7 common mistakes to avoid when becoming vegetarian

Considering going vego? Here is what you need to know.
Published 14 June 2021 | Updated 1 July 2024

Thinking about going meat free? It isn’t such a bad idea. Vegetarian and vegan diets are tied to a lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. And research suggests that they may lead to having a lower BMI—as long as you make healthful choices. Even when you remove meat from your diet, some vegetarian foods can still be quite energy-dense, so it’s important to take this into consideration.

Here’s a look at seven watch outs that commonly impact new vegetarians and vegans. Plus, how you can help keep your plant-based eating plan on track.

Types of vegetarian diets

Being a vegetarian doesn’t necessarily mean that you cut-out all animal products; there are several types of vegetarian diets. Here’s a list to consider if going completely meat-free isn’t for you.

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian diet excludes meat, poultry and fish but includes eggs and dairy.
  • Lacto-vegetarian diet leaves out eggs.
  • Ovo-vegetarian diet eliminates dairy but includes eggs.
  • Vegan diet excludes all animal-based products, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, and honey.

1. Not planning ahead

After adopting a plant-based diet, many of the old staples you used to turn to for quick, easy meals may no longer be options. “To make the change to becoming vegetarian easier, you will need to have new foods on hand.t,” says plant-based dietitian Sharon Palmer.

Before going vego, do a kitchen restock. Arm yourself with pantry basics like canned legumes, wholegrains, nuts, and plant milks, Palmer suggests, as well as plenty of fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables. Having them around will make it easy to throw together satisfying meals and snacks—from grain bowls, to hummus and veggie sandwiches.

2. Obsessing about protein

Getting enough protein isn’t nearly as hard as you might think. According to a study using an online food frequency questionnaire involving people living in Belgium, an average vegetarian gets over 93g protein daily, while the average vegan gets 82g. The amount of protein you need in your diet depends on your weight. As a rough guide, the recommended dietary intake for protein is 0.75g/kg for adult women and 0.84g/kg for adult men.

You also don’t need to worry about combining foods (like brown rice and beans) to make a complete protein at every meal. “That theory came out in the 1970’s, and by the 1980’s it was reversed,” says Vesanto Melina, dietitian and author of The New Becoming Vegetarian. “If you eat a mix of foods throughout the day, you’ll easily end up getting enough protein.”

3. Being too gung-ho for healthy foods

When it comes to things like almond butter or avocado, it can be easy to have too much of a good thing. Nuts, seeds, and other healthy fats are loaded with nutrition, but they’re also energy-dense, Palmer explains. And overeating them can still lead to weight gain. “Try measuring foods out to keep portions in check, and don’t eat straight from the bag or container.”

4. Loading up on refined carbs or cheese

When meat and fish are no longer on your menu, it’s easy to fall back on things like pasta, bread, or pizza—which could be high in energy and Points and low in nutrition. However, if you choose more healthy versions—wholegrain pasta with veggies; a small wholegrain bread roll with a small amount of nut butter or avocado or bean spread; a thin crust pizza with lots of veggies—they can all fit into a healthy plant-based eating pattern.

As a rule of thumb, try not to make refined carbohydrates or high-fat dairy products the star of any meals. Instead aim to make your plate ½ fruits and vegetables, ¼ lean protein (like beans, tempeh, or non-fat plain yoghurt), and ¼ wholegrains, Smith recommends. When you’re dining out, check the menu ahead of time to see what your options are and how they are prepared. If healthy, plant-based pickings are limited, consider calling ahead to see if the restaurant can accommodate you.

5. Forgetting key nutrients

Experts agree that well-planned vegetarian or vegan diets can cover all of your nutritional bases. But there are a few nutrients that can be easy for plant-based eaters to fall short on.

  • Vitamin B12. This is the most important one to consider, Caspero says, since it’s only found in animal foods or fortified foods. “For this reason, I usually recommend a supplement, since the amount in fortified foods can vary so much,” she says. Aim for a supplement that has 2 mg daily—for some brands this may mean taking two tablets per day.
  • Calcium. Getting the recommended 1,000 mg daily could be a concern if you don’t do dairy, research shows. If you’re not regularly consuming dairy like low-fat milk, yoghurt, or cottage cheese, make it a point to incorporate calcium-rich alternatives like tofu and kale.
  • Iron. Studies show that vegetarians get about as much iron as meat eaters. But because the body has a harder time absorbing iron from plant foods compared to iron from meat, take steps to enhance absorption as much as possible. You can do that by pairing iron-rich foods with ones high in vitamin C, Caspero says. Think black beans with capsicums, or enjoying an orange with your meal at lunch.

6. Relying too much on mock meat

Mock meat can help ease the transition to a plant-based diet, especially if you miss the taste and texture of your old favourites. However, meat substitutes tend to be highly processed, and they’re lower in nutrients and higher in sodium than whole sources of protein, Palmer says. So, it’s better to enjoy them once in a while instead of every day.

“I’ll keep a few of my favourite products in the freezer for busy days, like veggie burgers,” she adds. “But I recommend that people get most of their protein from whole, minimally processed plants like legumes, tofu, tempeh, and nuts.”

7. Thinking that vegetarian always = healthy

It’s an easy trap to fall into, given that health halos sit on top of so many plant-based options. But just because a food is meat-free doesn’t automatically make it good for you. After all, “soft drink, chips, and even some chocolate bars are vegan,” Melina points out.

To ensure your diet is mostly balanced, make it a habit to pick foods that are close to their natural state—like fruits and veggies, grains, legumes, and nuts. “The more of these you eat, the healthier your diet will be,” Caspero says. “This is true for vegans, vegetarians and omnivores.”