Q: I'm thinking of becoming a vegetarian. How can I do it?

A: A plant-based diet of fruits, vegetables, nuts, fibers, grains, legumes, and soy has many health benefits. For example, vegetarians benefit from an increased intake of vitamins C and E, fiber, minerals such as potassium and magnesium; and carotenoids and flavonoids, which are derived from plants. This can lead to lower total cholesterol levels and body mass index, which reduce the risk of chronic health issues, and increase longevity overall.

There are a few steps you can take to transition into a plant-based diet:

  • Make a list of all the fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts you like to eat.
  • For the first week, create a weekly menu to include your favorite plant-based foods and build meals with mostly these ingredients and only a small portion of animal-based foods.
  • By the end of the second week, you should consume only two animal-based meals.
  • As you gradually decrease animal-based foods from your diet and get comfortable with mostly plant-based products, introduce a new fruit, vegetable, grain, and nut to your menu.

It's important to consider that omitting a food group presents its own challenges; many vegetarians can miss their daily requirements of vitamins D and B12, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iron and more. Moreover, increased intake of fruits and vegetables is associated with osteoporosis in both males and females.

If you're thinking of transitioning to a vegetarian or vegan diet, consider taking vitamin D and B12 supplements or a broad-spectrum multivitamin. To increase your iron intake, include dark leafy green vegetables, dried fruits and nuts, seeds and soybeans into your weekly meals. For omega-3 fatty acids, consider plant sources such as walnuts, flaxseeds, sesame seeds, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.

Always be sure to consult with your health-care provider prior to making any drastic changes to your diet.

Farzaneh Daghigh, Ph.D., is a professor of biochemistry and director of the gastroenterological sciences course at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.