Advice to new vegetarians

After the vigil in support of victims and survivors of domestic violence was over last night, I wound up talking to a twenty-something woman who had been a vegetarian for two weeks. She was having difficulty adjusting to her new way of eating, and when she found out I had been a vegetarian for years, she wanted some advice.

My advice for her wasn’t all that good. While for the most part I still am a vegetarian, now my priority is eating organic and/or locally-grown food, and I realized that I’ve lost touch with the reasons for and mechanics of vegetarianism. So I recommended that she read Diet for a Small Planet, but then I realized that book was written before she was born, and is probably horribly dated. She said she had been reading a book called Skinny Bitch, but she wondered if there were other, easy-to-read, books on vegetarianism.

I was able to give her one piece of advicae based on my own experience as a vegetarian: be sure to take vitamin B-12 supplements (not the mega-doses — it’s a fat-soluble vitamin, and too much of it won’t do you any good). I also told her to be sure to get complete protein, and asked if she was a vegan or a vegetarian who would eat eggs and cheese. She hadn’t thought that through, and I couldn’t think of a good resource to help her figure out what kind of vegetarian she was.

In short, I realized that I’m out of touch with the world of vegetarianism and veganism. But I know that many of my readers are sure to be vegans and vegetarians, and you will be able to give me some good advice. Here are my questions for you:

  • If you were giving advice to a new vegetarian, what one book would you recommend? The book should give some of the moral, ethical, and political implications of vegetarianism — and it should provide enough recipes (or cookbook recommendations) to get someone through the first month.
  • Same question for a new vegan: If you were giving advice to a new vegan, what one book would you recommend?
  • What are the top three pieces of advice you’d give to a new vegetarian?
  • Same question for vegans: top three pieces of advice to a new vegan.

Or any other comments or help you think would be pertinent to new vegetarians/vegans….

11 thoughts on “Advice to new vegetarians

  1. Jean

    I recently read somewhere, and I don’t remember where I’m sorry, that the notion of a “complete protein” as advanced in Diet for a Small Planet is based on the assumption that we should replicate the protein of meats. That, apparently, is an erroneous assumption. However, and apologies again, I don’t know what the CORRECT assumption is…

    Cookbooks: Moosewood, all the way. Greens.

    Advice: Be prepared for the effects of, well, more vegetable fiber in your diet. Drink a lot of water. Go easy on wheat, bran, and other grains, as well as milk products. It’s easy to overdo soy products — those icky burgers, that fake cheese, the stuff they call “milk.” Consulting a good diet or nutrition book can do wonders. South Beach cookbooks, actually, offer a lot of good recipe options for vegetarians. Wash your vegetables. Buy organic and local.

  2. Scott Wells (Boy in the Bands)

    1. Indeed, I remember reading that the complete protein thesis was debunked in a fairly-recent interview with Lappe.

    2. I’m no vegetarian, but skew that way. A big issue is eating out. I’ve found that, for choice, I try to find ethnic cuisines with a large Eastern Orthodox background, like the Greeks and Ethiopians, because of the role of fasting in the religion.

  3. Dani

    One word:
    Vegan With a Vengence.

    Okay, that wasn’t exactly one word, but it was one GROUP of words. So there.

    Even if she is a vegetarian, that cookbook gives some down to earth advice and great recipes that she can accomodate to a more veggie diet if she chooses to be an ovo-lacto vegetarian. As you know, my veganism is always sprouting through my baked goods, and you can always give her my number Dan, if she wants someone close to her age giving her some pizz-azzy advice. Diet for a Small Planet was actually really good, and not so dated. Another great book is Fast Food Nation, though I have only read it for a short amount of time (damn library duedates).

  4. Dani

    P.s: Barnes and Nobles has a great shelf full of new-vegetarian guides. I wouldn’t reccomend “Vegan Freak” for her just yet, since Vegan Freak tends to pretty much downgrade you and beat you into veganlike submission.

  5. Earthbound Spirit

    Moosewood Cookbook is good, but I’d recommend Nava Atlas’s books. I started with Vegetariana, which is just fun to read. More practically, Vegetarian Express, Vegetarian Soups for all Seasons, and The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Cookbook are great. These books feature simple recipes with easily available ingredients, and vegan options are given (Atlas is not vegan, and neither am I). There’s some book out there for teens who’ve just decided to adopt a vegetarian diet, but I can’t remember the name – but it looked good at the bookstore.

    Advice: try a subscription to a CSA farm if possible – they often offer recipes for the vegetables. Remember to eat fruit – at every meal if possible. It will help curb a sweet tooth, and taste good! Ditto on the B12 vitamin supplement.

  6. Paul

    The Omnivores Dilemma

    Not a book on vegetarianism per se, but an excellent read about the nature of our industrial food system (both animal and vegetable), including the industrial organic system. Emphasizes that eating locally, in season, is most sustainable.

    There is a wonderful section about a farmer in the Carolina’s that has a small organic farm, with chickens and pigs and some cattle, that promotes a life for the animals that allows them to carry out their natural instinctual behaviors. Chickens get to peck, pigs get to route in the mud, cows graze on grass (not corn – they can’t digest it, and it leads to all sorts of ailments and illnesses.) The farmer refers to himself as a an anarco-libertarian-enviro-republican.

    I’m still a vegetarian, but also like you Dan, mostly focus on eating local organic food. My personal ethic is that I’ll eat anything that I catch or raise and kill myself – I grew up fishing, and occasional hunting, and lived on a farm in high school. Haven’t killed or eaten meat in quite a while, but I’m been having a hankering for some salmon … gotta get that fishing pole out of storage.

  7. Dan

    Wow, thanks for the responses so far! Still hoping to hear from more readers — and I’m going to go do some research on that complete protein thing.

  8. Charlie Talbert

    Matt Ball’s “A Meaningful Life” lays out the reasons for going veg as completely and succinctly as anything I’ve read.

    If you want a conservative’s take – or just enjoy great writing – I’d recommend this article by Matthew Scully that appeared in the May, 2005 issue of the American Conservative.

    I agree with one of your other commenters about Vegan With A Vengeance. I’d also recommend Robin Robinson’s Vegan Planet. It’s full of tasty but easy recipes and information about basic foods and nutrition.

    She may want to subscribe to the free e-newsletter of Compassionate Cooks . The pictures alone are worth it. Founder Colleen Patrick-Goudreau got her start teaching cooking classes at First Unitarian in Oakland. She’s since appeared on the Cooking Channel and writes a column for Veg News, an upbeat magazine that’s a joy to read.

    Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter has a “just the facts” content and style that, along with its intellectual honesty, (buying local is not always more ethical) would appeal to many readers. It’s much better than Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, whose flaws were exposed by B.R. Myers in the September, 2007 Atlantic. The Atlantic makes only a part of the article available at its website, but Powell’s Books has printed it in its entirety at

    Best wishes to your acquaintance on her journey of compassion. You might also mention that many people advance more effectively if they can avoid “all or nothing” thinking.

  9. Matthew Martin

    – Get enough calories, especially if one decides go go vegan. Ounce for ounce, vegetarian and vegan fare has fewer calories. (Good if one is trying to lose weight) Iceburg salads don’t count as a substantial vegetarian meal.

    – Fake meat and fake milk are optional. The quality (in terms of taste) of fake foods is hit or miss. I suspect many people are discourage from becoming vegetarian because they figure they’ll have to eat fake meat to make up for the absence of real meat. Tofu is highly overrated in this regard, imho. I find it easier to cook with seitan instead. The best ‘fake’ foods are homemade recipes which don’t try very hard to replicate the real thing, but do try to be good to eat.

    – Getting enough protein can be done by accident, but getting *lots* of vegetarian protein takes planning (say for pregnant women or weightlifters). Ounce for ounce, vegetarian and vegan fare really does have less protein.

    – Beware of dietary perfectionism and isolationism. Having a strategy for staying socially engaged with the non-vegetarian world is probably as important as learning the new recipes.

  10. James Field

    I’m a 17 year vegan with 2 vegan kids (5 and 8) and all three of us just completed a triathlon in the past month (as well as soccer season and a 5K/10K run/walk). My general reaction to Lappe (which I used when I went veg in 88) is that people tend to overcomplicate things. Most of the people who have ended up with problems even further restricted their eating (like macrobiotic or fruitarian). While I loved the Moosewood books (I would say Sundays at Moosewood is the only Moosewood book I ever look at now), used to recommend Laurel’s Kitchen to new vegetarians, and probably got the most personally out of the New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook; all three have a very hippie aesthetic. My most used cookbooks lately have been Lorna Sass (link) and Madhur Jaffrey titles (link)

  11. Ms. Theologian

    This is such great advice! I’ve been mostly vegetarian for just over 20 years (I eat fish every once and a while, mostly on business trips), and wish someone had told me all of this a while ago. Especially the B-12 part.

    I recommend Vegetarian Times for your friend. It comes monthly. It focuses on relatively quick meals without esoteric ingredients. It tends to be seasonally oriented in terms of ingredients. And articles focus on many of the motivations for vegetarianism (animal welfare, less planetary impact, health). One caveat—it’s packaged as a women’s magazine, good for your friend, but probably not for everyone.

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