The Beginner's Guide to Adopting a Vegetarian Diet

Before you dive in headfirst, study this vegetarian diet plan so you can say goodbye to meat without a single hitch. 

Over the last few years, plant-based eating has achieved such a high level of popularity that everyone from Lizzo and Beyoncé to your next-door neighbor has tried out some version of the diet. In fact, a 2021 Nielsen survey found that 52 percent of Americans are trying to eat more plant-based. And for good reason: A vegetarian diet — rooted in plant foods — offers plenty of health benefits, from reducing the risk of chronic disease to promoting a balanced gut.

If those perks — combined with the growing popularity of faux meat products and the countless Instagram accounts dedicated to drool-worthy plant-based recipes — have convinced you to jump on the bandwagon, follow this vegetarian diet plan to start your plant-based transition. Promise, it will make ditching meat completely stress-free.

overhead shot of a plate of quinoa chickpea salad with tomato, cucumber, pomegranate, and avocado

Your Vegetarian Diet Plan

Before you learn how to become a vegetarian eater, you should probably get a quick recap on what, exactly, a vegetarian diet entails. In general, someone who follows a vegetarian diet will mainly eat plant foods and avoid animal proteins including meat and seafood, but they will eat eggs and dairy, says Alex Caspero, M.A., R.D., a registered dietitian and plant-based chef. This is sometimes called a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet.

There are other slight variations on the diet, including lacto-vegetarian (a person who eats plant foods and dairy products, but not eggs) and an ovo-vegetarian (someone who eats plant foods and eggs, but not dairy). This is not to be confused with a vegan diet, which generally eliminates all animal-based products — including meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, and sometimes other animal-derived products such as honey.

Ready to try one of these meat-free eating styles? Take note of these tips to make sure the switch is seamless.

Start slow and steady.

Once you decide which animal products you'd like to keep in or nix from your meals, it's time to get started on your vegetarian diet plan. While cutting meat cold turkey works for some, most people should probably make a gradual transition into being a full-fledged vegetarian, which can help make the diet more sustainable, recommends Caspero. The first step: Take a good, hard look at the foods on your plate. If you usually eat three vegetables a week, amp that intake up to five or six for the next two weeks. From there, continue to slowly eat more plant foods (think: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts, and seeds) until your entire diet is plant-based, she suggests.

While that strategy should make your transition easier, it can still feel overwhelming to take on a plant-based eating style completely on your own. For that reason, it might be a good idea to chat about your vegetarian diet plan with a registered dietitian or your healthcare provider, recommends Maya Feller, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist. "I think it's helpful to be as liberal as possible and to ensure you don't go into it from a fear perspective, thinking that certain foods are 'good' and others are 'bad,'" she explains.

Swap your meats for beans.

When you're just starting out, it's helpful to think about the plant foods you can use in place of meat, rather than trying to find meat-free recipes. "If you love chicken noodle soup, make a chickpea noodle soup, and if you eat ground beef tacos, make those lentil tacos," suggests Caspero. In general, black beans and lentils are good subs for ground beef, chickpeas work as chicken, and tofu — made from soy beans — can replace meat in sandwiches, stir-fries, and buddha bowls, she adds.

And all these beans come with plenty of perks. For starters, they're packed with plant-based protein and fiber, key nutrients that help you feel full, notes Caspero. Plus, "the more beans you eat, the more soluble and insoluble fiber you're going to get, and the more natural antioxidants you'll consume — all of which will not only naturally boost your health, but also help to decrease chronic disease risk," she adds. The key here is the fiber, a type of non-digestible carb that makes you feel satisfied after a meal, helps prevent constipation, and also plays a role in the prevention of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Focus on whole, unrefined grains.

With hunks of meat no longer taking up half the plate, new vegetarians might start loading that empty space with good old carbs. While there's nothing wrong with eating a slice of sourdough or bowl of pasta made from white flour now and then, it's beneficial to zero in on whole, unrefined grains such as farro, buckwheat, and oats — which boast more fiber, protein, and vitamins than their refined counterparts, recommends Caspero.

"Instead of a bowl of cereal in the morning — which, yes, is vegetarian — maybe you now have a bowl of oats," says Caspero. "And on top of that, maybe you add toasted buckwheat groats, which are so delicious (and) crunchy, plus hemp seeds, chia seeds, and some berries," she adds. Even though that brekkie is carb-heavy, the oats themselves will provide you with 4 grams of fiber (or 14 percent of your recommended daily allowance) per serving, and the fruits and seeds will add even more. (And FYI, carbs are not the enemy, but more on that in a moment.)

Don’t be afraid of carbs.

Reminder: Veggies and beans do boast quite a few carbohydrates. One medium sweet potato, for example, has 25 grams of carbohydrates, while a half-cup of black beans contains 20 grams. But even if the carb tally in a buddha bowl or grain bowl ends up matching that of a serving of pasta, it's important for those following a vegetarian diet plan to re-shift their focus to the types of foods they're eating, not the macronutrient profile, encourages Caspero. After all, these whole plant foods also contain roughly 4 and 7 grams of fiber, respectively.

Be mindful of faux meat products.

Thanks to their widespread availability, faux meat products have made it easier for vegetarian newbies to give up the real deal. But not all products are created equal, and you should look for ones that use high-quality ingredients, are minimally processed, and have limited added salt, warns Feller. "When you do have them, make it intentional," she adds. Meaning, don't eat the same way you did when you were eating meat, just swapping in faux meat products. "You want to make sure your plate is centered around whole and minimally processed plants," recommends Feller.

Don’t stress about protein.

There's long been a misconception that vegetarians and plant-based eaters can't possibly eat enough protein, a fallacy that couldn't be farther from the truth, says Caspero. "Plants have protein, and it's better than animal protein because it also contains fiber," she explains. That half-cup serving of fiber-rich black beans packs 7.6 grams of protein, while a single chicken wing contains roughly the same amount of protein but no fiber. A study on more than 6,600 vegetarians found that, on average, participants scored 70 grams of the macronutrient daily (which is plenty unless you're trying to bulk up). Translation: Don't sweat about getting enough protein.

Plus, you're still able to get all of the nine essential amino acids — the building blocks of protein that your body needs and you can only get by consuming food — through plant foods, says Caspero. In fact, a study published in the journal Nutrients stated that all plant foods contain all 20 amino acids (essential and non-essential), despite the common claim that certain plant foods are "missing" specific amino acids. While some amino acids are found in lower amounts in particular foods, eating a wide variety of plant foods ensures anyone following a vegetarian diet plan will get enough of them, she says. "Even things like soy foods are going to contain all of the amino acids in enough of the quantities where it's not going to be much of a concern," she adds.

Be aware of some potential nutrient deficiencies.

Even though you're destined to meet your fiber quota on a vegetarian diet plan, you might lack other essential nutrients. For example, vitamin B12, a nutrient that helps keep the body's nerve and blood cells healthy, is found primarily in animal foods and in some fortified foods such as cereals, making it tough to get your fill on plant foods alone. That's why those following a vegetarian diet should consider taking a B12 supplement to reach their daily recommended dietary allowance of 2.4 micrograms, recommends Caspero.

By the same token, vegetarians may also struggle to get enough iron, a mineral that's used to make proteins in red blood cells that carry oxygen from the lungs throughout the body and to muscles. While there is iron in plants, the exact type isn't absorbed as well as the type of iron found in meat, says Feller. That means that vegetarians need to consume nearly twice as much plant-based iron to get their fill, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "In general, what we tell people is to have vitamin C with it [so the body absorbs it better] and to be intentional," explains Feller. "You may want to think about having some fortified grain products or taking a supplement if you're seeing clinical manifestations of iron deficiency," she adds. If you're low on the nutrient, you might experience weakness and fatigue, difficulty concentrating, or gastrointestinal upset, according to the NIH.

To get your fill, try noshing on iron-rich plant foods such as tofu, chickpeas, and edamame paired with vitamin C–packed red and green peppers, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts — or talk to your doc or nutritionist about iron supplements if you think you're having trouble getting enough.

Be willing to compromise with your family.

Adopting a vegetarian diet after decades of eating meat lover's pizza isn't tough only for you, but it can also put a strain on your relationships. "If you grew up in a place that is still really heavily meat-based or your family or partner still wants to eat an omnivore diet, there can be some friction when it comes to reducing or removing those foods completely," says Caspero.

To ensure no one feels like they're giving up their favorite foods, try focusing on the meals the entire household enjoys that just happen to be vegetarian — whether it be falafel, curry, or classic veggie burgers, recommends Caspero. And remember, don't try to shame your family or partner into eating exactly how you do. "Telling them they have to eat this way or else they're going to get heart disease probably isn't the best way to approach it," points out Caspero. "Instead, center it around yourself and say, 'I've been eating this way and I feel better. I'd like to encourage both of us to do this. What are your thoughts?' Bringing your partner into the decision-making is always a good idea," she explains.

Vegetarian Diet Plan Meal Ideas

Despite the pervasive myth that vegetarian eating is as tasty as a brick, plant-based cooking can be incredibly delicious — if you do it right, stress both Caspero and Feller. "We are so accustomed to seasoning our animal proteins and we don't season our vegetables, and then we expect a steamed veggie on our plate to be just as delicious," notes Feller. "If it's the center of your plate, it needs just as much love as you'd give to a filet mignon," she adds.

Sprinkle paprika, cumin, and chili powder over cauliflower florets before roasting them; coat tofu in cornstarch and sesame seeds before panfrying it; or let your tofu marinate in a blend of cumin, turmeric, black pepper, onion, and garlic, suggests Feller. To create a homemade, protein-packed patty, combine grains and beans, such as barley and lentils, with spices and form into "meat" balls for your whole-wheat pasta. And for a veggie medley that never gets dull, combine produce such as kale and collards or Brussels sprouts and asparagus, which have different flavors and mouthfeels but work seamlessly together, she says.

And if you're still struggling to devise creative — and more importantly, delicious — vegetarian meals after all that trial and error, turn to these plant-based recipes. Thanks to their powerful flavors, fiber-filled ingredients, and simplicity, you won't miss chicken one bit.

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