Well, which kind of vegetarian do you want to be? Most choose a lacto-ovo approach, turning their backs on meat, fish and poultry, but still eating dairy products and eggs. (Lacto-vegetarians, meanwhile, also nix eggs, whereas ovo-vegetarians also nix dairy; vegans exclude all animal products.)
For the lacto-ovo camp, the government's 2015 Dietary Guidelines can help you develop a healthy plan. You can figure out how many meatless calories you should eat (Appendix 2, page 77) and where they ought to come from (Appendix 5, page 86) to get all the nutrients you need.
A daily 2,000-calorie diet, for example, should include 2 cups of fruit, 2 1/2 cups of vegetables, 3 cups of dairy, 6 "ounce-equivalents" of grains and 5 1/2 ounce-equivalents of protein. The fine print will tell you how much actual food is in an ounce-equivalent. For grains, one ounce-equivalent is a slice of bread or a 6-inch tortilla; for protein, it's an egg or quarter-cup of cooked beans. As with any diet, boredom is avoided through variation – like incorporating different-colored veggies and sources of protein to get the nutrients you need.
If that sounds tedious, countless books offer structure with vegetarian meal plans and recipes. The internet is also full of good information. On its website, Oldways, a nonprofit food think tank, simplifies with its vegetarian food pyramid, which it co-developed with the Harvard School of Public Health. The Mayo Clinic also offers tips to get started.
You don't have to go cold turkey. You could start by preparing a couple meat-free dishes each week, and gradually make more substitutions – tofu in stir fry instead of chicken, say, or grilled veggie burgers instead of beef. If your aim is also weight loss, amp up your exercise routine and eat fewer calories than your daily recommended max.
How much does Vegetarian Diet cost?
It's moderately pricey. Stocking up on produce and whole grains can get expensive, but bypassing the butcher will help keep the tab reasonable. Plus, lacto-ovo vegetarian staples like eggs and beans are some of the most affordable choices at the supermarket.
Will Vegetarian Diet help you lose weight?
Likely. Research shows vegetarians tend to eat fewer calories, weigh less and have a lower body mass index (a measure of body fat) than their meat-eating counterparts. If you're doing it right – eating lots of fruits, veggies and whole grains – you'll likely feel full on fewer calories than you're allowed each day. With that calorie deficit and a little physical activity, you're bound to shed pounds. How quickly and whether you keep them off is up to you.
How easy is Vegetarian Diet to follow?
How much do you like meat? If the thought of a turkey-free Thanksgiving isn't a turnoff, making the switch probably won't be too hard. Plus you're free to decide what you can't live without (omelets? ice cream?) and whether you'll cheat on occasion. Be mindful that healthy vegetarianism requires planning, especially if you're a first-time convert.
Convenience: When you want to cook, there's a recipe somewhere that'll suit your taste buds. When you don't, virtually every restaurant serves up vegetarian fare. And while alcohol is technically permitted, that's not license to binge drink.
Recipes: Limitless. Magazines, books and websites like this one abound, offering suggestions for every meal and cuisine.
Eating out: Easy. Restaurants typically have lots of vegetarian-friendly entrees. Careful, though: Vegetarian doesn't always mean healthy and restaurants are known for their gargantuan portions.
Alcohol: Vegetarian-friendly, but too much can thwart weight loss and damage the liver, brain and heart. Moderation is your best bet – that's one drink a day for women, two a day for men. (A drink is considered 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1 1/2 ounces of liquor.)
Timesavers: None, unless you hire somebody to plan your meals, shop for them and prepare them.
Fullness: Nutrition experts emphasize the importance of satiety, the satisfied feeling that you've had enough. If you've built a healthful vegetarian diet around fiber-packed veggies, fruits and whole grains, you shouldn't feel hungry between meals.
Taste: You're making everything, so if something doesn't taste good, you know who to blame.
Health & Nutrition
A vegetarian menu isn't automatically healthy or safe. But when the U.S. News experts analyzed a vegetarian menu adapted from U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, with meals like buckwheat pancakes, vegetable soup and tofu stir-fry, they found the approach nutritious and gave it ratings of "very" and "extremely" safe.