Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+ Join today!.
After experimenting with vegetarian eating for a while, I’m ready to go full-time. What’s the best way?
There’s never been a better time to switch to a totally meatless diet. Grocery stores and restaurants have more meatless products and more types of fruits and veggies than ever. And once you’ve started, you’ll almost certainly feel better, shed unwanted pounds and improve your health. But if simply taking the first step seems daunting, here’s a way to make it easy.
1. Think of three dishes you already eat regularly that happen to be vegetarian—perhaps spaghetti marinara, vegetable stir-fry, bean burritos, lentil soup, vegetable stew, hummus with pita bread.
2. Think of three meals you like that could easily be made meatless. A meat-filled lasagna transforms into a spinach lasagna. Beef fajitas effortlessly become vegetable fajitas filled with sautéed peppers, onions, beans, rice and guacamole. Chicken curry readily converts to a hearty vegetarian curry.
3. Select a few new vegetarian dishes you’d like to try. Page through any issue of VT, and experiment. Try stuffed winter squash, black bean enchiladas, eggplant manicotti, pan-grilled portobellos, avocado sushi, grilled polenta with asparagus smothered in spicy tomato sauce—you name it. Once you’ve found three new main dishes you like, you’re set. You now have nine meals that you enjoy and that happen to be vegetarian and healthful. That’s more than enough to keep you going for a while.
Is it better to go cold turkey or ease into it? Will my body react to the change in my diet? Will it even “rebel” by craving meat?
Some people prefer to change their diets gradually. However, just as jumping into a swimming pool lets you get used to the water faster than easing in inch by inch, jumping into a new diet helps your taste buds adjust faster. If you have ever switched from whole milk to nonfat, you know that the lighter variety tastes odd at first. But within a week or two, you totally adapt—and wouldn’t go back.
The same is true when you lighten your whole diet.If meat cravings hit—which happens to about one in 10 people—it helps to have a ready supply of meat substitutes on hand, such as soy “sausages” and veggie “cold cuts.” If you get a little gassy from the extra beans that are part of most vegetarians’ diets, just reduce the amount for a while. Try different kinds, too—smaller beans such as lentils or black beans are easier to digest. Then work your way up to the larger beans, such as pintos and great Northern beans. Also, be sure beans are well-cooked. Ditto for cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage or Brussels sprouts. Like beans, they can give you a little intestinal challenge at first, particularly if they’re lightly cooked or raw.
When will I see the health benefits of a vegetarian diet?
Making a complete switch also makes the health rewards come faster. Specifically:
You should begin to see a little weight loss within the first week or so. Even without counting
calories, it’s common to lose about one pound per week until you approach your ideal weight and reach a plateau. To help things along, keep oily foods—french fries, peanut butter, salad dressings—to a minimum.
Cholesterol levels usually improve over eight to 10 weeks. Many people on cholesterol-lowering drugs will be able to reduce their doses or even eliminate their medicine within that time, but let your doctor guide you. Be sure to include foods in your diet that are high in cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber, such as oatmeal at breakfast, beans at lunch and barley at dinner.
High blood pressure improves gradually, with significant results apparent in about six weeks. The effects (which are partly due to the potassium in vegetables and fruits) can really add up: Even back in 1984, three-quarters of people taking high blood pressure medications in a Scandinavian study were able to discontinue their drugs within one year of adopting a vegetarian diet.
And there are other benefits. People who are bothered by constipation usually see it clear up within a day or two. People with type 2 diabetes watch their blood sugar levels improve dramatically. And almost everyone reports feeling lighter and healthier overall. There’s nothing to lose.