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You’ve decided: That succulent prime rib you ate last night will be your last. You’re going to become a vegetarian. There was a time when being a vegetarian was considered radical or eccentric. Today, quite a large percentage of people call themselves vegetarians, and nutrition experts say a plant–based diet has some powerful health benefits. But a vegetarian diet isn’t automatically healthier. You need to arm yourself with the facts to get the most from your new lifestyle. As you start out you may have to put a little more effort into meeting your nutritional needs.

What kind of vegetarian do you want to be?
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Most vegetarians don’t eat meat, poultry or fish. Their diets consist of plant–based foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes (peas and beans), nuts and seeds. Eggs, dairy vegetarian diet products or both may also be included. Vegetarians known as vegans (VEE–guns) don’t eat any animal products, including eggs, dairy foods, gelatin or even honey. Others who occasionally eat meat–usually chicken and fish–may also call themselves vegetarians. Although they’re only part–time vegetarians, they may still reap many of the same health benefits enjoyed by their meatless counterparts.

The pros of plants
Some people choose a vegetarian diet for religious, ethical or environmental reasons. But most become vegetarians because they want to be healthier. Vegetarians have lower rates of some cancers, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and non–insulin–dependent diabetes. A study of nearly 2,000 vegetarians and part–time vegetarians conducted by German cancer researchers found eating little or no meat cut death rates from heart and circulatory disease in half and deaths from cancer by 25 to 50 percent. Vegetarians are also less likely to have gallstones, kidney stones and constipation and they weigh less on average.

Filling your nutritional bill
The more you restrict your diet, the more difficult it is to get all the nutrients you need. A vegan diet, for example, eliminates food sources of vitamin B–12 and some of the best sources of calcium. Other nutrients, such as vitamin D and zinc, are available in a meatless diet, but you’ll need to make a special effort to make sure they’re in yours. Growing children, pregnant or breast–feeding women, older people and those who’ve been ill should proceed with caution when considering a vegetarian diet because of their special nutritional needs.

The vegetarian starting block
Scraping the meat off your plate and eating what’s left is not the healthy way to go vegetarian. You’re likely to be hungry afterward–and you’re shortchanging yourself nutritionally.

Here are a few of the best ways to start out:
A vegetarian in training
Visit a registered dietitian for nutritional advice. Buy or borrow several vegetarian cookbooks. Look for ones written for “Beginners”. Scan the recipes for ingredients. If you see too many foods you don’t recognize or like, try another cookbook. Check out ethnic restaurants and sample vegetarian meals.
Easy does it
You don’t have to go “Cold turkey”. Take some time to learn more about the nutritional aspects of your new diet before you go meatless. Substitute nonmeat dishes several times a week. Use meat as flavoring rather than the focus of your meal or add meat substitutes such as veggie burgers to meals that once starred the real thing. Remember, suddenly eating more high–fiber fruits, vegetables and grains can leave you feeling bloated and gassy. Your body will adapt more easily if you add fiber slowly.
Variety is the key
Select an array of foods to make sure you get all the nutrients you need. Eat these foods frequently for
Good choices are soy products such as tofu or soy meat substitutes, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
Non– or low–fat milk and milk products are calcium rich. If you’re a vegan, nondairy sources for calcium include leafy, dark green vegetables, legumes, fortified soy milk and tofu (processed with calcium sulfate). Women need at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium each day.
Dairy Products
Enriched cereals and whole grain products, leafy, dark green vegetables, legumes and prune juice are a good place to start. Increase iron absorption by eating vitamin C–rich foods such as tomatoes or by cooking in iron pans.
Try whole grains, soy products, nuts and wheat germ.
Vitamin B–12
Eat dairy products and eggs. Vegans can get B–12 from some enriched cereals, soy products, nutritional yeast or by taking a supplement.
Lean toward lean
A vegetarian diet isn’t automatically low–fat. Use oils, margarines, eggs and high–fat nuts and seeds in moderation. Replace meat with lower–fat cheeses or nonfat soy protein products. Buy low–fat and nonfat milk and dairy products.
Calories that leave you empty
A hot fudge sundae is vegetarian fare, if you’re not vegan. Sweets and high–fat snack foods qualify for your new diet, but can fill you up and sabotage your health if you eat them in place of more healthful choices.
Practice makes perfect
Because you’re changing the way you eat, you’ll also be changing the way you cook and shop. At first, you may not be able to whip up a quickie vegetarian meal the way you used to throw together a meat–and–potatoes one. But as you gain knowledge and experience–and a few recipes–your new vegetarian diet will seem like second nature to you.