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Counseling Clients Who Want to Become Vegetarians or Vegans

By Densie Webb, PhD, RD

When your client or patient decides to forgo meat and make the switch to a vegetarian or even a vegan diet, are you prepared to counsel them on how to make the transition as smooth and stress-free as possible?

Today’s Dietitian speaks with Libby Mills, MS, RD, LDN, FAND, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, about advising clients on how to become vegetarian or vegan. Here are a few tips she offers on how to help them be successful in making the change.

Plan for Protein
One of the biggest concerns of becoming a vegetarian or vegan is getting enough protein without meat on the plate. The protein recommendation for most adults is 0.8 g/kg of body weight. That works out to be 55 g/day for a 150-lb person. While there’s no official recommendation for increased protein intake for those aged 65 and older, research suggests 1 to 1.2 g/kg may be needed to help maintain muscle mass. That works out to be 68 to 82 g per day. If appetite has waned in your older clients, then getting the most protein bang per meal is critical. There are plenty of plant foods that provide protein, of course, but advising on the wisest choices for their unique circumstances and tastes can ensure adequate protein intake, especially for older clients.

Being well versed in vegetable-based meat substitutes and plant-based milks can make the transition much easier for some. There’s an increasing variety of plant-based meat and milk alternatives, and more recently, plant-based seafood alternatives from which to choose.

While the protein contents of both animal- and plant-based protein sources vary greatly, a few comparisons offer some insight into the vast differences that exist. For example, 1 cup of whole cow’s milk provides about 8 g protein, while most plant-based milk alternatives provide less than one-half that amount. Soymilk is the exception, providing the same 8 g protein as cow’s milk per serving. The protein gap between red meat and plant-based meats can be great or comparable depending on the product. A 3 1/2-oz serving of lean roast beef provides 23 g protein, while the plant-based Field Roast Italian Garlic and Fennel Sausages (one sausage) offers 25 g protein. Beyond Burger offers 20 g protein per patty. The table below provides a wide variety of vegetarian protein sources with a wide range of protein contents.

Tips for Transitioning
According to Mills, “Many people simply don’t know where to begin. Undoing a lifelong meat-eating practice does not happen overnight.” She says dietitians should suggest clients not go “cold turkey,” so to speak. While making the decision to go vegetarian or vegan can be exciting and motivating, it’s not always as easy as flipping a switch from omnivore to vegetarian or vegan; in fact, it can be really hard. “A transition allows time to gain knowledge, develop confidence, and find foods they enjoy,” Mills says. Advise your clients to try eating less meat at first or at least eating less red meat. Once they’re accustomed to eating less meat, they can reduce their intake even further.

If your client or patient already has decided to go vegetarian or vegan, there’s no need to provide a detailed lesson on the health benefits of a vegetarian diet. Rather, congratulate them on making a healthful choice and ask what they think they need the most help with during the transition.

Make sure you know what their living situation is. If their family isn’t on board, this likely will make the switch more difficult and sticking with it even more so. Help clients with meal planning that will enable them to provide meals for everyone without turning into a short-order cook.

Moreover, be prepared to counsel clients about convenience as well as scratch cooking. Have plenty of product recommendations for recipes and convenience foods—frozen entrées, desserts, and snacks.

Densie Webb, PhD, RD, is a freelance writer, editor, and industry consultant based in Austin, Texas.


Plant Protein Sources for Vegetarian or Vegan Diets

Legumes, Grains, Vegetables (1/2 cup) Protein (g)
Pinto beans 11
Adzuki beans 9
Lentils 9
Edamame 9
Black beans 8
Red kidney beans 8
Chickpeas 7
Black-eyed peas 7
Fava beans 7
Wheat berries 6
Kamut 6
Lima beans 6
Quinoa 4
Peas, green 4
Spinach, cooked 3
Nuts and Seeds (1 oz)
Soy nuts 12
Pumpkin seeds 9
Peanuts 7
Almonds 6
Pistachios 6
Flaxseeds 6
Sunflower seeds 6
Chia seeds 5
Walnuts 4
Cashews 4
Plant-Based Milks (8 oz) 
Soymilk, Silk 8
Hemp Milk, Pacific Foods 4
Almond Milk, Silk 1
Oat Milk, Oatly 1
Rice Milk, Rice Dream 0.7
Plant-Based Meats
Field Roast Italian Garlic and Fennel Sausages (1 sausage) 25
Beyond Burger (1 patty) 20
Beyond Meatballs (5 meatballs) 19
Morningstar Farms Chik’N Nuggets (4 nuggets) 13
Smart Dogs (1 link) 7
Loma Linda Taco Filling (1/4 cup) 6
Cacique Soy Chorizo (2 oz) 6
Loma Linda Sloppy Joe (2 oz) 4
Plant-Based Seafood
Good Catch Crab Cakes (2 cakes) 15
Jinka Vega Tuna Spread, Lemon & Dill (1/4 cup) 14
Good Catch Fish Sticks (5 sticks) 12
Gardein Mini Cr’b Cakes (3 pieces) 9
Sophie’s Shrimp (3.5 oz) 6
Sophie’s Smoked Salmon (1.8 oz) 1

— Source: Company websites