: shepherd’s pie made with lentils and vegetables, for example, or a medley of vegetables and cubed tofu stir-fried in a garlic ginger sauce and served over rice or noodles. In any case, avoid hunger by including filling foods like nuts and legumes (beans, peas, soybeans and lentils).
You can also ensure you stay satiated by identifying some non-perishable, convenient foods that you enjoy – such as wholegrain crackers, nut butters, nuts, dried fruit, and instant soups – and keeping a stock at work, in your car, and in your kitchen.
Seek support from other people
Social support is an important predictor of staying with a new diet. Whether in person or online, exchanges with like-minded people can help new vegetarians or vegans feel that they are not alone, and provide a sense of group identity. I remember being newly vegan and going to a huge pre-Thanksgiving vegan potluck dinner. Not only was I able to try dishes without having to ask what was in them, I also had the opportunity to hear other people’s stories about their vegetarian and vegan journeys, and I left with plenty of ideas for foods that I could make.
Organisations such as the Vegetarian Resource Group, the European Vegetarian Union, and the International Vegetarian Union maintain lists of local and regional vegetarian and vegan groups. You can also look for flyers or posts on social media about local vegetarian/vegan events or meetups. These events might include a potluck dinner with a recipe swap, a dinner at a restaurant with vegetarian and vegan options, or a formal meeting with a speaker on some aspect of being vegetarian or vegan. A vegetarian/vegan group that meets up regularly might volunteer at an animal shelter, go bowling, or go on a hike together. One group I know of would meet to play a casual game of basketball and then go out for vegan pizza. Letting other people know that you are vegetarian or vegan (or planning to be) can help you make connections in your community.
Family or friends who are sympathetic, whether or not they are vegetarian or vegan, can also provide social support. Many will have made their own changes in their diet or exercise routine, or in other important areas of their life. Their insights, ideas and encouragement can be helpful. In addition, they know you well and can serve as a caring sounding board as you work to adapt to the changes you are making.
Make sure you consume key nutrients
You may be wondering if your new diet can meet all of your nutritional needs. The basis of a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet is eating a wide variety of whole foods, including legumes, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds and, for non-vegans, dairy products and/or eggs. Several of the resources in the Links and Books section below offer meal plans that you can use to ensure your diet is nutritionally adequate.
For the most part, if your diet is healthy and includes a variety of whole foods, you won’t necessarily need to use nutritional supplements – but there is an important exception. Vitamin B12 is essential for health, and it is not reliably found in plant foods unless they are fortified with it. Vegans need to consistently supplement with vitamin B12 or eat several servings each day of foods fortified with vitamin B12 (these include some brands of plant milks, some meat analogues, some breakfast cereals, some energy bars, and various other foods). A single daily supplement providing 5-100 micrograms of vitamin B12 or a weekly supplement providing 1,250-2,500 micrograms is sufficient for non-pregnant, non-lactating adults. Nonvegans who eat limited amounts of dairy products or eggs should also probably use a vitamin B12 supplement.
Other nutrients may need to be supplemented, depending on dietary choices and sunlight exposure:
- Calcium is found in generous amounts in foods such as dairy products, calcium-fortified plant milks, calcium-set tofu, and green vegetables (think kale, collards, mustard greens, broccoli and bok choy – or pak choi in the UK). Healthy adults who eat three or more cups a day of any combination of these foods (measure vegetables after cooking), along with a variety of other foods, are likely to meet their needs for calcium. If you don’t usually eat these foods on a daily basis, you may need to consider a calcium supplement.
- Our bodies produce vitamin D after sun exposure, but the amount produced depends on skin pigmentation, sunscreen use, ageing, cloud cover and other factors. Food sources of vitamin D for vegetarians and vegans are limited to foods such as fortified cereals, certain plant milks, and cow’s milk (for vegetarians), and often multiple servings of these are needed to meet recommendations for vitamin D. Many opt to use a vitamin D supplement.
- Prior to menopause, women need more iron than men and are at higher risk for iron deficiency. They may need to use a low-dose iron supplement. Vegetarian/vegan sources of iron include dried beans, whole or iron-fortified cereals and breads, soy foods, and greens.
- One of the omega-3 fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is an essential nutrient. It’s found only in a small number of plant foods, including flaxseeds, hempseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, flax oil, walnut oil, canola oil, and soy oil and other soy products. Two other omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are mainly found in fish. Their health benefits for adults are still being investigated, but some vegetarians and vegans choose to use a vegan DHA/EPA supplement from microalgae.
It’s a common misconception that meat is essential for protein (and many new vegetarians and vegans are asked about this). Including several servings daily of protein-rich foods such as legumes, soy products and optionally eggs and/or dairy products will help you meet your protein needs.
To make sure that you are getting enough of the nutrients you need, you might choose to consult an expert, such as a registered dietitian who specialises in vegetarian and vegan nutrition. I recommend this consultation if you have a medical condition that affects your food choices, especially if you have allergies, coeliac disease, hypertension or diabetes. Registered dietitians can help with everything from planning meals to assessing the nutritional adequacy of your diet.
Communicate your needs and feelings about shared meals
One of the joys of life is sharing a meal with others. Don’t let your new lifestyle keep you from this delight. You can certainly share meals with other vegetarians and vegans, but there are still family meals, outings with friends who eat meat, and work-related gatherings to negotiate.
Good communication is key. If you are going out to eat, research restaurants that have vegetarian or vegan options and suggest going to one of those. If you’re invited to share a meal in someone’s house, be clear with your host about which foods you eat and don’t eat. (They might not realise that certain ingredients, such as meat-based broths and gelatine, come from animals.) You can also suggest some easy foods that you enjoy or offer to bring a dish that everyone can share. Be appreciative of others’ willingness to make vegetarian or vegan foods.
Food is much more than something we eat. It’s laden with emotion and symbolism. Maybe your dad loves grilling chicken with his special barbecue sauce, or your grandmother used to spend hours making meat-filled dumplings that are a favourite in your family. Family members may feel sad or hurt that you won’t eat dishes that you used to enjoy. Try letting them know that your decision not to eat certain foods doesn’t mean that you love your family members any less or don’t want to share a meal with them. Let them know how much you appreciate the love that goes into their cooking. Ask if they are open to working with you to modify their favourite recipes so that you can eat them. It’s amazing what a simple Google search for ‘vegan [name of dish]’ will turn up. Perhaps you and your loved ones can develop a new (or modified) dish that will become a family tradition.
Key points – How to go vegetarian or vegan
- People have various reasons for becoming vegetarian or vegan. Concerns about animal welfare, the environment and personal health are common motivating factors.
- Changing your diet isn’t always easy, but the benefits are worth it. Vegetarian and vegan diets can be both satisfying and perfectly healthy. A bit of planning can help as you make the transition.
- Describe your motives. Ask yourself why becoming a vegetarian or vegan appeals to you. Record your statement of purpose so you can revisit it later.
- Decide on your path: vegetarian or vegan? Consider the differences in impact and convenience, and know that you can always change from one to the other.
- Set goals for changing your diet. Whether you prefer an abrupt or gradual transition, plan to take concrete steps by specific dates.
- Start building a new menu for yourself. List the foods you already eat that are vegetarian/vegan, or that could be made so. Explore stores, recipe sites and restaurants for new and intriguing options.
- Seek support from other people. Look into vegetarian/vegan groups, events and meetups, and ask sympathetic friends and family for their ideas and encouragement.
- Make sure you consume key nutrients. Vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium are some to be mindful of; many vegans and vegetarians find supplements useful.
- Communicate your needs and feelings about shared meals. Suggest restaurants that have options for you, or offer to bring such options when eating at someone’s home. Show others you appreciate their flexibility.
Becoming vegetarian/vegan in childhood or adolescence
Let’s consider a couple of scenarios where young people make the change to a vegetarian or vegan diet. The first one is probably more common: a high schooler announces, effective immediately, that they are vegan. The main challenge that they’ll face is a practical one. What are they going to eat? Many teens have relied on someone else to shop and prepare food for them, and now that person isn’t sure what to buy or cook, or even if they want to spend extra time preparing separate food. Teens may face challenges from concerned family members who wonder if this new diet is healthy.
Here are some tips for teens who have decided to change to a vegetarian or vegan diet:
- Consider your reasons for making this change and how you can explain these reasons to your family members in a way that is respectful to them.
- Think about how you can work with your family to get the food you need. What sort of responsibility are you willing to take for food shopping and preparation? Which meals that your family already makes will fit into your new diet? Which meals can be easily modified?
- Be sure to read about the sources of key nutrients in a vegetarian or vegan diet.
- Talk with family members about why you are making this change and why it is important to you. Propose your plan for food shopping and preparation. Be ready to answer questions about how you’ll stay healthy.
- Offer to share your food with family members and be sure to acknowledge any extra work that they do to buy or prepare foods for you.
- If your family continues to be concerned about the adequacy of your diet, suggest a meeting with a nutrition professional who specialises in vegetarian nutrition.
Another scenario involves a decision by adults to move their family from a nonvegetarian to a vegetarian or vegan diet. Challenges here can include getting buy-in from kids and making sure they are eating a healthy diet. If you are an adult making such a change, be prepared to explain, in an age-appropriate way, why your family will be changing their way of eating. Consider how your child or children tend to react to change and new situations, and let this awareness guide how quickly or slowly you move your family to a vegetarian/vegan diet. Introduce unfamiliar foods gradually, perhaps serving them along with other, more familiar foods. Make sure they are eating a variety of foods, including legumes, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, and optionally dairy products and eggs.
The list of resources at the end of this Guide includes several that provide further information about vegetarian and vegan diets for children and teens.
Eating a vegetarian/vegan diet during pregnancy
Many people decide to eat a healthier diet during pregnancy. They may cut back on soft drinks and caffeine, and eat more unprocessed food. Some may decide to become vegetarian or vegan. A comprehensive discussion of nutritional needs during pregnancy is beyond the scope of this Guide, but if you are pregnant, and assuming you are already eating an overall healthy diet, gaining weight appropriately, and taking a prenatal supplement, there are several key nutrients to be especially aware of:
- Protein needs are somewhat higher in pregnancy, and it is entirely possible to meet these needs on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Be sure to eat one or more good sources of protein at each meal and snack. These include legumes, soy products and optionally eggs and/or dairy products.
- A reliable daily source of vitamin B12, such as a vitamin B12 supplement, is needed in pregnancy. Many prenatal vitamins include vitamin B12.
- Iron deficiency is relatively common in pregnancy, whether or not one is vegetarian or vegan. Your doctor may recommend a low-dose iron supplement.
- The omega-3 fatty acid DHA is associated with a lower risk of having a premature baby. Vegetarians and vegans can get DHA from a microalgae supplement.
In addition to making sure that their diet is nutritionally adequate, vegetarians and vegans who are pregnant are likely to face a barrage of questions from friends and family members. Most of these questions ultimately ask: ‘Is this safe?’ Although it may be annoying to have to defend your dietary choices, keep in mind that your friends and family care about you. They want reassurance that you know what you’re doing. Let them know that you are paying attention to nutrition and that you’ve discussed your diet with your healthcare provider. You might mention some of the positive things that you are doing, like taking a prenatal supplement and cutting down on junk food.
Links & books
The book Vegan for Life: Everything You Need to Know to Be Healthy on a Plant-based Diet (2011) by the vegan registered dietitians Jack Norris and Virginia Messina, is a comprehensive guide to vegan nutrition. It includes concrete tips for transitioning to a vegan diet at your own pace.
The website of the Vegetarian Resource Group is filled with material about vegetarianism, including meal plans, recipes, useful suggestions, lists of restaurants, information about ingredients, and updates on the latest research.
Vegan Health is a well-regarded resource that includes nutrition recommendations, summaries of scientific research, and discussions about concerns related to vegan nutrition.
The International Vegetarian Union offers many valuable resources for vegetarians and vegans throughout the world. It features links to vegetarian groups in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia and Europe.
The website of the Vegetarian Society provides advice and support to those making the transition to vegetarian or vegan diets and lifestyles. It also supplies recipes, and health and nutrition information.
HappyCow offers a thorough list of restaurants, stores, and hotels and other lodgings worldwide that cater to vegans and vegetarians.
The vegan cookbooks I’m using most right now include Isa Does It (2013) by Isa Chandra Moskowitz, presenter of the TV show Post Punk Kitchen (2003-05); Vegan on the Cheap (2010) by the former restaurant chef Robin Robertson; and Vegetable Kingdom (2020) by Bryant Terry, chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. I tend to like easy, healthy, creative recipes, and these books have plenty.