The Most Laid-Back Guide to Going Vegetarian You’ll Ever Read

hammock cartoonLast Saturday, I had the honor of speaking at the NYC Vegetarian Food Festival.

It went well and I had a great time, but in hindsight, I realize the topic I chose was a tough one.

I spoke about the “no-pressure approach” to vegetarianism that I take with No Meat Athlete. Instead of trying to persuade people that they should go vegetarian (and now, dammit!), I’d much rather just set an example that people can choose to follow or learn from if they’d like. I’ve just never been one for confrontation, and I hope my writing here reflects that.

But after I was done speaking, I thought to myself: Boy, that would have been so much easier if I had just talked about the same stuff I write on the site. 

And so I got to thinking — what’s the gist of my message?

That’s when I got the idea for a series of posts that I should have written long ago. This is the first post in that series, the heart of the message I want to spread about vegetarianism (future installments will be about running and healthy eating, I think).

And as it turns out, it’s pretty much a demo of what I talked about in NYC. So that works out. icon smile

“Should” you go vegetarian?

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want you to go vegetarian or vegan. Compassion for animals was big part of my reason for doing so, and so I’d love it if nobody ate them.

But I’m not going to tell you what’s best for you. That’s for you to decide.

Is a plant-based diet healthier than an omnivorous one?

Tough one.

I believe I’m a lot healthier now that I’m vegan. It forces me to avoid fast food and countless other convenient, but unhealthy, foods that I used to eat. So in my mind, there’s no question that a well-planned plant-based diet is healthier than the standard (terrible) American diet.

But how about compared to a whole-foods diet that happens to include some meat, eggs, and a little dairy? Honestly, I’m not convinced that one is clearly healthier than the other.

There’s some science that says a plant-based diet is better. And there are plenty of people who claim that this science is bunk.

To me, it’s not clear that one diet is necessarily healthier than the other. I’m fine to call it a tie. I just know that passing up a McDonald’s is way easier for me now than it was before I was vegetarian, and as a result, I make so much more of my own food than I used to, and eat so many more fruits and vegetables than before. For that aspect, I like it.

Is a plant-based diet better for sports?

I got faster when I went vegetarian, so much so that I took over 10 minutes off my previous marathon and qualified for Boston on my first attempt after I changed my diet.

But I also changed the way I trained, so I can’t say for sure how big a role each change played. I can say that I lost 5-10 pounds when I went vegetarian, and I believe that was a huge factor in getting faster.

Brendan Brazier and Scott Jurek have both told me they believe they recover from workouts better on a plant-based diet than on other diets. And the number of professional non-endurance athletes who choose plant-based diets seems to be increasing.

What does all this mean? To me, this means you can perform just as well without eating animal protein as you can with it. It doesn’t necessarily mean you can perform better; that probably depends on the individual.

But if better athletic performance is your goal, it means that a plant-based diet is worth as much consideration as any other.

So now that that’s out of the way…

I know — real strong case I’ve made for going vegetarian, right?

But seriously, I don’t think it should be about health or performance claims compared to omniviorous diets. It just doesn’t need to be.

The standard American diet is so bad that almost any whole-foods based diet will beat it — in a humiliating fashion, no less. So if a plant-based diet is aligned with your values, particularly as they relate to how human beings treat animals and the environment, then go for it.

Or if you just think it’d be fun to try eating vegetarian or vegan (or even just eating less meat) to see how you like it, then of course I encourage you to do it. (I actually now enjoy the challenge of choosing and making different foods than what used to be the default.)

If you want to try eating less meat or even go all the way, here’s how I’d do it.

The easiest way to eat less meat

I made two attempts to go vegetarian. The first failed miserably after a week; the second has lasted three years and I have no plans to go back.

From those two experiences, and from what I’ve seen others experience, here’s what I think are the most important keys to making the change last.

1. At first, don’t try to “never eat meat again.”

I have nothing but admiration for those can who give up meat, once and for all, right off the bat. They decide, right away, that they’re going vegetarian or even vegan, and they never go back.

I wish I could say it worked like that for me. Instead, for that entire first week of my failed attempt, I just kept thinking about how hard it was — that there was no way I could actually make my vegetarian foray last.

So what was different about the second time? A lot of things, but one big one was that I set end-dates.

At first, I said I’d eat vegetarian + fish for 10 days. After that, I could go back if I wanted.

But I liked how I felt, so the next time, I set the mark at 30 days, and started cutting out the fish too. Again, if I got to the end and decided to quit, it was cool.

In this way, by the time I started thinking, “I’ll never eat meat again,” I didn’t really like eating meat anymore. Or at least I was accustomed to not eating it. And so it never felt like much of a loss.

2. Transition smoothly, from four legs to two legs to no legs.

Making drastic changes is fun. Exciting. And sometimes, effective.

For me, for this, it wasn’t.

That first time, I just stopped eating all meat. It didn’t last.

The second time, I stopped eating red meat and pork first. For an entire year. It wasn’t part of a plan to go vegetarian; I just felt at the time that since vegetarian was too hard for me, this was the next best thing.

It was easy to get by on turkey burgers, seafood, and lots of chicken. And all the Italian recipes I loved to cook worked just fine when I replaced the ground lamb, pork, or beef with birds, so it was pretty easy.

Then, when I decided I wanted to go further, I cut out our flying feathered friends. I still ate fish for a few weeks, not sure if I wanted to go all the way.

Then one day, I just realized that I didn’t really like eating fish. By that time, I ate so little of it that I don’t even remember when I “officially” stopped. And it wasn’t until two years later, after gradually phasing out dairy, that I became vegan.

It was all so easy. I’ve since learned that making tiny changes, stacked on top of each other, is the most effective way to make big changes. So that’s how I recommend you do it.

3. Plan for each new phase.

If you decide, spur of the moment, to change, you’ll likely fail like I did the first time.

So how exactly does one “plan” to give up chicken, for example?

First, you make sure you don’t have chicken in your house. Finish it up, or give it away.

Then do a little research. Since you’ll be cutting out a protein source, make sure you don’t just replace it with starchy carbohydrates. Pick out a few hearty, healthy vegetarian meals you can try.

Next, you plan an entire week’s worth of meals that don’t include chicken. Pick a few vegetarian recipes, maybe a few that include fish, perhaps even a few with Gardein fake chicken while you adjust. Then go to the grocery store to get what you need for the week. (Just a tip: freeze the fish if it’s going to be a few days before you eat it.)

And don’t forget — if you’re going to be going on a car trip, or maybe to a party where they won’t have anything you eat, be prepared. Get some snacks or even eat a small meal beforehand so that you won’t have to rely on willpower to get you through it.

4. Give yourself a break!

I don’t mean a break from vegetarianism — I mean let yourself eat some less-than-ideal foods to make the changes easier.

When you first cut out the meat, let yourself eat some extra pasta, fake meats, or even cheese. Sure, none of these are great for you, but the point is to ease the shock and make the transition more pleasant, so that you aren’t tempted to quit.

I still eat Field Roast sausagey-like substance from time to time when I’m really craving it. It’s made from wheat gluten, and I’m sure it’s total junk food. But if it takes an occasional splurge to eat a diet that, the other 95% of the time, compels me to make better choices, then to me, that seems worth it.

5. Try new foods

The most exciting part of a vegetarian diet is all the new foods there are to experience. Sure, you could have tried them all along, but for some reason you didn’t when it’s easy to fill the plate with meat, potatoes, and — when you were feeling really saucy — a vegetable.

So take advantage of a new reason to expand your horizons. Make some Indian food, or go to a Thai restaurant or eat Ethiopian food with your hands. Or find a weird-looking, brown, hairy root in the produce section of the grocery store and Google “recipes based on weird-looking, brown, hairy roots” and make one of them. (Make sure you catch the name of said root, because the cashier will not know it.)

Allowing yourself to experience all these new flavors and textures will take your attention off of what’s missing from your plate, and shift it to what’s new and interesting.

In short: relax your expectations and make it easy on yourself

Trust me, I know how hard it is, when you’re all pumped up to make a big change, to understand that your willpower and enthusiasm will, at some point, wane.

And so, rather than crashing at that point, and feeling like you failed, I’ve learned that you’re so much more likely to succeed if you don’t expect too much of yourself.

So go slowly, go smoothly, and don’t beat yourself up over mistakes. And when you’ve got questions or concerns, reach out. It’s not hard to find someone who wants you to be vegetarian and would be happy to help.

A few more useful posts and pages about going vegetarian, if you’re interested:

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Comments

  1. Hey! I totally agree with this post, especially the part where we need to not expect too much from ourselves. That works so well for me, in all aspects of my life. However with being vegetarian, I did do it all in one fell swoop, mentally, but I did make mistakes. It was not until I made the connections completely, in my head, of how much better I feel eating this way. And, the whole foods movement has been a positive inspiration. I was blessed with the genetics of being chronically “plugged-up”.(sarcasm)- but it was the huge motivational force to find what works for me. And, the whole foods, no oil approach has been a ray of light in my life. I encourage everyone to try it!! It makes life so much better. And, now, I get to train every day, and have awesome runs. It is a win-win.

  2. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Right On Matt!! I’m still a work in progress more than 2 years after making the effort. I still eat pizza occasionally and I looove my wife’s nachos. I just can’t find a vegan cheese I like (I’ve tried a few kinds. Next up is the one sold at Trader Joe’s). So if I eat a bit of dairy or the occasional tuna wrap when the other choices would be less than idea (a healthy helping of french fries or onion rings with a salad if I’m on the road), I’m ok with it and won’t beat myself up. Even T. Colin Campbell admits to eating salmon a few times a year. Rock on Matt!

  3. Agreed Matt! Thanks for pulling all this great info together in one place. I completely concur on your lets-not-shove-it-in-people’s-faces-and-try-to-gross-them-into-going-veg*n approach. It often isn’t going to win over converts and certainly not make friends so better to lead by example and be support. The slow and steady method of cutting back similarly worked for me (along with the splurges) and having all the great resources you have linked to has made a great difference.

  4. This is the kind of post I’ve been waiting to see online (to share!) forever now! I feel the same way about your non-pressure approach. I don’t feel like I should push my vegetarian ways upon anyone else (just like I don’t feel they should push their diet on to me!). But there’s no harm in sharing veg’n information and letting everyone decide for themselves. There’s too much outrageous information out there about meat being bad for you (health-wise) and I think it makes some veg’ns sound a little crazy when they argue “meat is BAD, it gives you CANCER”. Um, no, more than likely organic, grass-fed meat will not make you die or give you cancer. We need more level-headed veg’ns like you walking around! And a little less of the crazy ones ;) Great article!

  5. Guess I am a bit confused. What is the point of being No Meat Athlete if you are not convinced of the health benefits. I thought in the past you had credited your diet for your athletic improvement, and now it might have been the change in training? Matt, I like you and I like your site, but it sounds to me like you are backing down or getting kind of wishy washy as to the benefits of No Meat.

  6. this is a great post! i agree with you in believing vegan is the healthiest diet for us. there are too many studies to now believe it is true and like you i have felt the incredible effects first hand.

  7. I’m not vegan for my health, I’m vegan for the health of the animals. That’s why I stick with it. The other benefits are just an added bonus.

  8. Bearing in mind that I’m maybe 1/20th as athletic as you, Brazier or Jurek, I have found that while training for a marathon as a vegetarian, my recovery times after long runs are *much* shorter than when I was a meat eater or a less-meat eater training for halfathons. My husband points out that I may also be better at training (maybe), more fit (not really), etc. But I really think the diet change – and resulting increase in plant antioxidants & other phytochemicals – is a big part of the difference.

    At any rate, I really appreciate the low-key veg approach on NMA. I refer people here all the time for that reason.

  9. I seem to remember something about the Tarahumara eating small rodents… maybe this is the secret to their amazing running ability .

  10. I completely agree with this approach. Kudos to you, Matt, or spelling it out in such a relatable way. As much as I want everyone to go vegan the second they taste my food or listen to my passionate rhetoric, I understand my own path was a progression that started with giving up beef and pork as a teenager,which ultimately led me to become a dedicated vegan in my mid-twenties. I can’t imagine ever going back, not even for a second, but I do understand my journey had multiple moments of enlightenment, which furthered my commitment, before I became the passionate vegan I am today. Thank you for sharing your adventure and making it sound so easy for others to join you.

  11. Sean Murphy says:

    This is a really great post – it’s refreshing to see someone willing to take the scientific view of “we just can’t tell” even when it would be an easier sell to argue based on feeling and opinion. I agree that any whole foods based diet will give you big performance gains when compared to the standard American diet. It always makes me frustrated vegans and meat-eating whole fooders argue over which is healthier – they both are. The rest is just a personal/moral choice at this stage, until there is more evidence for a performance difference either way.

  12. As a vegetarian and now vegan – I have tried more foods that I ever tried as a “meat-eater”. I have actually found that pizza is awesome without cheese!! You can actually taste all the flavors of the sauce and veggies! I think it is important to try new things with an open-mind… you may find your new favorite food. And it also helps in the optimal nutrition department :)

  13. Thanks Matt, I really appreciate your honesty and your laid-back approach.

  14. I’ve been veggie for 15 years. I live in the South where being a vegetarian is sometimes considered akin to choosing not to breath air.
    I am now 5 months pregnant with a giant (large for it’s size) vegetarian baby.
    Thanks for all of your posts that encourage a plant-based lifestyle and also encourages all of us to make better choices.

  15. Fantastic post, Matt. As a born-and-raised vegetarian, I have it easy–you can’t really miss what you’ve never had–so I have MAD respect for those of you who make the conscious choice to give up a huge part of your diet. You are all awesome!

  16. Great post Matt! I used the “cliff-jumping” method to make the transition but as a personal trainer I’ve used your “legs” approach with my clients when they express interest. It’s tough not to push my desires for their vegetarianism during our sessions – tough. But keeping my trap shut and presenting a healthy, happy, butt-kicking example of vegetarianism has sparked more change than all of the times I’ve screamed from my soapbox – combined!

    Thanks (yet again!) for creating this community. All of us NMAers appreciate what you do!

  17. I went vegetarian 15 years ago cold turkey so to speak… it wasn’t hard. But I still love cheese so I’m not vegan at this point. And I don’t love cooking, so I don’t get as much protein as I probably should. But it’s a work in progress!

  18. Matt,

    I am a first time reader to your site and LOVE IT!!!

    I recently gave up all moving creatures (four legs, two, fins, shells, etc) corresponding with Christian Lent holiday (I am no longer religious, just a good time to try something) and while my running has waned due to winter laziness; I feel much more energetic and alert.

    I get a lot of social pressure to eat meat and it is a little harder for me to explain my rationale as this is a dietary experiment and has little to do anything else.

    I look to start running again Sunday and look forwardd to reading more of your site.

    Chris

  19. Great post! I totally agree that you have to work in phases. This isn’t a diet, it’s a complete lifestyle overhaul. Going from omnivore to vegetarian to vegan took me about two years total. And I still dabble in seafood from time to time! It’s whatever works best for you. But the switch over definitely keeps you away from fast food joints and inspires you to go to the gym.

  20. Chris G. says:

    If everyone took this balanced and honest approach to issues, the World would be a better and more peaceful place. Good for you for providing the honest facts and letting people decide for themselves. Thanks Matt!

  21. WONDERFUL post!! This was GREAT to read…and I am so glad you put this all in “real” terms for REAL people! I just watched Forks Over Knives, bought the Engine 2 Diet book – and have tried like heck NOT to feel guilty b/c I can’t give up cheese yet! Beef – easy. Pork, no problem. I am even better with the chicken and fish…but cheese? Meh.
    I plan to revisit your site often – and check out recipes! Thanks SO MUCH for your encouragement!

  22. Great information, going vegetarian is clearly not for everyone, but I feel like most Americans should strive for less animal products in their diets. I followed a vegetarian diet for some time, and now I just try to keep animal based foods at a minimum.

    I love the “Relaxed approach” that you take to going vegetarian, and or vegan. So many people nit pick all the little details and it ends up consuming who they are. It’s good to know what you believe in, and stick to your beliefs, but when it comes to food I think that self control and education is simply all we need.

    I don’t have any problem with someone who enjoys fast food. However, those kinds of overly processed and subsidized foods should not be staples in our diets. It’s just calories and fat, nothing in between. Our bodies need whole food to provide all that we need to “thrive”!

  23. Just discovered your blog and now I’m doing the happy dance! I’ve never really liked meat and so I rarely ate it. After reading a couple of books, I chose to be vegan — about a month ago. I’ve never felt better! I’ve already lost 5 pounds and I hope that my running speed will improve. Thanks for the good information!

  24. Great post, Matt! I’m glad to know there are other non-pressure veg runners out there like me.

    I wanted to add something to this thoughtful post as well: it seems to me that a lot matters on one’s own body. We’re all different and no one diet fits another precisely. I think the same goes for vegetarianism and veganism. What works for one person might be a disaster for another. Some vegans end up super-healthy (whether or not they like to cook or are getting the right amounts of things, etc) while others end up experiencing problems. And vice versa. I’m convinced that I’m lucky, because after about three meat-free years, I haven’t had many problems. But when I tried to go vegan I found myself weak and nearly passing out–part of this was related to my choice of diet. I found out, for example, that it is not easy living in certain places (non-first world countries) and surviving on a vegan diet. I ended up adding eggs back to my diet because I was getting sick often. Again, this doesn’t happen to everyone and a lot probably depended on my body, in a new environment, with new foods to work with.

    Likewise, one of my favorite, long-time vegan chefs, started adding back dairy for similar reasons of illness. Meanwhile, people like Scott Jurek can get by eating 100% vegan and running 100 mile races. Everyone’s body is different!

  25. Thanks for this post! Just read your other post on running. I’ve been a vegetarian now for about 5 weeks. I’m working on going vegan, not so easy..I love chocolate and sometimes the cheese gets me, usually the only time this happens is if I want a pizza or I’m our somewhere. I try to eat grains, beans, veggies, and fruits..I wish I could do this 24/7 hopefully one day! I’m also training for a half marathon. i honestly wish I was a faster runner but I guess in time I can work on that, for now I’ll focus on just finishing!

  26. Michele says:

    Hi Matt. I recently found your website and have to say I love it. I am a new vegetarian, been a runner for over 20 years. I wanted to try years ago and reduced my meat consumption but then started P90X and couldn’t figure out how to get the protein they recommend. I’m not a big fan of beans and hate tofu and tempeh. Since then I have ended up trying a few black bean dishes that I never thought I would have liked and started gradually reducing my meat intake since last fall. Black bean and roasted sweet potato casserole is my favorite, I even made black bean brownies 2 weeks ago and they were delicious.

    I’ve lost 45 lbs in the past year and in January I started making green smoothies every day in my $10 Walmart blender. After a couple weeks of that I watched Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead and was so inspired the next day I bought a Vitamix. Since then I’ve been eating mostly meatless meals and this Saturday, my 45th birthday, I will officially be a vegetarian. I had originally planned to have a final burger and gooey dessert but have lost all desire for the burger. I still want the dessert of course. I’m really enjoying your articles and am excited to see how my running improves. It’s been a few years since I’ve run a 1/2 marathon but there’s one in Nov I did in 2006 and I want to see if I can improve my time and make under 2 hours. Back then it was 2:05:57 so I’ve got a good chance. I’m so excited to start this new chapter in my life. Next week a nutritionist from one of the local hospitals is having a seminar on vegetarianism. I also have a private consult with her before the class so I’m really looking forward to learning more and she’s also a runner so that’s another benefit. Thanks for the inspiration!

  27. I agree that for a lot of people, quitting cold turkey is a recipe for failure. I first said to myself that I would not eat beef pork or chicken but yes to dairy, fish and seafood which meant I could have pizza and easily eat at Chinese restaurants. It was fairly easy to stick to that. I did have a steak a couple of times just to try it and then found it wasn’t as great as a remembered. I think it’s good to go back to meat a couple of times in the initial stages, so that you don’t feel a complete loss of your former life, and to not overly idealize meat into something that it isn’t. Your taste buds change over time. You will start to crave more plants and less meat. As I gave up fish and dairy, I gradually learned a whole new way of cooking and many recipes. I bought a Vitamix. I make my own almond milk. People think I’m a real homemaker but I’m the laziest person on earth. If you go vegan before you know how to cook differently for yourself, you won’t eat well and you will fail. If you do fail, don’t judge yourself, just add more plants in every day and you will eventually succeed. Good luck!

  28. Thank you for being honest, instead of confusing me. I have done so much research onf what kind of diet is the best for myself and my family. What I have realized so far is its not so much what we eat, but that it is organic, minimally processed and wholesome. I am still trying to decide to go vegetarian and I really want to but my husband does not. Maybe you can write an article on how to introduce a no-meat diet to young children and the spouse? I would love to read about it.

Trackbacks

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  6. [...] up meat improved their game. Matt Frazier over at No Meat Athlete mentions a few in his article of The Most Laid-Back Guide to Going Vegetarian You’ll Ever Read and Robert Cheeke has a collection of them over at Vegan [...]

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