How To Stop Eating Meat Without Going Hungry

Illustraed by Mallory Heyer.
We don't do diets. But we still love to eat — and we want to eat well. In her column, How To Eat, Refinery29's favorite intuitive eating coach Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, will help you do just that by answering the food and nutrition questions that really matter. Send yours to heythere@refinery29.com. Get more sound nutrition advice here.

I would love to go vegetarian, but every time I try cutting meat from my diet, I end up really, really, REALLY hungry. What am I doing wrong? (Or do vegetarians just eat constantly, like cows and bunny rabbits?)

It’s totally possible to be a vegetarian without being hungry all the time — and it definitely doesn’t require constant grazing (a relief for those who don’t have time to pack a bunch of snacks!) — but there are a few tricks for making it work.

Before we talk about exactly how to create satisfying vegetarian meals and snacks, though, let’s first dive into why you want to make the switch in the first place. It’s important to make sure that you’re interested in vegetarianism for sound reasons — not for potentially unhealthy ones.

Although vegetarianism can be a fine choice, many people have a not-so-accurate belief that it’s a foolproof way to eat healthier (and certainly headlines about new studies might lead you to believe so). When you really look at the research, you’ll find that it can still go very wrong.

First and foremost, if you’re thinking of going vegetarian primarily to lose weight, don’t. It’s important to note that vegetarianism does not lead to long-term weight loss (no weight-loss diet does), and research has also shown that people who choose vegetarianism for weight-control reasons are at significantly greater risk of developing eating disorders than non-vegetarians or people who go vegetarian for reasons unrelated to weight loss. In other words, it’s not that vegetarianism causes eating disorders exactly, but if your main motivator for trying it is weight loss, research shows you do have an increased likelihood of developing a disorder.

On top of increasing risk for developing disordered eating, other research shows that women with a history of eating disorders have a poorer chance of recovering fully if they are vegetarian. So, my advice is to stick to omnivorous eating until you’ve truly made peace with food; then, you’ll be able to revisit the idea of vegetarianism without the risks, at a time when you have a better chance at achieving a healthy balance. It’s important to note that this process usually involves getting professional help: Check out NEDA’s website for resources.

It’s not that vegetarianism causes eating disorders exactly, but if your main motivator for trying it is weight loss, research shows you do have an increased likelihood of developing a disorder.

Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN
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As for (actual) health reasons for going vegetarian, many studies have indeed found a link between vegetarianism and a lower risk of certain problems, such as diabetes and heart disease. But the overwhelming majority of nutrition research indicates that eating an omnivorous diet with plenty of minimally processed, plant-based foods — as well as animal products such as lean meats and fish if desired, and relatively few red and processed meats — is associated with the same positive health outcomes. So it’s not like there are extra health benefits that come along with simply not eating meat.

In my experience, the people who tend to do the best with the choice to go vegetarian (as long as they don’t have any disordered eating going on as well) are those who are motivated by animal rights and the environment — so, by things completely unrelated to weight or health.

Why? I think it’s all in how you relate to the choice. If, through self-compassionate investigation of your reasons, you genuinely want to choose foods that are in line with these deeply held views, then you will be more likely to do the trial and error so crucial to finding a sustainable balance that doesn’t make you feel deprived or restricted.

This means it’s okay that you’ve tried (and quit) vegetarianism a few times. That means you are listening to your body and feeding it what it needs.

And if you’ve been an omnivore your whole life, and now you’re cutting out meat, it makes sense that you might not know exactly how to fill the gap left by cheeseburgers and chicken breasts. But whether you’re a vegetarian or not, the same basic guidelines for building satisfying meals and snacks apply: When choosing a meal, try to include a carbohydrate source for quick energy, protein and fat for sustained energy, and some vegetables or fruit for fiber and fullness.

For vegetarians, protein is often the component that causes the most confusion, but there are plenty of options: Tofu and tempeh are both made from soybeans, and soy products generally tend to be very satisfying (and versatile) protein sources. Lentils and beans are also no-fail options, especially when served with rice, corn, or other grains. Nuts and seeds provide protein as well as essential fats, and they can be combined with other sources of protein for extra satisfaction. And, of course, eggs, cheese, and other dairy products are excellent and yummy sources of protein for meatless meals.

By paying attention to how eating makes you feel and experimenting, you can figure out what’s satisfying for your body — even as a vegetarian.

Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN

A balanced meal might look like any of the following: noodles with tofu, peanut sauce, and peppers; a grilled-cheese sandwich with tomato soup; an omelet with spinach and toast; a bean-and-cheese burrito with veggies; or cheese/tofu lasagna with vegetable sauce.

Once you’ve got your balanced meal ready, eat until you feel full and satisfied — and when you start feeling hungry again, have a snack. Two of the main sources of excessive hunger that I see in my clients are skimping on portion size and going too long between meals and snacks. Aim to eat snacks when you notice moderate hunger (likely about three hours after a meal).

And snack-wise, you’re in luck: Vegetarian snacks are generally even easier to find than veggie meals. Look for a similar balance of protein, starch, and fat to keep you satisfied — e.g. fruit-and-nut bars, yogurt with granola, cookies or toast with peanut butter, trail mix, chips with hummus, etc. Sweets are also perfectly good snacks if that’s what you’re craving — you just may notice that when you eat, say, ice cream on its own, you’re not satisfied for quite as long.

If you find that you’re still ravenous all the time, ask yourself if you might be inadvertently skimping on anything. What would happen if you ate until you were a bit fuller? Or added more carbs, protein, or fat to your meals? What if you ate your afternoon snack a little earlier, instead of holding out until your stomach starts rumbling?

By paying attention to how eating makes you feel and experimenting, you can figure out what’s satisfying for your body — even as a vegetarian.

Christy Harrison is an NYC-based registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in intuitive eating, eating disorder recovery, and Health at Every Size. She writes about food and nutrition for various publications and hosts Food Psych, a podcast dedicated to improving your relationship with food.
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