The Smart Way to Go Vegetarian: 4 Pitfalls to Avoid

Research shows that plant-based eating plans are good for your blood sugar, your heart and more. Here's how to get the benefits and get around 4 common pitfalls.

Eat More Plants for Better Health A plant-based diet can improve your body's sensitivity to the hormone insulin by reducing the amount of excess fat in cells.

Experts have recommended high-fiber diets for diabetes for a long time. But the benefits of high-fiber, plant-based eating got a boost recently when a research review1 concluded that plant-based eating improved long-term glucose control significantly and also nudged levels of heart-threatening LDL cholesterol downward.

Study author Hana Kahleova2, MD, PhD, MBA, Director of Clinical Research for the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says the review’s results are groundbreaking and exciting. A plant-based diet can improve your body’s sensitivity to the hormone insulin by reducing the amount of excess fat in cells.

So what’s the best way to move toward meat-free, plant-powered eating? Here’s what the experts and recent research say about overcoming four pitfalls and making it work for you.

Pitfall #1: You’re Worried about Protein

Protein’s essential to good health. It’s a major building block of your skin, organs, muscles, bones and is even found in body fluid. And it’s vital for blood clotting, vision, healthy immunity, production of hormones and enzymes and more. While thirty percent of US shoppers say they’ve bought meat-free protein alternatives in the past year, up to half admitted in one recent survey that they weren’t sure they could fill their protein needs without meat.3

You can. You need roughly 0.4 grams of protein per day for every pound of your bodyweight4—60  grams a day if you weigh 150 pounds. (Get a personalized prescription for protein and other nutrients needs with the US Department of Agriculture’s Daily Reference Intake Calculator.) According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, vegetarians who don’t eat eggs or dairy products may be low on protein—but can get all they need by eating a varied diet.5

Meat, fish, and poultry pack a big protein punch. A quarter-pound hamburger patty’s got 28 grams of protein, a 3.5-ounce chicken breast has 30 grams and a six-ounce can of tuna has 40 grams. You can fill the protein gap in a meat-free diet with eggs (6 grams for one large egg), Greek yogurt (up to about 22 grams in eight ounces), cheese (6-10 grams per ounce).  Munching plant foods can also fill your needs. Great sources include lentils (18 grams per cup); red, black, pinto, lima or chickpea beans (15 grams per cup; tempeh (34 grams per cup); tofu (10-12 grams in four ounces).

You’ll get a protein boost by adding foods like soy milk (7 grams per cup); peanut butter (8 grams in two tablespoons), whole wheat bread (8 grams in two slices) almonds (8 grams in a quarter-cup) and quinoa (8 grams per cup, cooked). 

Pitfall #2: You Eat Less Meat But Replace it with Refined Carbs

Just going meatless doesn’t ensure you’ll reap health benefits, according to a 2017 study6 from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.  The study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in July 2017, looked at the diets and health of 210,000 women and men over 20 years.

The exciting result? Eating the most plant-based foods was associated with a 25% lower risk for heart disease compared to eating the least. But people only got this heart perk if they chose plenty of whole grains, fruit, and vegetables while consuming small amounts of meat, cheese, and other dairy products. In contrast, people who were careful about animal products but loaded up on refined grains (like white bread), potatoes, sweets, and sugary drinks had a 32% higher risk for heart disease than those who ate the smallest amounts of these foods.

The lesson: Whole grains and fresh produce provide health-promoting fiber, cell-protecting antioxidants and good fats that you need to help lower heart disease risk.

Pitfall No. 3: You Keep Chicken in Your Diet, but Cut Out Fish

Don’t want to go completely vegetarian? That’s fine, too. Plenty of people boost their plant-food intake by going meatless one or more times a week, or by having animal products only at lunch or at dinner. If that’s you, don’t give up on fish. It may have unique health benefits. 

In a 2015 study7 from California’s Loma Linda University study of 77,659 people, those who were “pescovegetarians” (vegetarians who also ate fish at least once a month) were 43% less likely to develop colorectal cancer8 than those who ate meat.  In contrast, semi-vegetarians who had meat 1-3 nights a week lowered their risk 8% and vegetarians who ate eggs and dairy products lowered their odds 18%. Vegans who avoided all animal products cut their risk 16%.  

Pitfall #4: You Go From 4 Legs to No Legs Overnight 

Take your time switching over to meatless eating, Kahleova suggests. “A great way to start moving toward a plant-based diet is testing out your options,” she told OnTrack Diabetes. “Before you even make any changes, think about breakfasts, lunches, and dinners that you might want to try. There are so many options, and there’s no need to commit to a lifetime change right away.”

Next step? Gather recipes, stock up on ingredients and research local restaurant options. “It also helps to remove temptations by clearing your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer of animal products and other unhealthy foods so you won’t be tempted to reach for them,” she says. “After that, I recommend that people jump in and try it for 21 days. After three weeks, you’ll likely start seeing such positive results that you may want to stick with it longer term!”

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How to Eat More Plants