Thinking about going meatless? 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, foods like pizza and French fries are still considered vegetarian,” says Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Kristen Smith, MS, RDN.
In other words, plenty of diet derailers still abound—from getting stuck with a less healthful option because you forgot to plan ahead, to missing out on key nutrients, to forgetting that calories still count (yup, even if they come from quinoa). Here’s a look at seven pitfalls that commonly plague new vegetarians and vegans. Plus, how you can help keep your plant-based eating plan on track.
1. Not planning ahead.
After adopting a plant-based diet, many of the old staples you used to turn to for quick, easy meals are no longer options. “If you don’t have the new foods on hand that you need, eating healthy will be difficult,” says plant-based dietitian Sharon Palmer, RDN.
Before embarking on your new diet, do a kitchen restock. Arm yourself with pantry basics like canned beans, whole grains, nuts and nut butters, 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, to smoothies.
2. Obsessing about protein.
Getting enough isn’t nearly as hard as you might think. (That’s about the amount you’d get if you eat six ounces of Greek yogurt, 1/2 cup of cooked lentils,a cup of chopped broccoli, a cup of cooked spinach, a cup of green peas, ½ cup of cooked quinoa, and an ounce of almonds.) 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.
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, MS, RD, author of The New Becoming Vegetarian. “If you eat a mix of foods throughout the day, you’ll easily end up getting enough protein.”
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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 calorie-dense, Palmer explains. And overdoing it can still be a recipe for weight gain.
“Remember that calories still count on a plant-based diet,” she adds. “Try measuring foods out to keep portions in check, and don’t eat straight from the bag or container.”
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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, bagels, or pizza—which could be high in calories (and SmartPoints®) and low in nutrition. However, if you choose more healthful versions—whole grain pasta with veggies; a small or half a whole grain bagel with a small amount of nut butter or avocado or bean spread; a thin crust pizza with lots of veggies— they can all healthfully fit into a more 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 1/2 fruits and vegetables, 1/4 lean protein (like beans, tempeh, or non-fat plain yogurt), and 1/4 whole grains, 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 slim, 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. Namely:
- 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 2.4 mcg daily.
- 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 nonfat milk, yogurt, or cottage cheese, make it a point incorporate calcium-rich alternatives like tofu, fortified orange juice, 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 bell peppers, or adding orange segments to your spinach salad.
6. Relying too much on fake meat.
Tofu pups and chik’n strips can help ease the transition to a plant-based diet, especially if you miss the taste and texture of your old favorites. But meat analogs 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 favorite 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 beans, tofu, tempeh, and nuts.”
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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 meatless doesn’t automatically make it good for you. After all, “soda, chips, and even some candy 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, beans, and nuts. “The more of these you eat, the healthier your diet will be,” Caspero says. “This is true for vegans, vegetarians and omnivores.”
Types of Vegetarian Diets
Being a vegetarian doesn’t necessarily mean that you shun all animal products; there are several types of vegetarian diets. Here’s a list to consider if going complete meatless isn’t for you.
- A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet excludes meat, poultry and fish but includes eggs and dairy.
- A lacto-vegetarian diet leaves out eggs.
- An ovo-vegetarian diet eliminates dairy but includes eggs.
- A pescatarian diet includes fish and excludes meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy.
- A vegan diet, a highly restrictive form of vegetarianism, excludes all animal-based products, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, and honey.