Mortality in vegetarians, according to a meta-study from 2012, was 9% lower than in nonvegetarians. And according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a vegetarian diet lowers risks of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
But simply being a vegetarian or vegan doesn’t guarantee these results, because it’s possible to abstain from meat or dairy and still live an unhealthy lifestyle. In fact, it can be quite common.
I was one of those unhealthy vegetarians who eliminated meat but replaced vegetables with all varieties of potatoes: French fries, chips, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, sweet potatoes. My fruits were “fruit snacks.” My meat became chemically processed veggie meat.
Within a year, I began to struggle with severe anemia, ADHD and fatigue. I would break my vegetarianism and eat a chicken breast, a burger or salmon to feel better. Meat would solve the problem, but it also made me bloated and constipated and gave me headaches.
My “aha” moment came when I was driving through Georgia one fall day and saw cows grazing in a field. I laughed because the animals I ate were all vegetarians. One of the reasons we are able to get quality nutrients from cows, chickens and turkeys is because their diet consists of grass, grains, corn and fruits. I realized what my diet was missing.
“Many vegetarians and vegans make the mistake of eliminating but not correctly replacing,” said Dr. Brandi Jouett-Patrickson, an internal medicine doctor with Piedmont Physicians Group.
Here are the most important ways to ensure that your vegetarian lifestyle doesn’t start as poorly as mine did.
Eat the rainbow
The US Department of Agriculture recommends filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal. This can be even more crucial for a vegetarian, given that meat often provides nutrients, particularly iron and vitamin B12.
“Each meal should have an array of fresh colors,” Jouett-Patrickson said.
Eating green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and kale can help head off iron deficiency. Vegetarians can avoid B12 deficiency by eating dairy, but Jouett-Patrickson suggests that vegans use a B12 vitamin or fortified foods such as plant milks, soy products and some breakfast cereals.
Beware of processed food
Beginner vegetarians often eat a lot of processed foods, such as veggie meat, French fries, frozen pizza, instant oatmeal, instant ramen noodles, pastries. A recent study in the British Medical Journey suggests a link between highly processed foods and cancer.
One way to get a sense of how processed a particular food is to read the ingredients. If you see numerous preservatives, colorants and unfamiliar words, be wary. The general rule should be the simpler, the better.
“The food you eat should be as local as possible,” CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta said. “That cuts down on the travel time and the number of points where food can be contaminated. It also means your food doesn’t need as many preservatives to increase shelf life.” Remember, fresh is always better.
Dehydration is a lesser-known side effect in an unhealthy vegetarian lifestyle. When you eat a lot of processed food, you’re reducing the hydration in your body.
“Hidden sources of salt lurk in most processed foods,” according to the National Academy of Sciences’ Food and Nutrition Board. When there’s too much sodium in your diet, you retain water, your kidneys cannot properly filter it from your body, and you become dehydrated.
Your body is roughly 60% water, which is vital to cells, organs and certain body functions. Make sure to drink plenty of water and other fluids.
This new lifestyle is not for the lazy; you must work hard to maintain the journey. Be intentional about your meal prep and choices. You may want to invest in cookbooks or even meal prep services to get off to the right start. Social media, particularly Instagram, can provide a wealth of tips and encouragement when transitioning.
Most of all, don’t give up. Remember, it’s a journey, and you’re learning how to make vegetarianism work best for you. Follow these guidelines to avoid the unhealthy vegetarianism path, but even if you stumble, dust off yourself — and your vegetables — and try again.