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I want to be a vegetarian. Where do I start?

The question: I would like to make the transition to a plant-based diet. How can I gradually eat more vegetarian foods without giving up meat and dairy overnight?

The Answer: As a dietitian in private practice, I hear from many clients that they want to shift to a plant-based diet but don’t know where to begin. Often, people don’t want to give up animal products cold turkey, so to speak. They’d rather phase in a vegetarian diet gradually to give them time to get used to eating – and enjoying – meat-free meals. Moving toward a plant-based diet in stages also increases the likelihood your new diet will stick in the long-term.

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There’s no argument that a plant-based diet is a healthy one. Eating less meat is linked with protection from heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer. Vegetarian diets can also help lower elevated blood cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

The following strategies will help you transition – rather than jump in immediately – to a plant-based diet and perhaps, eventually, eat a meat-free diet.

Start with the familiar. Chances are you already eat 100 per cent plant-based meals, even if infrequently. Identify those you are already eating and rotate them into your menu more often. To start, introduce plant-based meals on a regular basis by instituting a “meatless Monday.” Increase your weekly target for plant-based days.

Familiar plant-based meals include pasta primavera, vegetable curry, tofu stir-fry, minestrone soup (made with vegetable broth), vegetarian chili and an entrée salad with chickpeas or lentils. A breakfast of fruit and whole grain toast spread with almond butter is also a plant-based meal.

Rethink your plate. If meat, poultry or fish make up the balance of your meal, downsize its importance. Three-quarters of your plate should be filled with plant foods like grains, legumes, vegetables and fruit.

Eliminate animal foods you seldom eat. The easiest animal food to completely drop from your diet is the one you eat infrequently since you’ll be less likely to miss it. For many people red meat is the first to go after realizing the health problems associated with high meat intakes. For others it may be eggs or cheese.

Give meals a makeover. Instead of serving turkey tacos, top soft whole-wheat tortillas with black beans or refried beans. Serve spaghetti with a marinara sauce packed with red peppers, onions, carrots and spinach instead of meat sauce. Replace ground beef in a chili recipe with extra beans.

If cheese and tomato sandwiches are regular fare, swap the cheese for extra vegetables like cucumber and sprouts and spread with hummus (chickpea spread).

Look beyond milk. Use a milk alternative made from soybeans, brown rice, almonds, oats or hemp any place you’d normally use dairy milk: over cereal, in smoothies and protein shakes, in muffin recipes, in cream-style soups and in coffee and tea.

Keep in mind, however, that only soy beverages are a good source of protein providing eight to nine grams per one-cup serving. Rice, almond, hemp and oat beverages contain much less protein, usually no more than two grams per cup.

Eat plant-based snacks. For a midday energy boost, reach for fruit and nuts, raw vegetables and hummus, whole grain crackers with almond butter, instant bean soup, a soy smoothie or a vegan energy bar such a Larabar, Kind Bar and Vega Vibrancy Bar.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel’s Direct ( www.lesliebeck.com ).

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