How to Reintroduce Meat to Your Diet If You're Vegetarian

Following a veggie-heavy diet doesn't have to be all or nothing. Here's how you can add meat and fish back into your diet if you've been vegetarian or vegan for a while.

April 13, 2022

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Photo by: sveta_zarzamora/Getty Images

sveta_zarzamora/Getty Images

Here’s the secret about vegetarian diets: They don’t have to be all or nothing. Most health experts will agree, eating more plants is never a bad idea but you don’t have to subscribe to strict vegetarian diet 365 days a year if that's not your thing. If the craving strikes to experiment with any type of meat or fish after maintaining a plant-based or meat-free regimen, here’s what the experts suggest.

Start By Eating Plants with a “Meaty” Texture

Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN, plant-forward culinary nutritionist and author of The With or Without Meat Cookbook suggests plant-based foods with similar flavors and textures as meat to help scratch that itch. “You may want to consider choosing some ‘meaty’ plant-based picks to act as a culinary ‘bridge’ to an eating plan that includes some meat, poultry, or fish. These may include chick’n nuggets or tenders and plant-based burgers or sausages.”

Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, founder of Greenletes also suggests opting for meaty and umami-filled flavors and textures. “Mushrooms have an umami flavor that is similar to animal proteins” says Rizzo. “Lentils are another plant-based protein that have a similar texture to ground meat, you can sub lentils into ground meat dishes, like tacos and ‘meatballs” she adds.

How to Eat Meat or Fish If You’re Vegetarian or Vegan

If only meat or fish will do, consider targeting nutrients that are hard to find in plant-based foods and think about incorporating them into meals in a conservative way. "If you really want to go for an animal protein, try a fatty fish, like salmon or tuna,” Rizzo suggests. “Both satisfy your craving for the taste of meat and provide healthy omega-3 fats which is hard to come by in plant foods.” Newgent suggests several ideas to incorporate meat in a sensible ways to help prevent them from overpowering the meal:

  • Enjoy meat or other animal protein as a “sidekick” not the star. For instance, think about a sprinkling of chicken strips on an entrée salad, rather than a big bucket of fried chicken.
  • Stick to milder tasting animal proteins so you don’t overwhelm your palate. Think turkey, chicken, shrimp, tilapia, halibut, cod, and eggs.
  • Consider going halfsies. For instance, instead of 100% bean chili, simmer up a 50-50 version made with half ground chicken and half beans.

What to Know About Digesting Meat on a Vegetarian Diet

If it’s been a while since you digested meat, starting slow is a good idea to ensure you don’t end up with a temporary stomach ache. The re-introduction of many foods after elimination requires a systematic approach to allow your digestive enzymes to do their thing. Higher protein foods like meat and fish often require a ramped up level of stomach acid to help with digestion so small portions are a good place to start. Along those same lines, if it’s been a while since you cooked up meat, take proper measures to handle and prepare if safely. The best way to ensure proper cooking is to use a meat thermometer to check that it is cooked to the proper internal temperature.

The Health Benefits of Vegetarian Diets

There’s no disputing the evidence that plants are good for you! Eating a varied, vegetarian-styled diet has been linked to lower risks of chronic disease as well as lower cholesterol levels and less inflammation. As supported by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, increasing your intake of plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes is beneficial whether you eat meat or not. Choosing to eat meat more, less or not at all is a personal choice.

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. She is the author of four cookbooks First Bites: Superfoods for Babies and Toddlers, The Healthy Air Fryer Cookbook, The Healthy Instant Pot Cookbook and Healthy Quick and Easy Smoothies.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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