The Number 1 Mistake of New Vegetarians & How to Avoid It

rice & lentils-3

I can’t believe it’s the last day of May and my last day of being vegetarian for a month already. It’s been a really interesting month for me on the food front. I certainly achieved my objective of gaining some new menu planning habits and had some great discoveries on making vegetables the star of the show. Gone are the days when steak and salad will be my default meal of choice.

I think some of my favourite dinners were when my Irishman took over the kitchen. Roasting different varieties of potatoes with garlic and rosemary to serve as a main course with a spicy romesco sauce or even a decadent bernaise. With a salad or some wilted greens playing the supportive role, it didn’t even occur to me to miss having a hunk of meat on my plate.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The first week or so was fine but then I found myself feeling tired and lacking in energy – something that rarely happens to me. And with some prompting from the comments of experienced vegos, I realised that I had made:

the number 1 mistake of new vegetarians:

Not planning for the change in my diet. In particular making sure that I was getting enough protein and iron.

how to avoid the number 1 mistake of new vegetarians

do some research
There are some excellent resources for people looking at becoming vegetarian such as:
the vegetarian society website
limes & lycopene – the blog of Sydney nutritionist kathryn elliott – especially her posts on vegetarians and iron, vegetarians and protein, and omega 3s for vegetarians.
the vegetarian resource group
Other resource recommendations would be welcome in the comments.

make the most of veggie protein sources
Unlike my initial thoughts, being vegetarian doesn’t mean you just eat vegetables all day every day. Your new diet needs protein in the form of chickpeas, lentils, beans, soy products like tofu, nuts and of course eggs and cheese.

keep and eye on your iron
Red meat is the best source of iron but vegetarians need not resort to iron tablets to get enough. I found my energy levels increased considerably once I started to eat chickpeas and tofu – which are good sources of iron.

look out for vitamin B12
This is one nutrient that is only available in animal products. If you’re eating eggs and dairy you should be fine. If you’re not, look for soy products that are fortified with B12 or get some Vegemite or other yeast extract.

monitor and adjust
Everyone has different tolerances and needs. Keep an eye on what you’re eating and how you’re feeling. If you start to feel like something is out of wack, there’s no need to give up. Do some research, make the appropriate adjustments and keep on your merry vegetarian way.

and what else did I learn?

restaurant vegetarian options aren’t always bad.
I did have a prejudice against anything on the menu with ‘veggie’ in the title. But as I’ve found from experience, vegetarian burgers or lasagne can actually be lovely. So maybe there’s no need to always revert to ordering a steak when faced with a pub menu.

eating out can be tough for vegetarians
When it comes to eating out, it can be frustrating to have the whole menu narrowed down to one or two carb-and-cheese vegetarian options. A little research on places that offer interesting veggie dishes is a good idea, they are out there. I even found a Sydney fine dining restaurant that offers a vegan menu.

it doesn’t hurt to ask
If there’s a cauliflower salad that has proscuitto and sounds divine, most places are happy to serve a vegetarian variation if they can.

tofu can be delicious
I wrote about my tofu discovery last week. Still amazed that I actually enjoyed smoked tofu and that it took the edge off my longing for bacon.

meat is expensive
When we did our weekly shop over the weekend and picked up a few meat (actually to be specific pork) items along with our veg, we spent significantly more than on our vegetarian fuelled shopping expeditions.

would I ever become vego full time?

In a word, No.

But not because I didn’t enjoy everything I ate over the last month. To be honest I had some of the best meals I’ve eaten this year. And it’s not because I’ve been feeling deprived or had crazy meat-fuelled cravings.

It’s because I love all food and I love variety. And I don’t like limiting what I eat in such a dramatic way.

Being vegetarian has strengthened my love of vegetables and legumes, but if anything it’s made me appreciate and respect the meat and fish that I do eat. And will make me think about my meat eating more, rather than making choices out of habit.

and what will I be eating for my first day back as an omnivore?

All is revealed over at my Vegetarian Monthpage.

rice & lentils-2

[5 ingredients | 10 minutes]
rice & lentils

serves 2 – 3

Inspired by Molly’s Mujadara over at Orangette.

I actually made both Molly’s long version with super caramelised onion and my quick 10 minute adaptation. They’re quite different beasts. While I loved richness that the long caramelised onions gave to the dish and the texture of the lentils cooked from scratch, I have to say that this fast method held it’s own in terms of its nourishing, soul-satisfying properties.

Serve it as a one bowl meal with natural yoghurt like I have here. Or use it as a more protein-rich alternative to plain rice to serve with a veggie curry.

There are tips on the simple secret to perfect fluffy rice in a blog post I wrote recently. For the photograph I used brown basmati rice but feel free to use whatever rice you prefer.

1 onion, peeled & finely diced
large pinch dried chilli flakes
2 cups cooked long grain rice (approx 250g / 9oz)
1 can (400g / 14oz ) lentils, drained
natural yoghurt, to serve

Heat a few tablespoons olive oil in a medium frying pan. Add onion and chilli and cook over a high heat stirring frequently until softened and starting to brown.

Add rice and lentils and stir fry for a few more minutes until both are heated through.

Season and serve with a dollup of yoghurt.

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  • Great lessons learned, and great inspiration for more meat-free days. Like you, I could never be a vegetarian cause I love the variety of all (well most) foods, but I’m definitely going to keep increasing my repetoire of vege foods and see how we go as a family. Now I’m going to see what tomorrow will bring on your vege month page.. see if my guess was right!

  • Ive been off meat for years. red meat that is although a ham sandwich occasionally slips through my lips. I have experienced just that; Lack of energy I compensate ny eating advocadoes and multivitamin pill…

  • Nicely done. Protein’s always the catch. Don’t forget mushrooms and sesame seeds are the 2 big Vit B12 sources that are not meaty!

    • Thank you so much for all the information! I’ll definitely be more careful about my diet and I’ll try to experiment a bit more. I’ve been vegetarian for 16 months already and I think that was one of the best decisions of my life. Have a good day guys!

  • I’m sort-of vegetarian – I use meat as a garnish rather than the main meal. But when I do find myself eating meatless, I take care to seek out some protein sources; being Asian, our family often eats tofu, dried tofu and beans, so I usually eat more of that. Plus, it’s yummy! I also eat a lot of fish and seafood, so I guess I’d be considered a semi-pescatarian? I wouldn’t turn down meat on a “special occasion”, but generally I go for the vegetarian option.

    I do watch my protein, though. Thanks for these tips! I always enjoy reading your blog; you summarise everything so well! :)


  • I agree with Jude – mushrooms should feature more in vego diets – there used to be an ad on the telly with a butcher calling them ‘meat for vegetarians’ because of the amount of B vitamins that they contain. I think there was a comment from Tracey (I hope I have the name right) on your Vegetarian month page – that many of the recipes are very carb focussed which can (bizzarely enough) make you feel like you have no energy. Eating more fruit also helps and leafy greens with your pulses. I can’t wait to see how/if your food will change now that you’ve been trying out so many vegetable dishes and will start eating meat again tomorrow. Enjoy whatever it is that you choose!

  • I’m not a big fun of tofu and seitan, but I really like pulses…But I have to admit that as vegetarian I miss textures…pulses have all almost the same consistency…
    I’m vegetarian since february and I still need to understand what is good for me and what is not…I had some bad headaches that I think were caused by my way to combine food in the meal…
    Thanks for the links, I’m going to read the articles right now…

  • When I made the decision to become a vegetarian many years ago (about 15, I think) I didn’t actually give up meat until I had done some serious reading. I didn’t have the net back then, but I raided two city libraries and discovered they had hundreds of books between them. I read all the pros and cons, the nutrition requirements and how to meet them, and laboriously copied (by hand because I had no access to a copier or scanner ha ha) a LOT of recipes. I shudder to think how many as I have never counted, but enough to FILL a foolscap binder. Then, and only then, did I feel ready to actually do it.

    I think the hardest part, for me, was the planning ahead part. Remembering to soak lentils etc, and other ahead-preparations. I don’t recall there being tinned lentils then. Maybe there were and I didn’t know about them. I did it all by books as I knew no one who was vegetarian whose brains I could pick for tips and shortcuts. Over the years I have re-introduced meat into my diet, but still prefer vegetarian options. My body feels differently after meat, heavier and taking longer to digest what has been eaten. And I’ve noticed that meal aromas following a vegetarian meal dissipate much faster than meat aromas.

    • It’s worth cooking lentils and split peas-but not chick peas which may as well be bought in tins as the saving isn’t much and they are fiddly. Lentils and split peas are easy to cook in the microwave & I do it all the time (I am a very lazy cook) I do enough for at least four meals and freeze them. Pasta sauces go brilliantly with lentils, I wish that I had discovered this before !

  • Good to see a really great and honest review of a new-vegetarian experience.

    I love how many aspects you’ve covered – everything from the pitfalls of sudden dietary change to making dining-out easier (and interesting). And thanks for highlighting where to source iron in a vego diet (chickpeas and tofu – both Yum).

  • Thanks for the link on B12 in Mushrooms – I did not realise it was the dirt and not the mushroom providing it! Those kids at kindergarden are probably onto something sitting out there scoffing handfulls of soil and humus in the playground…..

    Nice choice of pork products! Should have guessed it would be bacon! Especially with the smoked tofu appearing last week.

  • I am not a vegetarian but I admire them. If i have friends who are vegetarian,i will make allowance for them.

  • I’m so excited to hear you’ve been a vegetarian for a whole month! I’ve been a semi-vegetarian (I eat fish) for about 7 years now and I never regretted this. I guess I did make the number 1 mistake though, so now being pregnant I have to catch up on iron really really fast! I guess it’s a good idea to take extra iron, say, once a week, if you don’t eat meat. And then everything wil be okay! :) You rice & lentils recipe looks very attractive!

  • I used to be a forced vegetarian – meaning I ate basically pasta with olive oil and Parmesan, or mashed potatoes with basically the same thing. All starch. High school was a skinnier but less healthy time for me. Now I’m married and trying to eat better. We’re too poor to eat a lot of red meat, but we do eat a lot of chicken and sometimes pork. (I don’t eat seafood from the grocery.) I’m in love with chickpeas; they’re my favorite source of non-meat protein, especially dressed in a salad with some red wine vinegar and good olive oil, maybe a garlic roll for accompaniment… ooh, I made myself hungry and I’m eating lunch. Eating rice and lentils, as a matter of fact, and thanks to you, I know I like them. They don’t have to sit in my pantry unloved and alone now. Thanks, jules. :)

  • Interesting to hear about your experience becoming vegetarian – I became vegetarian almost 20 years ago and like Lynne learnt a lot from books but I also had friends who were vegetarian so that helped too – I have never wanted to eat meat and some days it seems so normal to be vegetarian that I get surprised when people do eat meat. But the wealth of recipes and advice on the web is fantastic and makes it much easier. I made sure that I ate well when I went vegetarian because it was the best way to answer any critics or challengers.

    I still have no desire to eat meat but I know that is not for everyone. However I do believe that our society eats far more meat than we need and if people can reduce their meat intake that is a really positive change in our society for the environment and our health.

  • I couldn’t give meat up completely, but I am trying to go meatless during the week and save my meat eating for weekends. It’s taking some research and creativity to plan full meals that go well together, so I’m glad to have found your site. I think this rice and lentil dish will be a good side for a spinach dish I’m planning for tonight. I might throw in some kale or green beans, too, just because I like any excuse to add in more green veggies.

  • Thanks for the recipe! I’ve been wanting to try the mujaddarah but for some reason I’ve balked at the fussiness of caramelizing the onions, even tho I know it’s really not that fussy.

    I call myself a ‘flexitarian’ — I shoot for <10% of my calories from animal protein. That gives me the flexibility to use chicken stock or an occasional piece of bacon, etc., while keeping my focus on beans/grains/vegs. It's worked pretty well except when I get lazy. :)

  • I have enjoyed your May Vegetarian experience along with you. My husband and I eat some meat, but have a couple of days each week of vegetarian. Sometime we are vegan all week and then have some meat on the weekend. I am not into “all or nothing” thinking about anything. I believe a little meat is good, but I only need a serving or two each week. If I didn’t like bacon so much I might be able to turn vegetarian. I also focus on fresh vegetables, lentils, and beans. Everything in moderation! I like Liz Tee’s flexitarian term. Chicken stock does make lovely soup.

  • liz – loving the flexitarian idea – might have to borrow it!

    erin – I’m with you on bacon and not being all or nothing. I hated having my choices so narrowed.

    alison – the rice & lentils would be perfect with spinach – I always need some greens in my meal

    thanks for sharing your experience – completely agree that less meat eating is a good thing on so many levels

    yay kate – glad you’re getting into the rice & lentils

    thanks so much for sharing the B12 link – fascinating stuff!

  • I think it is very cool that you went veg for a month! I do have one thought – I do not think your rule is really just the number 1 mistake new vegetarians make – I think it is the number one mistake most people make when deciding what to eat. I hear this all the time in discussions about vegetarians, but I don’t know many meat eaters who plan properly in order to get the vitamins and minerals they need.

    Protein can be an issue for vegetarians if they aren’t eating a balanced diet. As for iron – the American Dietetic Association and the Dietitians of Canada reported in 2003 that vegetarians generally get MORE iron than meat eaters, and that vegans do best of all. also, the iron in plants is actually better for you than the iron in meat. The iron in plants is absorbed based on how much your body needs, if you need it your body absorbs a lot, if not it doesn’t. The absorption of iron from meat does not change, and too much can lead to free radicals.

    Basically I think everyone, whether they’re veg or eat meat, needs to really think about what their body needs and what they eat.

  • hey sarah
    thanks for your comment – you’re right of course – this mistake also extends to omnivores.
    hadn’t heard that about plant sources of iron – very interesting

  • You think vegetarian is limiting? Ha! I went vegan 2 days ago in a moment of wonder and dare…..! And wondering what on earth to eat right now :) Yes I do have some recipe books and I said I’d do it for a month so I am excited. I don’t care about meat one bit but I do miss my plain Greek yogurt so much!!!!

  • I have been vegetarian for 15 years and vegan just over a year. It seems limiting at first, but I actually eat a greater variety of food now that I’m vegan than I ever did before. I agree with Sarah that omnivores need to pay just as much attention to their nutritional needs as vegetarians – something often overlooked in that crowd, I think. Also, I just take a multivitamin every day which eliminates the need to worry about iron, B12, etc. My cholesterol dropped over 100 points in the year I’ve been vegan and my doctor was amazed at how great my bloodwork looked. I definitely won’t be going back to cheese!

    I think it’s great that so many people are deciding to cut back on meat, if not cut it out completely. The meat industry is so taxing on the environment that even reducing our consumption makes a huge difference. Glad you had a good experience going veg. :)

  • I found it interesting to read this:

    Vitamin B12

    There has long been speculation about whether or not mushrooms provide vitamin B12, a vitamin normally associated with animal foods. In 1987, the Australian Government Analytical Laboratories found appreciable amounts of B12 in mushrooms.
    Based on this analysis, the mushroom industry then included B12 as a nutrient in their promotional material and advertising. The B12 level was disputed by some nutrition professionals who believed that only animal sources can provide B12, while others wanted to know whether the B12 claimed to be found was bio-available.
    In early 2009, researchers at the University of Western Sydney completed ground-breaking research on the B12 content of button mushrooms. Their detailed experiments on mushrooms of all sizes and stages of growth from around Australia conclusively proved that:
    A. Mushrooms do have B12 present. It is on both the surface of the mushroom and in the flesh of the mushroom. The majority of B12 is in the surface of the cup of the mushroom.
    B. The B12 present is bio-available, in exactly the same form as B12 in beef liver and fish.
    C. The average amount of B12 in mushrooms is still to be calculated, but is not likely to be more than 5% of the RDI. However, that level may be an important amount for a vegan over a lifetime.
    The results of the vitamin B12 study will be published in a peer reviewed scientific journal. We shall give you the full details when this occurs.

    So apparently we can get (some) vitamin b12 from vegies!

  • Hi, I just found your website through googling for information about quinoa and it’s gorgeous! I will have to check back. As a former vegetarian (did eat fish, mind) who ate a lot of Quorn before coming out to Australia from the UK, I’m curious to see more recipes now that it’s been launched in Aus as well (btw I am pretty sure it tastes a little better in the UK than here, but maybe that’s just rose tinted spectacles- I left nearly 10 years ago!!). Is it something you’d consider? (or maybe just an idea of when it can be used as a reasonable substitute for chicken, pork or tofu). Anyway, love the blog and photos :)

  • As a former vegetarian (did eat fish, mind)

    Why do you type this? you were NOT NOT NOT a vegetarian. You ATE FISH! You were a person that only ate fish! NOT a vegetarian. I am so tired of people saying, “I’m a vegetarian, also. I just eat, shrimp, fish, chicken. “

  • Great it is true there are so many mistakes new vegetarians make. But i was luckly enough to avoid this i got help from a vegetarian lifestyle course called Vegetarian’s Beginner’s Guide 30 Day Course It gave me the information i needed to go vegetarian. I would have been lost without it!

  • I started about a month ago. I keep getting headaches. I am enjoying not eating meat right now. But I think I need to get a better protien source. Riston Diggs Album PTSD had me jamming

  • Jules, thank you for sharing some of your tips! I went vegetarian over three weeks ago because I am unhappy with the mistreatment of animals in the meat industry. I cut out red meat from my diet seven months before that but it is still a big transition. I was feeling fine the firsts two weeks but towards the end of the third week I began feeling weak and empty. As a high school student it is a bit difficult to get a sufficient amount of protein and iron during the day when I have very little time to dedicate to food preparation. I will definitely be trying some of the recipes on this site; they seem to be relatively easy and yummy. I am super excited to try the chickpea kettle soup. This is a great blog and I am very pleased to have stumbled across it :)

  • Great article. We are carnivores and have changed our dinner menu to vegetarian for 21 days and like you have a new appreciation for fruit and veg – although my grocery bill is higher and i shop more because I’m using so many more veggies then one ever used in 28 years of marriage! Lol my daughters who are in their 20s have also enjoyed my meals – but we are so looking forward to the end of this week – forget Easter eggs – being on the steak! ! ?

  • Perhaps the first step to be vegetarian is the reason – cultivate compassion of not killing and harming others. Why should a life has to die just to feed another’s greed for taste?

    Secondly, after being vegetarian for a while, one may notice the stench in meat or feel like vomiting after taking meat.

    Thirdly, one may be weaker but may experience immune system boost, cleaner blood and less sicknesses.

    Fourthly, based on personal experience, please do cut down or avoid tofu completely for health reason.

  • People, please . . . (big sigh). You really don’t get it, do you?
    Jules, to go vegetarian for a month & make absolutely no progress in overcoming your blatant speciesism (the close cousin of racism), is pretty disappointing. More sensitive people find it so liberating to be freed from the guilt of causing immense suffering & death to equally feeling beings; that during a period of abstinence, they stop subconsciously formulating excuses for their extreme selfishness. But it seems you are not one of the sensitive ones. In fact, you haven’t really made any ‘excuse’ for being non-vegan, you’ve simply asserted that you like the taste/texture of meat too much to give it up. If I were being negative, I’d say that showed all the narcissism & ethical prowess of a serial killer: “I like killing people too much to give it up!” [I’m thinking, here, of Ralph Fiennes character in Schindler’s List, who soon tires of being merciful and instead returns to killing people for fun] But taking a positive view: at least you make none of my former excuses, such as: “Animals below a certain intelligence don’t have a right to life”; or “They don’t experience pain & suffering as I do.” Okay, so both were outright lies, but I didn’t know that, at the time, because I chose to ignore the self-evident right to life of intellectually impaired humans or of my (clever) dachshund, who was (nonetheless) no intellectual match for an average pig or horse. I closed my mind to the body of scientific evidence pointing to the fact that sensations of pleasure & pain evolved to protect all living beings from harm, not merely humans. Did you know that fish release cortisol in response to pain – the same hormone humans release?
    So, let me spell it out for you, Jules & friends: most vegans once enjoyed eating meat (& dairy & eggs), many as much as you – I know I did. After all, we were (pretty much) all raised on such food, & it is high in fat – to which humans are instinctively drawn, like sugar. It was when we admitted to ourselves that it is no more necessary to eat meat, dairy & eggs than to go around murdering intellectually impaired or autistic or mute people and cannibalising them; that we began our path to veganism. Do not kid yourselves for a moment that you are not being judged for what you now do.
    “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    • Hi Nichola
      Thank you so much for sharing your experience and opinion around this topic.
      You’re right. I know I am well and truly being judged for my decision to eat meat and eggs and dairy. However it is my choice to make.

    • wow, a little over the top. Perhaps some moderation, understanding, and a little wiggle room, rather than these hard core beliefs. Even the RC church has had to change a little over the years to accommodate parishioners!

  • So you’re a flexitarian-nothing wrong with that! I’ve been saying for at least 3 years now that I am vegetarian, but I’m not either. I try, but don’t succeed 100% of the time, so it makes me a flexitarian too.
    However, what are/were your reasons for wanting to become vegetarian? Or maybe it was just something you wanted to try, and that’s ok too.
    My belief is that a plant based diet is still the way to be, but a steak once or twice a year sure still tastes good-and what’s wrong with that? hahaha!

  • “It’s because I love all food and I love variety. And I don’t like limiting what I eat in such a dramatic way.“
    Really? That’s the only reason? No thought to the short painful lives of the animals we have decided are food.
    Well, if that’s what you choose, fine, but you should at least educate yourself on the suffering you are contributing to.

    • I’m very careful about my sources of meat S.
      Just because animals are being raised for food doesn’t mean their lives must be miserable.

  • My spouse and I went vegetarian about a year ago at age 60. We started as vegan and that was too tough for newbies so we gradually added in some dairy (fresh cheeses and yogurt). As we always ate a great many vegetables and a wide range of cuisines the transition was not so bad. I have to say that anyone who says going vegan is easy is kidding themselves! Its not just adding in the protein based foods but that you have to eat specific quantities in order to make your quota. Of course vegetarians who eat cheese or eggs have a much easier time but often rely too much on cheese or dairy as a protein source. Also, “some” lentils and quinoa or tofu is not enough you have to eat a fair amount. The dish above doesn’t have enough protein and should have more lentils than rice. There is also a very limited range of vitamins and minerals without additional vegetables. (Iron in the form of greens would be good as a side or kale cooked with the lentils would be good). Also, the B12 thing is not a joke. You have to eat a lot of yeast, dirty mushrooms, etc. or you become gradually deficient. magnesium and iron are also hard to get in sufficient quantities unless you eat lots of colorful vegetables. Once you’re deficient its also difficult to catch-up. So take a multi-vitamin in the correct formulation unless you can be really diligent. If you feel tired then double the dose until you catch-up.

    • Thanks for sharing Susan! And thanks for pointing out the limitations of my recipe. I obviously have a lot to learn :)

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