Becoming a vegetarian can make you healthier and leaner, but for most people the term brings to mind anemic zealots, astronomical Whole Foods bills, and a weepy goodbye to bacon. Here’s how to get the benefits of plant-based eating without all the crazy (and, yes, without giving up meat).
The term “vegetarian” makes most people think of things they don’t want to give up: Bacon! Burgers! Thanksgiving! Leather shoes!
Also, things they don’t want to do: Being “that person” at restaurants. Eating weird soy foods. Feeling hungry. Sprouting, fermenting, dehydrating. Sadly pretending a black bean buckwheat patty is the same as a cheeseburger.
I’m a vegetarian. I’ve spent over a decade researching and educating on vegetarian eating (and serving as PN’s go-to expert on the topic).
And I’ll agree: Most of this sounds like a total buzzkill.
Our culture can take a simple dietary philosophy and turn it into a lifestyle — complete with a lifelong pledge, prominently displayed badge, and cocktail party sermon.
But let’s not toss out a good idea just because some people get a little overzealous with Instagram or t-shirt slogans.
Because plants are good. It’s pretty clear that eating more plants:
- makes you healthier;
- helps you balance your appetite;
- gives you lots of good stuff like nutrients and fiber;
- can be more environmentally sustainable and improve animal welfare.
Most people get that. But they don’t make the change.
The typical adult in North America gets 27 percent of their energy — about 900 calories a day — from animal products. Only 9 percent comes from vegetables, fruits, and beans… combined.
I wonder: Have vegetarianism’s myths — its baggage — become the exact thing preventing more people from embracing a more plant-based diet?
Let’s bust the myths once and for all — and explore ways to make plant-based eating — or even becoming a vegetarian — work for your priorities and values.
“Plant-based eating means no animal products, EVER!”
OK, fine: The strictest vegan eats no animal products ever.
But plant-based eating doesn’t have to be so all-or-nothing. It can’t be.
When we make food decisions, we’re affected by things like:
- what’s around us, right now;
- what’s available to us, right now;
- what we can afford;
- what we want to do and feel with our bodies;
- our food and other traditions, culture, religion, and values;
- our taste and food preferences;
- our relationships and social expectations;
- our health concerns;
- our everyday routines — and life’s inevitable disruptions of them.
Looking for a single “best diet” — or being too rigid about how we eat — sets us up for failure.
Once we create “food rules” we inevitably break them.
“Today’s meal was organic, but not local.” FAIL!
“This organic, local, raw vegan food is so healthy… too bad I’ll be too broke to put my kids through college.” FAIL!
“I ate meat two days in a row…guess I can’t call myself a ‘flexitarian’ anymore.”FAIL!
Once, when I was in Uganda, I visited a woman’s house, where she offered me a hard-boiled egg as a gesture of hospitality. In her village, offering up something as precious as an egg was a big deal.
I don’t normally eat eggs. But in this situation, I was a foreigner trying to build a social connection with this woman. I was conflicted. Ultimately, I turned down the egg.
I learned my lesson. People shouldn’t expect eating to be so “either/or.” And that includes plant-based eating.
Want to eat mostly plants? You don’t have to swear off meat forever. You don’t have to get a whole new set of friends. You don’t have to tell Grandma you’re not coming to Christmas dinner.
You just eat mostly plants, when you can, as best you can. With the emphasis on “mostly”.
Relax and keep it real.
“Vegetarian eating is complicated and expensive”
There are some people into really exotic vegetarian meals.
Some of them write popular blogs, develop recipes that go around on Facebook, and fill your social media feed with beautiful, colorful pictures of the food they make.
“Ooh, nice,” You think. “Maybe I’ll give this vegetarian thing a shot.”
Then you look at the ingredients list. What the heck is nutritional yeast? And what on earth is seaweed doing in a pizza crust?
Here’s the thing:
You can make any style of eating as complicated as you like. (See: Molecular gastronomy.)
But you never have to do that. Food and eating can (and arguably, for most people, should) always be simple.
Sure, it might take some time, effort, and experimentation to transition to a plant-based diet. Learning new things often does. But it doesn’t require training as a chef.
As for expensive, this depends on various factors.
- If you buy everything organic, you’ll spend more money.
- If you prioritize certified Fair Trade, you’ll spend more money.
- If you fill your kitchen with nutrition bars, hummus, salads, coconut ice cream, and other pre-made foods, you’ll spend more money.
I love organic, Fair Trade chocolate and almond butter. But if I ate a lot of that stuff all the time, I’d run out of money and have to move back in with my parents. (Plus I’d probably have to borrow cash from them to buy bigger pants after all the chocolate-almond butter smoothies.)
So I make a compromise.
- I spend more on — and eat less of — the special stuff.
- I spend less on — and eat more of — the basics.
Last week I hit my grocery store. A 3 lb bag of apples was $5, a can of lentils was $1.50, a 2-lb bag of oats was $3.50 and a big bunch of spinach was $2. True, one of these things requires a can opener, but I think most people can manage that.
Can you set the cardamom-sesame energy balls and chickpea flour vegan “omelets” aside for a second? Take a break from Pinterest?
Anchor your plant-based diet with basic, minimally processed vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, and it all starts to make sense.
“Plant-based eating means eating lots of weird soy foods from the frozen aisle.”
In the last several decades in North America, vegetarianism has gone from a fringe hippie activity to big mainstream business. This means the market for processed, prepackaged vegetarian foods has exploded.
But vegetarian eating doesn’t have to mean a high carb processed diet any more than eating meat means you live on corn dogs and Sloppy Joes.
Of course, it’s perfectly fine to enjoy a few processed foods you like, such as almond milk in your smoothie or bean pasta.
Just remember that a quality plant-based diet should be full of fresh, minimally processed, nutrient-rich, value-adding foods — fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes. You know, actual plants.
Foods that you feel good about eating… and foods that do good things for you.
“Vegetarian eating means I’ll be protein-deficient…or hungry all the time”
Where’s the protein? This is usually what people fear most often about plant-based eating.
It makes sense. In North America, when we think “protein”, we tend to think of meat, poultry, fish, or eggs.
That’s not a bad thing. Remember, plant-based eating is a continuum. You don’t have to eliminate animal foods entirely. You can just move a little bit along the continuum towards “more plants”.
This means that even if you’re eating, say, 90% of your diet as plants, but still regularly eating some eggs, dairy, fish, meat, or protein powder, you should be just fine unless you have some special need for extra protein.
But what about folks who want to avoid these foods most or all of the time? Is it actually possible to eat a 100 percent plant-based diet and avoid protein deficiency?
The answer is “yes, but…”
As in: Yes, you can do that, but you’ll have to work harder. When you take any large food group out of your diet, you usually have to put in a little extra effort to make up the nutritional difference.
To get enough protein:
- You must eat enough calories to sustain a healthy body size. When we meet our energy needs, protein can do what it needs to do, like sustain muscle mass and other bodily structures. If you don’t eat enough food, protein will get used up on energy production, and you may become deficient.
- You include at least 1 to 1.5 cups of beans each day. Beans are an important source of lysine for folks not eating animal products.
- You eat a wide variety of food. If you try to live on carrots or Cheerios, you’ll end up protein deficient… just like you’ll get scurvy if you live only on chicken.
So, you decide:
- What’s the biggest priority to you, right now? Time? Convenience? Simplicity? Etc.
- What are your most important nutritional needs? Top athletic performance? Injury recovery? Getting swole? Improving your relationship with food? Etc.
- What are you willing to do in order to make sure your nutritional requirements are met?
Over time, your answer to these questions may change. And that’s OK.
“Beans are bad for you”
Beans — a staple of many healthy diets around the world, including the Blue Zones — have become the subject of some major food phobias lately.
You can also find lots of articles warning about soybeans’ link to problems like infertility, cancer, and nutrient deficiency.
Here’s what you actually need to know about the health risks associated with beans: Don’t worry about ‘em.
Legumes and pulses have a ton of benefits:
- They’re cheap.
- They contain protein, minerals, and antioxidants.
- They may reduce our risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
- They’re delicious (if you prepare them properly).
I could drop the mic right here. But I’ll add one more: Beans are satisfying. (Seriously, if you eat them every day, your wicked burger craving might diminish substantially).
Back to the anti-nutrient thing: In isolation, yes, they may block the absorption of other nutrients in the diet. This can be a problem for people who eat large quantities of single foods like rice, corn, wheat, and beans, etc., such as people in poorer regions of the globe who often subsist on very limited diets.
But when part of a diverse diet, beans’ anti-nutrients (some of which actually also go by the name of phytonutrients, by the way) factor into what makes them so healthful.
How about soybeans?
Well, since North America is the master of immoderation, we’ve found plenty of ways to screw them up. We process the heck out of them and add them to everything imaginable. It’s way too easy to go overboard.
How much is too much soy?
If someone is consuming more than 6 ounces of tofu, 4 fl. oz. of soy milk, and ½ cup of edamame every day, or getting most of their calories from soy-based “healthy” processed foods, like soy burgers, then I would express concern about excessive soy intake. (Actually, I’d express this concern for any diet that revolved so much around a single food.)
Below this amount, soy is likely health promoting for men and women, and more people would be better off including small amounts of it on a regular basis.
Generally, I recommend no more than two “palms” (palm-sized servings) of soy per day.
“I’ll get fat from all the carbs”
Let’s do a little science.
Go out and find all of the people you know who have 50-inch waistlines from eating too much barley, lentils, blackberries, and beet greens.
To accompany the sound of crickets chirping and the sight of tumbleweeds blowing through the empty streets, let me explain:
All carbs are not created equal.
Whole-food plant-based carbs come with a payload of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. In addition, the types of carbohydrates that these foods contain are often digested slowly, or perhaps not even digested at all! (But our gut bacteria love to munch on them, which keeps the plumbing moving along.)
“Carbs” are a broad family of molecules ranging from the fructose that sweetens fruit, to the beta-glucan that makes cooked oatmeal glutinous, to the cellulose that makes your celery so crunchy (or the tree in your backyard stand up).
These different types of carbs don’t all work the same, and they don’t all have the same effect on your body.
North Americans are not overeating carbohydrates from minimally processed plant foods. It’s highly processed foods (cookies, chips, soda, candy, white bread, etc.) that account for our carb overload.
To be specific, over 60 percent of the food in American grocery carts is highly processed.
Seriously. Over 60 percent.
So while dietary camps argue over the carbs in fruit, anti-nutrients, and tofu, most Americans are eating food with very little nutritional value.
More plant-based carbs — some fruit, some beans, maybe some baked starchy tubers — would be a huge step up for the vast majority of the population.
Let me reassure you, as someone who’s helped literally thousands of people get lean and healthy: I don’t come across clients who gained fat from eating minimally processed whole foods.
(In fact, several experiments that have tried all-potato diets have found that subjects either lost weight or stayed the same weight. Many participants, in fact, found they couldn’t eat enough potatoes to meet their energy requirements because the potatoes were so satiating. We don’t recommend this, but it certainly pokes a hole in the idea that a high-carb plant-based diet will inevitably wreck your metabolism.)
What to do next
So, if you want to shift to plant-based eating in a way that’s healthy, sustainable, and appetizing — even without giving up meat — where do you start?
1. Make small adjustments to include more plants.
While we can’t say there is one single best diet, it’s pretty clear that a diet emphasizing minimally processed plant foods is a smart move.
Here are some ideas on how to make this happen:
- Instead of 1 pound of meat in a recipe, use 1/2 pound and add some chopped mushrooms. Check out this burger recipe.
- Instead of always topping your salad with chicken, add some chickpeas and sunflower seeds.
- Challenge yourself to make 75 percent of your meal using plant foods.
- Flip your proportions: Instead of 8 ounces of meat and 1 cup of veggies, try 4 ounces of meat and 1.5 cups of veggies, plus a handful of nuts.
- Try alternating one week of plant-based meals, and one week of meat meals.
- Order the vegetarian option at a restaurant — you might discover tastes you like (you might not identify as “vegetarian,” but that doesn’t mean the veggie option is off the table).
2. Embrace the bean
Before I started my plant-based diet, I ate beans about five times per year – four times at Taco Bell and once each summer when I had baked beans with my burger at the family reunion.
Each person in the U.S. will eat about 7 pounds of beans this year — that’s compared to 216 pounds of meat and fish.
To succeed at plant-based eating, eventually you’ll want to aim for 1-1.5 cups of beans most days. Work your way up to this over a couple of weeks so your GI tract can adjust (gradual introduction = less gas).
While dried beans are cheapest, canned beans are easiest if you’re just starting out.
Some tasty ways to eat beans:
3. Don’t try to eat “perfectly.” Just do your best.
Instead of diving into an all-or-nothing approach, take it bit by bit. Have some fun with it.
Try some new foods. See what you like.
And don’t worry about making each meal 100 percent plants. You might pick one or two “wild card” animal foods to keep in the mix. Maybe it’s eggs. Maybe it’s bacon. Maybe it’s a taquito from 7-Eleven. You make the rules.
Want some ideas?
Here are some of my favorite — and even better, easy — go-to breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and desserts to kickstart your imagination.
4. Eat for a reason.
If you’re like most people, you came to Precision Nutrition wanting to “get in shape” or “look and feel better”. That’s a great start.
But to keep going with healthy eating habits for life, eventually you’ll probably need a more meaningful goal.
Think about it: What is really important to you?
For example, do you want to set an example to your kids? Support local farmers? Improve animal welfare? Eat foods with a lower environmental impact? Worry less about your health?
Here’s an exercise to get you started. Fill in the blanks:
- “I’m the kind of person who ___________________.”
- “And it’s important to me that __________________.”
- “So I’d feel good about accomplishing ___________.”
5. Move away from all-or-nothing thinking.
I remember volunteering at a vegetarian outreach booth during a big community event.
A woman came up to the booth and said, “It’s great to see you guys at this event. I only eat meat once per month and get eggs from a local farmer!”
I started to smile and gave her a high-five.
Meanwhile, another volunteer started to criticize her for not doing enough.
Don’t listen to people like that.
Find what works for you, in your real and messy life, and give yourself credit for the good stuff you’re already doing.
Your priorities and values are up to you, and you get to choose which ones “win” today.
Be sane, be sensible, and enjoy making the best choices you can, under the circumstances. Life is bigger than the minutiae of food decisions.
Today, think about how you could bring a few plants into your life, no matter where you find yourself on the “plant-based continuum”.
Even if — like me — you begin with just a few beans on your Taco Bell burrito… well, you’ve gotta start somewhere!
Eat, move, and live… better.
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In it you’ll learn the best eating, exercise, and lifestyle strategies — unique and personal — for you.
I want to thank Nate Green, Camille DePutter, and Alex Picot-Annand for their wisdom and assistance with this article.