Thursday, December 25, 2008

Go vegetarian in 3 easy steps

Here's a New Year's resolution idea: go veg.

You know you want to.

You're becoming increasingly concerned about your health, the environment and the welfare of farm animals. And let's face it, meat is tasting blander with each passing year. You've thought about all these things and it's leading you to an incontrovertible decision: it's time to go vegetarian.

But where to start?

Don't fret, it's easier than you might think -- even if you're a voracious carnivore like I used to be. And to help you get started I've broken the initial transition phase into three basic steps.

Step 1: Decide on the kind of vegetarian you want to be

Before you get started you're going to have to set-up some ground rules for yourself and decide what food stays and what goes. There are no hard-and-fast rules about this, but you'll need to tap into your motivations for becoming a vegetarian to help you make a decision.

If it's animal welfare that you're concerned about, then you'll want to eliminate as many animal products and bi-products as possible. You'll need to consider the harm being done to farm animals at each phase of the product cycle and assign moral consideration to different species (e.g. I place fish much lower on my scale than pigs). This can be a very subjective and personal thing, but it's something you're going to have to figure out.

Another option you have is eating more 'ethically.' For example, you can start to buy eggs laid from free-run chickens. Or, if environmentalism is your primary concern, you can start to buy from local food sources.

In terms of the kind of vegetarianism that's possible, here's a list of the most common types:
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarianism: No meat, but you can eat dairy and eggs
  • Lacto vegetarianism: No meat and no eggs, but you can eat dairy products
  • Ovo vegetarianism: No meat and no dairy, but you can eat eggs
  • Veganism: No meat or animal bi-products of any kind -- not even honey
You can also go semi-vegetarian. Options include:
  • Pescetarianism: You can eat fish, shellfish, and crustacea
  • Pollotarianism: You can eat poultry and fowl
  • Flexitarianism: A diet that is primarily vegetarian, but you can eat meat when the craving hits
Ultimately, you'll want to adopt a diet that works for you on all levels. But you'll need to be practical and choose a lifestyle that you can stick with. If you're a die-hard meat eater it's unlikely that you'll have luck transitioning directly to a vegan diet. In some cases it may make more sense for you to slowly transition yourself. You could start this process by eliminating red meat from your diet, then wean yourself from poultry, and so on.

Step 2: Do a trial run

Rather than declare that you're suddenly going to be a vegetarian for the rest of your life, I suggest that you break it down into a much smaller step and make it an experiment. By doing so you put less pressure on yourself to succeed and you can be much more relaxed about the whole thing. I became a vegetarian as a part of a 4-week trial run. Much to my surprise it turned out to be a breeze and I was very comfortable with the transition. It's been six years since my 'experiment' and I haven't looked back.

But you may have a different experience. You may go into serious meat withdrawal or find that your energy level is low. This is fine and normal. What's important is that you reflect on these points of friction and work to find solutions.

If your energy is low it may be an indicator that you're not eating the right foods (pick up some health and nutrition books to ensure that you're getting a balanced diet). It may also be a sign that you're body is adjusting to a meat-free diet; these feelings will pass (for those of you who have done a cleanse, you'll know what I'm talking about -- you'll have an abundance of energy in short order).

And if you're craving meat badly, then you might want to think about putting more meat-like foods on the menu (hey, it's a comfort thing -- there's no problem with that).

But what you need to realize is that most of your initial hurdles will stem from knowledge gaps or psychological issues. By preparing to address these problems you're setting yourself up for success. And once your trial run is over you'll be in a better position to decide if vegetarianism is right for you.

Step 3: Stock your kitchen with the right foods

There's more -- much more -- to being a vegetarian than having carrots and celery in the fridge. You'll have to learn how to shop and cook like a vegetarian, which means you're going to have to change the complexion of your kitchen.

I highly recommend that you get some vegetarian cook books. You'll find excellent advice in these books about meal ideas (everything from appetizers through to entrees and desserts) and the kinds of food you should have stocked in the house. One of my favorites is The Clueless Vegetarian by Evelyn Raab.

And if you're a die-hard meat eater, don't despair. There are a number of fantastic meat-substitutes on the market these days, including simulated burgers, ground meat and bacon. There are also some excellent recipe ideas for meals that are very 'hearty' in the meat-eating sense. Be sure to check out 8 Meatless Dishes for Meat-n-Taters Lovers.

A word of caution, though -- it's imperative that you avoid the traps of transitioning to a vegetarian diet by over-compensating with not-so-healthy substitutes. When I went veg my crutch was cheese. I've since scaled back and learned to substitute with much healthier and less fatty foods. I know of others who have gone overboard with chips and soda-pop. I assure you -- you will also have a crutch. Just make sure that you identify it and, if it's unhealthy, you immediately address it.

Okay you're all set to go veg. Three easy steps that will at the very least get you started in the right direction.

Give it a shot and find out if being a vegetarian is right for you.

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