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When I was 14 years old, I decided to eliminate meat from my diet. I declared it was my love of animals that led me to a vegetarian lifestyle, but in reality, I gave up meat to lose weight.
Having grown up on hot dogs and pork rolls, I thought going vegetarian would cause a dramatic weight loss and deliver profound health benefits.
Over the years, my staple foods were potato chips, crackers, and candy. I'd eat white toast drenched in margarine, iceberg lettuce smothered in diet salad dressing, and a host of other processed junk that shouldn’t even qualify as food. I fooled myself into believing I led a healthy lifestyle when there was little or no nutritional value in what I ate. The truth is that I was far from the only person living on a junk food vegetarian diet.
Millions of Americans have fallen into the trap of equating a vegetarian lifestyle with a healthy one. But candy, donuts, bagels and French fries are all vegetarian and we know they aren’t wise food choices.
So what are some basic rules of eating healthy as a vegetarian?
1. Eat clean.
In other words, eat whole and unprocessed foods that look the same as when they were pulled from the ground or off of a vine. You can’t go wrong when eating fresh fruits and vegetables in a wide array of colors.
2. Increase your protein.
Make sure to increase your consumption of plant-based sources of protein such as legumes, quinoa and even a limited amount of unprocessed and non-GMO soy such as edamame or seitan.
3. Go green.
A lack of red meat can lead to anemia and iron-poor blood. You can ensure that you get enough iron by eating dark leafy greens as well as beans, barley and oats. If you experience fatigue, weakness, headaches and dizziness, have your doctor run a blood test for iron levels.
4. Take quality supplements.
When you eliminate meat, it becomes difficult to get all of the amino acids, vitamins and minerals your body needs. B12, in particular, is difficult to get from a plant-based diet. Make sure you take a quality multivitamin, B12 and omega-3s as recommended by your physician.
5. Watch the sodium.
Remember that canned soups and beans, salted nuts and frozen vegetarian entrees are often loaded with sodium. Always read your labels and if you're concerned, have your blood pressure checked by a doctor.