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How to Eat Vegetarian – The New York Times



Longtime vegetarians already know: To be a vegetarian is to eat really well. But if you’re looking to make the switch to vegetarianism or just a more plant-forward diet, you may have questions, even concerns.

What should I cook? How do I think about meals? How will I know if I’m getting enough protein? A vegetarian diet doesn’t have to be especially health-focused, though it can be, just as it can be comforting and flexible. It should never feel limiting or restrictive, but rather nourishing, even joyous.

Whether you’ve been slowly cutting meat from your diet or you’ve just started giving thought to vegetarianism, this guide — from Hetty Lui McKinnon, a cookbook author and vegetarian of 30 years, and Alice Callahan, a Times reporter who focuses on food and health and follows a plant-forward diet at home — is meant to aid in the transition.

Below, we’ll help you get started in the kitchen — and answer some of the most common health questions you may have, with nutrition experts as our guide.

Veg-ifying your favorite meals: We tend to cook and eat what we know, but giving up meat doesn’t mean leaving behind beloved flavors. If you love chicken Parm, opt for one made with mushroom or eggplant instead. If you enjoy the vibrant flavors of larb, make it with mushrooms or tofu, just as you can create an adobo with either eggplant or cauliflower, riff on Indian butter chicken by using chickpeas, and satisfy your schnitzel or breaded cutlet craving with halloumi or tofu. Change takes time, but it is much easier if you lean on familiar flavors and dishes.

Shopping smarter: You may not start eating lots of vegetables the day you decide to become a vegetarian — and that’s OK. However, learning to love vegetables, and a range of them, will make your meals more interesting. Make sure your weekly shopping list includes three or four hearty vegetables, like broccoli, green beans, peppers, summer squash or cauliflower, along with a bunch or two of herbs, and some leafy greens, like baby spinach or arugula. And don’t forget about frozen vegetables: Peas, corn and spinach are excellent in easy weeknight meals and can often be better and fresher from frozen. Then, add items that will lend heft — eggs, tofu, canned legumes, pasta, noodles and tortillas are just a few options.

Vegetables: Having many of the five basic tastes — sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami — vegetables can take on a number of characteristics depending on how they’re cooked.

Take broccoli. Eaten raw, it is mildly bitter with a grassy aftertaste. A quick blanch in salted water unveils its natural sweetness, and high-heat cooking in a pan, in the oven or on a grill results in crisp edges with an earthy smokiness. Treat vegetables well, and you’ll be rewarded in spades.

Complex carbohydrates: Complex carbohydrates like brown rice, quinoa, barley, spelt and oats take longer for your body to digest than simple carbohydrates — and make you feel satisfied for longer. Pasta and noodles are easy options for vegetarians; going heavy on the vegetables and lighter on the pasta can make for a nutrient-rich meal.

Lentils, chickpeas, cannellini beans, black beans and pinto beans — among others — can also anchor dishes and add protein. Crisp them in the oven for a mouthwatering snack or salad topper, combine them with vegetables to make burger patties, whip them into a dip or use them as the main attraction in soups, stews and curries.

Tofu: For vegetarians, tofu is not only an excellent source of protein, but it’s also highly versatile, absorbing flavors and taking on all kinds of textures. Don’t limit yourself to one type or one way to prepare it. Crisp extra-firm or firm tofu in a pan, in the oven or air fryer; braise firm or medium-firm in a simple savory sauce; crumble and scramble various kinds with spices; or blend silken to make a creamy sauce for noodles or pasta. Blocks of soft, jiggly silken tofu can also be topped with a spicy dressing for a quick no-cook dinner, broken into stews like mapo tofu or jjigaes, or blended into soups to add body and a creamy finish.

Umami: Umami, or savoriness, plays a pivotal role in vegetarian dishes, making every one richer and tastier. There are many vegetarian sources of it. Mushrooms are perhaps the most well known, offering a “meaty” texture to dishes as well. Others include nuts and nut butters; tomato; seaweed; alliums like onions, garlic, shallots, leeks and scallions; seasoned oils like chile oil, chile crisp and salsa macha; and fermented foods like kimchi, pickles, soy sauce, miso, gochujang, doubanjiang and more.

On those “I don’t know what to cook” days, stick to a simple formula. As a starting point, think of this as a “meat and three” for vegetarians. And remember: There is no one way to be vegetarian, so, for it to stick long-term, make sure it suits your lifestyle, pantry and the flavors that you crave.

Start with a vegetable or two, cooked to your preference: roasted, grilled, pan-fried, air-fried, steamed or raw.

Add a base starch or two: rice, quinoa, pasta, noodles, legumes.

Add an optional green: spinach, kale, salad leaves.

Add a sauce: tahini, pesto, seasoned oil, yogurt, vinaigrette.

Add some extras: Tofu, tempeh or eggs for heft, herbs for vibrant freshness, nuts and seeds for a textural crunch.

Federal guidelines recommend that most adults should consume at least 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight every day. For an average 185-pound adult, this translates to 67 grams of protein per day.

If you include at least one serving of a high-protein food with every meal, you’ll most likely hit that goal, said Reed Mangels, a retired nutrition professor and co-author of “The Dietitian’s Guide to Vegetarian Diets.”

Beans, lentils, nuts, nut butters, seeds, tofu, eggs and dairy products are all good sources. And remember: The grains and vegetables on your plate contribute small amounts of protein, too.

The biggest concern is vitamin B12, said Sudha Raj, a professor of nutrition at Syracuse University and a lifelong vegetarian. B12 deficiencies can lead to a host of blood and nerve cell issues, which could result in fatigue, anemia, nerve problems and mental issues like depression, memory loss and confusion. The vitamin is found only in animal-based foods and a few fortified foods, like nutritional yeast and many plant-based milks and breakfast cereals. If you’re following a vegetarian diet, it’s a good idea to take a B12 supplement, Dr. Raj said.

A handful of other nutrients can sometimes come up short when following a plant-based diet, including iron, calcium, vitamin D, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids.

Incorporating a variety of food groups into your meals will help you meet these needs, Dr. Raj said. Beans, lentils, soy products and whole grains are all high in iron; and eating them with vitamin C-rich foods, like tomatoes, citrus fruits, cabbage or potatoes, will enhance your absorption of iron.

If you’re not consuming dairy, vegetables like kale, bok choy and mustard greens can help you get enough calcium. Flax seeds, chia seeds and nuts can add zinc and omega-3 fatty acids — along with a satisfying crunch — to your meals.

Some helpful nutrients are included in fortified plant milks, too; just check their nutrition labels to be sure they’re good sources of calcium, vitamin D and B12. Ideally, choose an unsweetened version, or at least one with less than 10 grams of added sugars per serving, said Matthew Landry, a nutrition scientist at the University of California, Irvine.

You can also consider taking a multivitamin as a nutritional “insurance policy,” Dr. Mangels said, though it’s usually not necessary with a well-planned diet.

If you simply cut meat from your meals without adding hearty plant-based foods, you may end up hungry, Dr. Mangels said. Fill your plate with nourishing staples that provide fiber and protein, like beans, whole grains, tofu and vegetables, she suggested. And be sure to include good sources of fats like nuts, seeds, avocados, yogurt, cheese, eggs and cooking oils.

You may find that you need to increase your serving sizes or eat more frequently to feel satisfied, Dr. Mangels said — “there’s nothing wrong with snacking,” she added.

It’s likely. Studies suggest that adopting a balanced plant-based diet can improve your cholesterol levels and reduce your blood pressure, and it may help you lose a bit of weight, Dr. Landry said. Emerging evidence suggests that it may reduce inflammation in your body and support a healthy gut microbiome, he added.

But it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Any shift toward eating more plants and less meat — making a stir-fry with tofu instead of chicken, or replacing half of the beef in your chili with beans — will probably benefit your health, he said.

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Hetty Lui McKinnon has developed thousands of recipes, including a number for New York Times cooking, and written five vegetarian cookbooks. She has been a vegetarian for 30 years.

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