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How to Successfully Become Vegetarian

August 17, 2009 10 comments

A twitter conversation this weekend with some would-be vegetarians made me realize that while there is a lot of information out there on why to be vegetarian, there isn’t very much guidance offered for those who have decided they want to make this life change.  Thus, this post won’t be a list of the many good reasons to become vegetarian; this post is directed at those who want to not only make the change, but do it in a healthy manner and make it stick.

Becoming vegetarian is a life-style change.  It’s hard to change your lifestyle cold turkey.  You tend to make a mistake, revert to your old ways, then get discouraged.  Most people I know who have tried to make a lifestyle change cold turkey end up failing.  It works for some people, but it’s also not the healthiest option when it comes to relearning how to eat.  If one day half of your meals are made up of meat, then the next day you suddenly can’t eat meat, you’re prone to make unhealthy choices, such as subsisting on fries and coke.  😉  A vegetarian diet isn’t innately healthy.  You can eat nothing but chips, ice cream, and candy and still be considered vegetarian.  Thus, the approach I usually recommend is the gradual approach.

First, cut out red meat.  It’s the most unhealthy meat for you, and a lot of people can’t eat it for various health reasons.  It’s the easiest meat to tell people you don’t eat.  At this same stage, limit yourself to meat at one meal a day.  This will get you practicing on creating healthy, meat-free meals.  Pick up some books on vegetarian recipes.  My favorite for new vegetarians is Vegetarian Cooking for Dummies.  It explains to you how to make sure you’re eating a balanced, meat-free diet, whether you like to cook or not.  If you do like to cook, it has some fun, super-simple recipes to get you started.   This stage is the one I like to call the “ah-ha! Meals don’t have to revolve around meat!” stage.

Pre-set an amount of time for yourself to stay at the “no red meat and only one meat meal a day” phase.  I did it for six months, but each person knows herself the best.  However, whatever amount of time you choose, stick to it!

For the next phase, cut yourself down to only three meat meals a week.  I ate three dinners a week, but you can make them whatever meal you want.  Keep track of it though, and don’t cheat.  I recommend spreading them out over the course of the week.  Maybe eat meat Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  That gives your body a break between meat days and will leave you craving the meat less.  Continue to read up on vegetarian cooking and living.  There are books out there for everyone from the person who hates to cook to the person who loves to entertain with gourmet meals.  Read what suits you!

Some people like to step down from three meals a week of chicken and/or fish to three meals a week of fish.  I was never a huge fan of fish, so I skipped that step, but if you want to, you certainly can.  If you go that route, I’d say do three months of both, then three months of just fish.

Finally, you are at the year mark.  You are only eating meat at three meals a week.  You might surprise yourself and hardly even notice there being no meat in your other meals.  Horizons are broadened as you have learned of new foods you can eat, such as tempeh, couscous, wheat gluten, hummus, and more!  The final step is upon you: taking that last plunge, cutting out those three meals, being able to proclaim “I am a vegetarian!”

Choose a specific date as the day you become a full-fledged vegetarian.  New Year’s Eve is my favorite holiday, so I made mine a New Year’s Resolution, but you certainly don’t have to wait for New Year’s! Pick whatever day you want.  The week prior to the official day, clear out all the remaining meat from your house.  I ate my final meat meal out at a favorite restaurant, but you can cook it for yourself if you prefer.  View it as a celebration, not a loss!  Maybe even buy yourself a few new pots and pans that you can look upon as your special, vegetarian pans.  On that day, wake up and know that you are now a vegetarian!

Since you made the transition gradually, you won’t feel such an immediate, gaping hole.  You’ll only need will-power periodically instead of at every meal of the day.  Be sure to pick up a Vitamin B12 supplement at this point though, as it is the only vitamin you cannot get from plant food.  (You used to be able to, prior to factory farming).  I won’t lie to you.  You will still get cravings sometimes.  About a month in, I almost caved and ate bacon.  In fact, most vegetarians I know caved once at some point and ate meat. Every single one of them followed it up by being sick to their stomachs immediately after.  Don’t feel bad if you cave once!  We are all human!  You’ll probably pay for it by being horrendously sick to your stomach anyway, no joke.  That’s another element of going gradual: your body gradually adapts so that it prefers the vegetarian diet.  It comes to view meat almost as an invader in your intestines.

Don’t be deterred though!  Even though you may periodically crave your own favorite bits of meat (for me, this will always be bacon, as there is no good vegetarian substitute), you will have new favorite foods!  I fell in love with hummus and tofu.  I also discovered the amazing No-Name at my local vegan restaurant The Grasshopper.  These are foods you would never have known about if it wasn’t for going vegetarian!  No matter what your reasons for going vegetarian, you’ll be healthier.  Studies have proven that vegetarians have a lower risk for various cancers, obesity, and heart disease.  Vegetarianism isn’t a diet you go on briefly.  It’s a new way of life!

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