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Going Vegetarian: Can It Fuel You?

By Stephanie Booth
WebMD Feature

girl and table of fresh vegetablesThinking about giving up meat for good?  Lots of people do -- and for very different reasons. Some go meat-free for their health. Others do it to help animals or the planet. 

But cutting out a whole food group can be a big change for your body. Meat is a good source of protein, which is one type of fuel your body needs to give you energy. Here’s how to decide if going vegetarian is a fit choice for you.

What is a vegetarian?

It means you’re choosing not to eat meat, chicken, or fish. But there’s some wiggle room with that term.

For instance, you can be a partial vegetarian, which means you’ll only give up red meat. You could become a lacto-ovo vegetarian and still eat dairy products and eggs. Vegans don’t eat any animal products, while flexitarians try not to eat meat, chicken or fish -- but sometimes do.

Is it good for you?

Compared with meat eaters, vegetarians are more likely to have a healthy weight. But “the quality of your foods are the most important factor,” says Lori Zanini, a registered dietitian in Los Angeles.

So although microwave cheese pizza and BBQ potato chips are meat-free, they’re still not going to give you the right kind of fuel to feel good and make good choices. You’ll want to limit processed foods that are high in fat, sugar, salt, and calories. Instead, opt for lots of veggies, fruits, whole grains, and non-meat protein.

If you try it …

Getting all the nutrients that your body needs for fuel “is doable,” says Debra Nessel, a registered dietitian with Torrance Medical Center, “but you’ll need to plan.”

Load up on protein. This will give you enough energy to get through your day. You can find it in many other foods besides meat. Eggs and dairy products, like milk and low-fat cheese, are great choices. Or fill your plate with peas, beans, lentils, seeds and nuts, soy products, and whole grains like wheat and oats.

Pump up the iron. Meat’s a great source of iron, which your blood needs to carry oxygen throughout your body. But if you’re not eating it, you’ll need to get it from spinach, kidney beans, lentils, and iron-fortified breakfast cereals.

Get enough calories. Vegetarian fare tends to be low in fat and calories while high in fiber. This combo fills you up fast. But it’s tricky if your body’s still growing. Your doctor or a dietitian can help you figure out the best foods to give you enough fuel for your busy schedule.

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