Whether it’s for the sake of animal welfare, reducing your carbon footprint or health reasons, becoming vegetarian is an admirable decision. However, if you’re just starting out, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.
Like it or not, eating animal products is one of the easiest ways to absorb protein, iron, B12, folate, vitamin D and calcium—all of which our bodies need for healthy growth and function. “People can be healthily vegetarian, but they do have to work a little bit harder than most,” explains naturopath Rita Erba-Cozzi, a lecturer at the Australasian College of Natural Therapies.
Of course, how hard you have to work depends on what type of foods you plan to eliminate from your diet. Will you be lacto-ovo-vegetarian (no red or white meat, no fish, but you do eat eggs and dairy), pescetarian (vegetarian, but you eat fish) or vegan (no animal products at all)? Choosing your pathway is a very personal decision, derived from your philosophy, stage in life and health needs.
“The body relies on everything coming through our diet, apart from oxygen and sunshine,” says Erba-Cozzi. “Straight away, a vegan diet eliminates quite substantial and essential nutrients. The nutrients can be found in other foods, but you have to look for them and work at it. Of course, if you’re happy to introduce some animal products, then that substantially changes the profile from a nutrient base. The humble egg yolk, for example, not only has all the protein that we need but it has a very good range of iron, B12 and folate.”
If you don’t want to eat eggs or fish, then supplementing those with other nutrient-rich foods, such as legumes, beans, nuts, seeds and leafy green vegetables will ensure your diet isn’t lacking. Leafy greens and nuts, such as almonds, are also good for calcium if you’re cutting dairy out of your diet.
Don’t be too hard on yourself and be proud that you have the intention.
Perhaps you are what is known as a “flexitarian”—you’re willing to embrace vegetarianism in the long term but you’re worried about jumping straight in. Some people cut down their meat intake to just once a week at first. The choice is entirely yours. Don’t be too hard on yourself and be proud that you have the intention.
Erba-Cozzi suggests that taking it gradually is a good idea, as it isn’t such a daunting lifestyle change. “Look at it meal by meal and then it doesn’t set you up for failure,” she says. “If you’re having meat say five times a week, then look at where that is, whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner. Do it by literally putting it on a page. Say: ‘OK, if I have eggs and bacon, well I can have eggs but I can’t eat bacon.’ Or consider replacing the meat with a vegetarian sausage, for example.”
After eating meat four times a week, Melbourne designer and yoga student David Baskett became a pescetarian and felt lighter and more energetic. “Ethically, I couldn’t figure out a way to eat meat that was just grown to be mass slaughtered, especially chicken—that was the thing that did me in.”
Ten years later, Baskett recalls it wasn’t difficult to supplement protein in his diet because at the time he ate a lot of Mexican food with beans. He also incorporated plenty of tofu and miso into his diet.
Despite finding it easy to give up red meat and chicken, his plan to give up seafood wasn’t to be. “It was summertime, we were going to barbecues and there was just nothing to eat,” he says. “Then I decided that fish fitted into my little world view. They were wild, not grown, and the transaction of being caught in a net was a little better than being grown for slaughter. Whether or not that’s environmentally good, I thought it was a fairer deal for the fish.”
Jivamukti Yoga Sydney teacher Gabriela Fearn has also found she’s had to be a little forgiving of her own shortcomings. “I still crave meat or chicken. If I smell something on a barbecue, it requires willpower to abstain from eating it when it’s right there,” she explains.
“I definitely want to be a vegetarian, but I’d say that I’m easing my way into it. I also acknowledge that at some point I might go back and eat meat—maybe not, you never know. If I got pregnant and felt that I wanted to eat fish, I think I probably would and I would be OK with that. We’re all just doing the best we can.”
Fearn is conscious of supplementing her diet with beans, lentils and leafy green vegetables. “I try not to eat too much soy, as it can be really processed, but occasionally if I’m making something with my husband, he’ll take half the recipe and add meat and I’ll take half the recipe and put tempeh into it.”
“Our forks are powerful change agents”—Julia Butterfly Hill For Fearn, part of the challenge in transitioning to a vegetarian diet has been in her social life. When she goes to someone’s house for dinner, she’s sure to give the host plenty of notice or brings something of her own to eat. “I don’t want to make a big fuss about it. I don’t want to make people go out of their way for me,” she explains.
Another social obstacle is the personal nature of the decision. “Sometimes people think that you’re judging them when you tell them that you’ve stopped eating meat,” says Fearn. Indeed, she is careful not to preach about her vegetarian beliefs. She endorses the sentiments of American activist Julia Butterfly Hill, who describes herself as a “joyful vegan”, claiming “our forks are powerful change agents”. Hill celebrates how being vegan is good for the body, the world and animals.
“You don’t want to drag other people into your decision to become vegetarian or convince other people,” concludes Fearn. “To me, the most important thing is to be joyful about it, to be happy with yourself and know that what you’re doing is a good thing.”
✤ Get your reasons for going vegetarian straight. The first question people will ask is “Why?”, so you need to have a one-liner ready to go: “I’m just doing my bit for the environment” or “I want to reduce the suffering of factory-farmed animals”. It’s entirely up to you. Remembering your reasons for going vegetarian will also help when you’re having temptations to go back.
✤ Look for foods that contain protein, iron, B12, folate, calcium and vitamin D (see Get your nutrients, below).
✤ Consider what life stage you’re at and subsequently what nutrients your body requires. Pregnant women or teenagers will have different needs to grown men, for example. Consult a naturopath or dietitian if you’re not sure.
✤ Women generally need more iron than men. Perhaps it’s worth getting the occasional blood test to check your iron levels are up to scratch.
✤ Take it one meal at a time—there will be less chance of failure.
✤ Try meat substitutes such as vegie sausages or burgers.
✤ Don’t preach or be judgemental of non-vegetarians. Take a leaf out of activist Julia Butterfly Hill’s book and be a “joyful vegetarian”, celebrating how good vegetarianism is for you, for animals and the environment.
✤ Don’t be too hard on yourself. Be patient!
Get your Nutrients
If you’re giving up meat, key nutrients to look out for are protein, iron, B12, folate, vitamin D and calcium (if you’re also giving up dairy). They can be found in:
✤ Eggs (if you’re not vegan)
✤ Legumes (such as lentils and chickpeas)
✤ Beans (such as borlotti and cannellini)
✤ Leafy green vegetables (such as spinach, broccoli and cavalo nero/kale)
✤ Seeds (such as sesame and pumpkin seeds)
✤ Nuts (especially almonds, including almond meal, almond milk and almond butter)
✤ If you’re eating fish, consider a mix of oily fish, sardines, salmon, tuna and white fish. Always eat from Australian shores, so you know where it comes from.
Variations on the Theme
Vegan: no meat, eggs, dairy or processed foods containing animal products
Pescetarian: no meat, but you do eat fish
Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian: no meat, no fish, but you do eat dairy and eggs
Flexitarian/Transitioning Vegetarian: mostly a vegetarian diet but you occasionally eat meat
Katie Sutherland is a Sydney-based freelance writer and yoga practitioner. Currently, she calls herself a flexitarian.