Being a vegetarian, experts say, is not unhealthy, boring or overpriced.
It also isn't easy.
"It takes a firm commitment to be vegetarian," said Chattanooga registered dietitian Pamela Kelle. "A lot of times, consumers are under the impression that vegetarian simply means they stop eating meat, and that's not what it is."
While reducing animal product intake can cut down on saturated fats and cholesterols, which can reduce risk of heart disease, certain cancers and diabetes, plenty of other products contain these items. "You can mess it up by eating too many high fat sweets and pastries," said Sharon Hopper, a dietitian at the Memorial Hospital Cancer Resource Center.
"There are some people who dub themselves vegan or vegetarian who aren't healthy, because they live off of soy isolates and procesed foods, soy cheese and white pasta," said Ruth Kerr, healthy eating liaison for Whole Foods.
With some effort and commitment, a healthful vegetarian diet is well within reach.
How can I keep my diet interesting?
"Do some great research on the internet. Really try to work on recipes," said Kelle, "and be creative with foods." Like burgers and fries? Try a portobello mushroom, brushed with olive oil and rosemary, grilled and served on a toasted whole wheat bun accompanied by spinach, tomato, avocado and roasted red pepper. Slice a sweet potato, sprinkle with spices and bake, rather than deep fry. A quick online search for vegetarian recipes brings up more than 10 million results.
Will I get enough nutrients, especially protein?
Having a complete diet is very possible without meat, but not without concerted effort.
Kelle suggested looking for complementary proteins, a combining of two foods, each of which contain some, but not all types of protein. Great examples, she said, would be brown rice and beans, or a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread. And add a side of broccoli. One cup of broccoli combines five percent of daily protein.
For plant-eaters who are concerned about not getting enough vitamin B-12, a supplement is advisable, said Indi Maharaj, registered dietitian at the Chattanooga Lifestyle Center.
Doesn't tofu taste like foam rubber?
"(Tofu) is awful," said Kelle. "You have to know how to cook it.
Fortunately, outside of its raw, natural state, tofu can be quite tasty. "Tofu will take the flavor of whatever it's cooked with."
A marinade used for chicken or beef can also be used for tofu, or other soy products, such as tempeh or tofu. Tofu also can be added to fruit smoothies for additional protein.
Meat alternative products are not essential to a vegetarian diet. There are other ways to get proteins, such as beans, legumes, nuts and dark, leafy greens, said Maharaj. These foods also contain iron, which is sometimes a concern for people who eliminate meat.
What if my family does not want to be vegetarian?
Kelle advocates a flexitarian diet, which focuses on vegetarian choices, but doesn't entirely restrict meat. Such a method, she said, can be beneficial in families, where not everyone might not want to follow a vegetarian lifestyle, especially for young people.
"It's frankly not recommended for people under 18 unless the family is supporting that lifestyle choice," she said. This means cooking lentils as an alternative to the pork chops, not just eschewing protein and eating more salad.
Is it more expensive to go vegetarian?
Simply put, no. More realistically, no, if you are already eating a complete, healthy diet that just happens to include meat. Eating healthier can be more expensive, but not buying meat shouldn't affect a budget, unless, Kelle said, families are finding themselves needing to buy food to make separate meals for a vegetarian member. This is another reason she advocates being flexible, or reducing, but not fully cutting out, animal proteins. Ideally, experts say, one's diet already consists of plenty of plant based fruits, vegetables and whole grains, so making the change to a meatless diet shouldn't add too much cost.
"Beans are really cheap," said Maharaj, giving an example. "It's just that we have become accustomed to quick fixes. We're used to driving up and getting dinner."
Is it harder to eat out?
"Generally, it's not an advantage to eat out," said Maharaj. "When you eat out, you have no control of portion size, no control of fat, no control of salt and total number of calories."
With selective choices, however, i.e. not a steak house or fast food restaurant, a vegetarian often can find a fulfilling meal, even if it has to be cobbled together. Don't be shy about mentioning your dietary needs to a server and asking if the chef can accommodate them.
"A lot of times, you come up with really healthy meals," said Maharaj.