Health Team

Ask Dr. Mask: How can I safely switch to a vegetarian diet?

Posted November 16, 2017 8:55 a.m. EST

[Editor's note: Dr. Mask will appear every day this week during the 6 a.m. hour on WRAL News Mornings with a series of special reports about the question's he's asked the most. On Friday, Dr. Mask explains the best way to lose weight.]

Many people are interested in giving up meat or even dropping all animal products from their diets, and it can be a healthy option for people—if it's done properly.

People with vegetarian and vegan diets now have more options when eating out. At the Living Kitchen in downtown Raleigh, breakfast, lunch and dinner menus are all vegan.

Living Kitchen chef Natalie Green crafted the Kitchen Sink chopped salad with romaine lettuce, olives, cucumber and some of their Brazil nut parmesan cheese. Though Green has prepared vegan dishes since 2010, she didn't go full vegan herself until last May.

She said many people think the diet is too restrictive.

"I've found that the variety of my dishes (has only increased) since going vegan," Green said.

But her vegan fare is not just a vegetarian diet with no meat. Vegan means no animal products at all.

"No eggs, no dairy, no ingredients made from animal products, such as butter or lard or even gelatin," said Susannah Southern, a registered dietitian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Southern said most people don't get enough fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains in their diets, which is what vegetarians and vegans rely on.

"So, in a vegetarian style of eating, you have to rely more on those foods to meet your nutritional needs," Southern said.

When people cut meat out, Southern said they have to be sure to replace animal proteins with a variety of plant-based proteins, like soy products, whole grains, nuts and beans.

Living Kitchen general manager Scott Harth still eats meat but replaces at least two meals per day with plant-based foods.

"Really introducing some natural antioxidants in your body really just naturally makes you feel a lot better," Harth said.

Green agrees.

"I feel amazing," she said. "Just my health, my energy, everything is just better. I love it."

Studies show that vegan and vegetarian diets will reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and even some kinds of cancer. But WRAL Health Team's Dr. Allen Mask recommends that anyone considering switching to meat-free diets should consult with a registered dietitian to help make sure their nutritional needs are met.