Considering making the switch to a vegetarian diet? More and more people are recognizing the health and other benefits of switching to a plant-based diet, but there are some important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when becoming a vegetarian.

When becoming a vegetarian, don’t be a junk food vegetarian

As the number of vegetarians have increased, so have pre-packaged and fast food vegetarian options. It is possible to exist completely on carbohydrates and sugar without ever ingesting any extra fruits, vegetables, or proteins.

Do: Stick to healthy whole foods

Becoming a vegetarian is more than simply cutting out meat and fish. It is important to not substitute one set of unhealthy eating habits with another, so when switching to a vegetarian diet (or cutting out red meat or eating less meat), it is important to make sure you are eating a diet full of nutritious whole foods.

Meat is an easy source of protein, which is vital for developing muscle mass and supplying the body with energy. Vitamins such as B12 are also plentiful in meat. If you eat less animal protein, make sure to add in plenty of foods that will provide these two important parts of a healthy diet. Leafy greens and some legumes will supply the B12, but many eating a plant-based diet also supplement with vitamins. Protein in the form of nuts, legumes, and tofu is critical. If you aren’t sure how to incorporate more plant-based proteins, take a look on Pinterest for entrée ideas for easy vegetarian meals.

When becoming a vegetarian, don’t restrict yourself to one kind of cuisine

In the U.S. we tend to think of a typical meal as meat, starch, and maybe a vegetable, so making the switch to a vegetarian diet can seem like food options are limited. If you are used to having bacon and eggs for breakfast, a burger for lunch, and chicken for dinner, finding food to eat can be daunting.

Do: Try other cuisines that are vegetable-heavy, such as Indian and Asian cuisine

Explore the world of food when switching to a vegetarian diet. Many cuisines of the world are mainly vegetarian with meat only thrown in sparingly as a seasoning, not as the main dish. Indian cuisine has many delicious, protein-filled vegetarian dishes that rely on lentils, potatoes, carrots, and other root vegetables. Asian cuisine is only limited by the vegetables available at the market. Tofu is a primary protein in Asian cuisine and soaks up the flavors of whatever spices or sauces you are using. Don’t be intimidated by tofu. Start with some quick tips on how to prepare tofu in many different ways (with a waffle iron?), and then get cooking!

When becoming a vegetarian, don’t lecture everyone around you

If you have decided to try out a meatless diet to try to ease pain symptoms or for another health reasons, you might want to try to convert all of your friends and family to do the same. While you can certainly share your reasons for exploring a vegetarian diet, lecturing everyone or attempting to shame them in to joining you may end badly.

Do: Share recipes and bring delicious vegetarian food to gatherings

Take a “walk the talk” approach and bring delicious vegetarian dishes to gatherings. This makes an introduction to vegetarian eating much friendlier than telling people all the ways in which meat might be killing them. Focus on seasonal, fresh food, and stay away from anything too exotic until you have more experience cooking vegetarian meals. Start with familiar favorites, like vegetarian enchiladas, then progress to impressive and complicated individual mushroom tarts.

If your friends and family are the adventurous type of eaters, then definitely bring more varied cuisines and unfamiliar spices to the table!

When becoming a vegetarian, don’t change all at once

Especially if you have a family to consider, ease into your vegetarian diet. Throwing out all of the burgers, chicken nuggets, and bacon in the ‘fridge in one day may cause an uprising among the ranks. A healthy lifestyle change is a marathon, not a sprint, and you don’t want to run out of steam in the very first leg of the race.

Do: Ease your family into it

No one says that you have to erase every possible trace of meat protein in your diet overnight. A great way to start your journey to a vegetarian diet is Meatless Mondays. Take one day out of the week and cook a delicious, meat-free meal. Weeknight meals should be quick, so try one of these 30 meat-free recipes that can be made in 30 minutes for a quick, homemade family meal. The bonus is that many of these recipes have delicious leftovers for lunch, extending the Meatless Monday throughout the week.

When becoming a vegetarian, don’t treat it like an all-or-nothing proposition

Just as there are many shades of grey in the world, so, too, are there many different ways to decrease animal protein in your diet.

Do: Try what makes you feel best

Do you feel like you can give up red meat easily but couldn’t live without fish with its healthy omega-3s? Try a pescatarian diet. Not fond of fish or red meat but would cross any road for chicken? Keep that lean protein in your diet but make it free-range and organic. Want to see what happens when you eliminate all animal products from your diet? Go vegan. Barring significant health issues that makes food choices potentially deadly (e.g., allergies) you can change your mind any time you like.

When becoming a vegetarian, don’t ignore how making the vegetarian switch makes you feel

If you talk to your doctor and decide to decrease or eliminate animal protein in your diet, don’t make the switch and then ignore what happens in your body.

Do: Keep a journal to follow how dietary changes affect you

Eliminating animal protein and focusing on a plant-based, whole-foods diet can make you feel energized and refreshed…or not. Keep track of pain symptoms, energy levels, and general mood with a journal for the first several weeks, noting what you ate each day and commenting on your general health and pain levels. If you do this consistently for the first several weeks after becoming a vegetarian you may be able to pinpoint which foods and diets make you feel best and which affect you negatively. Taking a minute to jot down any observations at the end of the day (or after meals if you are using an app to track your food) can help you figure out which foods work best for you.

Have you recently made the switch to a vegetarian diet? What worked best for you?

Image by Andrew Allio via Flickr