How To Become a Vegetarian When You Love Meat
An elimination diet proved I felt better if I didn’t eat meat—but I needed a realistic plan to make long-term behavior change
I love meat yet in May 2020, I began a transition period to go from meat-eater to vegetarian. Within a few months, I was fully vegetarian with no cravings for meat at all.
If you’ve eaten meat your whole life as I have, then you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s really hard to give up. You don’t just wake up one day and cut something out of your diet that you love, because that takes an inordinate amount of willpower. To achieve any goal you need a plan, and I implemented several strategies to ensure that not only would a vegetarian lifestyle work for me long-term but that I would never crave meat again either.
Types of Vegetarianism
Vegetarianism is the practice of not eating meat including red meat, poultry, and fish. It can also exclude dairy products and animal by-products. These are the different types of vegetarian diets.
They don’t eat red meat, fish, poultry, or eggs. They do consume dairy products such as cheese, milk, butter, and yogurt.
They do not eat red meat, fish, poultry, or dairy products. They do consume eggs.
They do not consume red meat, fish, or poultry. They do consume dairy products and eggs.
They exclude all animal products — no red meat, fish, poultry, dairy, or eggs. It also excludes animal by-products or ingredients such as honey, gelatin, etc.
Pescatarian diets allow for fish consumption although they are not technically considered a vegetarian diet.
Flexitarian diets are largely plant-based but those who follow them will allow themselves to have meat products occasionally. Again, not considered a true vegetarian diet.
I understand that many people consider vegetarianism/veganism a lifestyle choice and not a diet. There is no intent to undermine this fact when I use the term diet in this article; I’m strictly speaking about the food I eat.
Why I Chose To Be a Vegetarian
Digestive issues have often plagued me throughout my life. A few years ago my doctor suggested I try a food elimination diet. This meant cutting out different foods from my diet for a couple of weeks at a time to see if there was any improvement in my digestion.
It came as no surprise to me that milk was the main culprit. I already knew that even in small amounts it caused me to have stomach cramps. I had tried non-dairy alternatives but either didn’t like the taste of them or they also upset my stomach.
Milk aside, I was very surprised to find that meat also caused me digestive problems. For the two weeks that I cut meat out of my diet, I noticed my stomach was a lot less heavy and I was no longer going to sleep with a full stomach of undigested food. It was almost like there was a little factory inside me that had only just learned how to work.
However, regardless of the results from my elimination diet, I knew there was no way I could stop eating meat and the food I loved.
Fast forward to May 2020 when the country was in lockdown, and I stopped to look at my diet once again. Burgers, pies, curries, and lasagnas were my go-to foods — all high in meat, not to mention high in fat. It was no wonder that I felt sluggish all of the time, my stomach was constantly bloated, and I woke up in the morning with a full stomach of food that hadn’t been digested from the previous day. Something needed to change.
Working from home meant that I could now spend more time cooking healthier meals. However, I also had to be realistic that I didn’t particularly enjoy cooking and I certainly wasn’t going to spend hours over the stove every evening weighing out food quantities and counting calories.
Improving my digestion was the number one goal for me when choosing a new diet. Vegetarianism seemed like the best option for me for two reasons:
- Meat and milk were things I knew that my body found difficult to digest, proven by the food elimination diet I’d tried years ago.
- Fruits and vegetables are an excellent source of dietary fiber which can help to maintain a healthy gut and prevent digestive problems, as stated on my country’s government website.
I opted for the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet which prohibited the consumption of red meat, fish, and poultry but did allow dairy products and eggs. I had found no issue with eggs or other dairy products (excluding milk) so I wanted to continue having these in my diet.
Identifying Potential Problems
Having a good reason to become vegetarian was the first step, and I was keen to start my new diet, but I also knew that rushing into it unprepared would likely result in failure. I looked back at previous diets to see why they had been unsuccessful and I found that there were three main reasons:
- I’d cut out all of the food that I loved from my diet overnight. Naturally, this resulted in strong cravings for those foods. My willpower finally gave in and I resorted back to my old diet.
- I ate food I didn’t like. Not only had I given up food I loved but I was now eating food I hated. I was miserable every day so of course, I wanted to go back to my old diet.
- I had unrealistic expectations. When I didn’t see the results I wanted immediately, I’d become disheartened, believing that the diet wasn’t working and therefore no longer worth pursuing.
The Steps I Took To Become Vegetarian
Using the information from my previous dieting failures, I made a step by step plan of the things I needed to do to make sure I didn’t fall into the same traps again.
Step 1: I transitioned slowly
I didn’t have a firm date in mind for when I would be fully vegetarian. Instead, I approached the diet with a more realistic goal of cutting down on meat as slowly as I needed to, to ensure that any cravings were controlled.
Starting with one meat-free day per week, I then increased this when I felt ready to. I had an idea that it might take me one month at a time before I was able to go from one to two days, and then from two to three, etc. However, I actually fully transitioned in three months, less than half the time I anticipated.
May 18th marked the start of my transition period from meat-eater to vegetarian — I would be classed as being a flexitarian during this time. I found that almost straight away, on the days that I was allowed meat I actually didn’t want it and this was probably for a few reasons.
First, I was finding vegetarian dishes that I really liked and this was motivating me to eat them rather than the meat dishes. Second, I was already feeling the benefits of the healthier meat-free meals which was further motivation to not want to eat meat knowing how it would make me feel afterward.
By June, three to four days per week were meat-free simply because my body was now craving things like mushrooms, avocados, and black beans more than it was craving meat. In July this had increased to five to six days per week.
When August arrived, I didn’t buy any meat at all when grocery shopping. Instead, I planned to make all vegetarian dishes but told myself that if I craved meat, then I would allow myself to buy it and eat it. There were only three occasions in the whole month that I craved meat and the very last time was on August 22nd, just three months after I’d started my transition.
In September, I took the same approach and found that I did not crave meat at all. Unfortunately, while visiting a friend, there was confusion over two quiches that looked identical, and I ended up taking a bite of a bacon quiche. Because this was not an intentional choice to eat meat, I consider August to be the last time I actually ate meat, however, the 4th of September would technically be the last time and when I can officially say I became vegetarian.
Step 2: I perfected meat-free versions of my favorite dishes
There was no way I could live my life without my favorite meat dishes so it was really important that I found vegetarian versions that would satisfy me.
I tried to stay away from soy-based meat replacements because I didn’t want the reminder of meat in my diet and I also believe that it’s healthier to choose vegetables or beans over soy protein.
Fajitas are my favorite go-to easy dish to make and I typically use steak, chicken, or occasionally pulled pork. Making the swap to a non-meat version was really easy because I already like mushrooms and black beans. If anything I like the dish more now because I can have double the mushrooms and still for fewer calories than the meat version.
My favorite Indian dish is keema curry, a minced lamb dish with spices and peas. I tried making different versions with tofu, mushrooms, and jackfruit but found that only soy mince worked in the end. I have no problem with this as it’s the only meal I make with a meat substitute.
I love burgers and expected that, just like with the keema curry, I would need to use soy mince too. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a bean and quinoa burger was so delicious, I’d go as far as to say it’s better than the meat alternative. The great thing about it is that the ingredients are all dry goods so anytime I feel like it, I just have to open my kitchen cupboard and everything is there ready to be put together.
Step 3: I had a list of 20+ recipes that were easy to prepare
I knew I would need lots of easy to prepare vegetarian meals if I wasn’t going to default to a meaty ready meal when I felt tired or too lazy to cook.
My first stop was to check out YouTube cooking videos. As I’m not a great cook, I needed to see how dishes were prepared rather than just following a written recipe. My aim was to find as many meals as possible that could be cooked in under 15 minutes or at least could be prepped in that time, even if the cooking part took longer. Mushroom pasta, frittatas, roasted vegetable couscous, chickpea curry, and many more went on my list.
On Sunday evenings I would normally look for a few more to add to the list so I didn’t get bored eating the same food. What’s great about YouTube is that it will recommend videos to you based on what you’ve watched previously so I found my homepage filling up with great recipes all of the time.
Step 4: I didn’t force myself to eat food I didn’t like
There are vegetables I don’t like — spinach always leaves a strange taste in my mouth, and sweetcorn and courgette I’ve never liked either. I’ve always been dubious about lentils too.
Experimenting taught me that some foods were actually nice when cooked in certain ways. For example, courgette worked very well in lasagna but not with anything else. Spinach and sweetcorn continued to be not to my liking. I swapped these for other vegetables I did like if they came up in a recipe. Lentils were actually really nice when used in wet dishes like curry but not nice in dry dishes like salad.
There are so many vegetables, beans, and grains I do like so it was silly to force myself to eat something I didn’t like. It’s important that you look forward to the meal, and you’re satisfied afterward. Without these two things, it’s unlikely you’ll stick to the diet.
The Biggest Obstacles and How I Overcame Them
Meat cravings turned out not to be a problem at all, and it was actually the things I didn’t think about that proved problematic.
Other people’s opinions
During the transition period, I kept my diet plans to myself. September was the first point I started telling people I was a vegetarian because that was when I was 100% confident that I would never go back to eating meat.
For the most part, people were supportive. A few actually asked for advice as they’d been considering it themselves.
What surprised me was the people who were against it. I felt that they reacted like this either because they felt their own lifestyle was being questioned or that they thought it was going to be too difficult to cater for me. I reassured them that neither was the case and it was just something I needed to do for my own health, and I was happy to bring my own food to any gatherings.
I’ve been lucky that there have been very few social occasions this year due to the pandemic and this certainly helped during the transition phase. On one occasion though, when visiting family I was presented with a beef dish, cottage pie. I had explained twice well in advance of my arrival that I was vegetarian and was told it wouldn’t be a problem. It clearly was, and the host was noticeably angry when I went to the shop and bought a vegetarian ready-meal to eat instead.
It would have been easy to just give in considering I hadn’t been vegetarian for very long but I didn’t see why I should. This was going to be the way I lived from now on, so I had to stick up for myself. I didn’t expect other people to agree with my choice but at the least, they should respect it. I learned that I would always go prepared in the future.
If someone kicks up a fuss about your diet then that’s their problem. Never feel bad about your choices or feel that you have to give in to please others.
Thankfully, I have some lovely friends who were very supportive and we all had a lovely casual vegetarian meal at my home not long ago which went down very well with everyone.
Some of the dishes I made were awful. It’s trial and error when trying new ingredients or cooking methods, and as I’ve already mentioned, I’m not a great cook anyway.
I found that soy mince doesn’t soak up flavors as quickly as beef or lamb mince and therefore, needs to cook for much longer.
A vegetable cannelloni dish which took me about two hours to prepare and cook was absolutely tasteless and ended up in the bin after a few mouthfuls.
I burnt a pan that also had to be binned when cooking black beans without enough water.
Don’t think you’ve failed just because something didn’t turn out how you expected it to. Starting with easy dishes is the best way to build up confidence when using ingredients you’ve never used before. I also learned to have a quick and easy back-up plan if things went wrong.
I’m happy to say that I benefitted in so many more ways that I didn’t even consider.
Most vegetables, fungi, and beans have fewer calories in them than meat. As an example, I often used mushrooms to replace chicken. Mushrooms have just 20 calories per 100 grams whereas chicken has 165 calories per 100 grams. This saved me 140 calories per 100 grams.
In total, I’ve lost about eight pounds which may not seem like a lot but you also have to consider that I was a lot more active before the pandemic. Swimming, badminton, and rock climbing I did on a weekly basis and I haven’t been able to do any of them since March. I expect that my weight loss would have been double what it was if I were still exercising as much as I was before.
Cheaper grocery bills
My grocery bill has halved saving me between $2,100-$2,445 per annum.
I genuinely thought I’d spend more being a vegetarian as fruit and vegetables can be expensive but I’ve found the opposite because vegetables are very bulky so you get even more meals out of them. There are often many three for two offers on fruits and vegetables too, and if you buy grains and beans in bulk then this also saves a lot of money.
My general wellbeing improved
I know that it’s hard to quantify wellbeing but I do just feel better being vegetarian. It’s knowing that I’m eating much healthier and being in control of what goes into my body that makes me feel so much better.
There is also the additional benefit of knowing that I’ve reduced my environmental impact and I’m not contributing (as much) to the slaughter and poor treatment of animals.
Additional Things To Consider
Seek professional advice
As with any diet, it’s a good idea to seek medical advice. Lack of protein often springs to mind when going vegetarian yet when speaking to my doctor he said that this was rarely an issue.
As I’ve suffered from low iron levels in the past (as many women do) I was advised to take an iron supplement, which I do.
I didn’t suffer from any side effects when going vegetarian, except for a short period where my skin broke out but it’s difficult to say whether this was due to my diet as my skin has always been temperamental. If you have any adverse side-effects then do consult a professional.
Cutting out meat isn’t for everyone
Just because it worked for me doesn’t mean it’s a diet that everyone will get on well with. I’m a 35-year-old cis woman with no serious medical problems but you should consider your own lifestyle or healthcare needs before changing your diet significantly.
As discussed at the beginning, there are lots of different options and I would recommend starting with a flexitarian diet, like I did, to see if that works before moving on to a more restrictive diet.
Better in numbers?
I live alone and therefore, didn’t have to consider a partner or children’s needs. I would imagine that it works best if everyone in the household eats the same just because it’s easier. This is something to consider if you’re the only one in the household who wants to make the change.
Because I transitioned very slowly I rarely craved meat. However, you may find your cravings are much stronger than mine. Meat substitutes may help you; I remember trying some vegetarian sausages and could barely tell the difference. I rarely ate meat alternatives though because I was happy with vegetables but you may want to vary this in your diet to see what works best for you.
Vegetarian options aren’t always healthy
Vegetarian microwave meals can still be laden in fat and calories, and cooking vegetables in lots of oil can easily make them unhealthy. Check food packets the same way you always would. I remember looking at the nutritional information on a vegetarian pie and was shocked to find that it had more calories and fat than the meat version. Don’t be tricked into thinking that just because something is vegetarian that automatically means that it’s healthy.
Often preconceptions are our biggest hurdle
A positive attitude counts for a lot when embarking on a new diet. We may already believe that we won’t like it and this will undoubtedly hinder our progress. There are several vegetables I don’t like but I experimented with them before writing them off completely and found that my preconceptions were wrong in some cases.
I also thought that my diet would be quite limited but there is a huge variety of food that you can eat. As well as tofu, I also discovered tempeh, something I’d never heard of before. Quinoa was also something I’d never cooked before, but it’s surprisingly easy to cook, and goes with almost anything — cold and hot dishes alike.
Living a Meat-Free Life
The last time I chose to eat meat was on August 22, 2020. I’ve adopted a vegetarian diet and will likely stick to it.
I can’t imagine going back to eating meat, I have no reason to. I love the food I eat now and I feel so much better. As for my digestion which was my number one goal when going vegetarian — it’s improved so much. Bloating is now rare and the little factory inside me is working very efficiently.
Vegetarianism is a lifestyle choice now not just a diet.
Here’s a look at a few days of vegetarian meals that I’ll typically eat.
Breakfast: Poached eggs and avocado on toast
Lunch: Buddha bowl made up of chickpeas, hummus, bell peppers, sweet potato, kale, quinoa, and fresh lemon dressing
Dinner: Tortilla wraps filled with mushrooms, peppers, and onions, oven-baked in spices, and then topped with salsa, and guacamole. Very little oil is needed when baking mushrooms as they have a high water content
Snacks: Fruit and nuts
Breakfast: Granola, unsweetened natural yogurt, fruit (typically berries or banana, topped with honey and nuts (typically almonds and cashews)
Lunch: Couscous salad with jackfruit (baked in spices)
Dinner: Mushroom pasta bake
Snacks: Crudites and hummus
Breakfast: Oatmeal mixed with one part oat milk and one part water — topped with banana, almonds, and honey
Lunch: Pitta bread filled with hummus, sliced bell peppers, grated carrot, and red cabbage
Dinner: Coconut chickpea curry with rice and green beans
Snacks: A home-baked sweet treat like brownies or flapjack
The key to my successful transition from meat-eater to vegetarian included:
- Having a good personal reason for giving up meat
- Transitioning slowly, cutting back on meat over a period of three months before going completely meat-free
- Perfecting meat-free versions of my favorite meat dishes
- Having a list of at least 20 videos of recipes that were mainly easy 10–15 minute dishes, and looking for more recipes once a week so that I didn’t get bored of eating the same food
- Avoiding food I didn’t like but also experimenting and keeping an open mind
- Bringing my own food when I ate at other people’s houses
Also, if you’re looking for more information on vegetarianism then I’ve found the Vegetarian Society to be a great resource.