05/04/2012 05:48 pm ET Updated Jul 04, 2012

How to Go Vegetarian the Right Way

By Abby Gilman

When is the last time you consumed a Big Mac or McChicken meal? Did you consider the effects your 99-cent meal had on the environment, your health and animals?

Buda-ba-ba-ba, I'm hatin' it.

Or, at least animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is. Animal rights is the No. 1 reason PETA promotes vegetarian diets. The McCruelty campaign aims to impose less cruel forms of slaughtering upon McDonald's meat suppliers.

"That's a step in the right direction, although we of course wish they weren't being slaughtered at all," said Ryan Huling, manager of college campaigns and outreach at PETA.

Although PETA focuses on animal rights, this isn't the only motive with a wide-felt impact. The United Nations cites the raising of animals for food as the No. 1 contributor to climate change, beating out cars, trains, planes and boats combined, according to Huling.

Switching to a plant-based diet can lessen your contribution to global warming and the overall use of resources, Huling says. It can also boost your health.

Sally Barclay, clinician at Iowa State University, encourages a vegetarian diet for its health benefits. To put things into perspective, Barclay notes that a 6-ounce piece of steak contains 40 grams of protein, but with that comes 38 grams of fat and 14 grams of saturated fat. Compare that to a cup of lentils, with 18 grams of protein and less than 1 gram of fat.

According to Barclay, a vegetarian diet can result in a lower body weight due to an increased consumption of plant proteins, which are naturally lower in calories than animal proteins. Vegetarians also have a lower risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Hannah Kalmes, student at Iowa State University, has been pescatarian -- a plant-based diet with fish -- for two and a half years. Kalmes has noticed the benefits of the diet, such as weight loss, but has struggled with maintaining a well-rounded and balanced diet.

"I'm not the healthiest here, but I guess I kind of try to watch what I am eating so I'm not just eating junk food," Kalmes said. "I eat a lot of pastas and breads and things that keep you full longer but isn't definitely the best."

Her struggles aren't uncommon. Barclay encourages vegetarians to eat a variety of protein sources (the big ones being soy products, beans, lentils and nuts), incorporate five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day and supplement with a multivitamin.

Preparing a colorful plate can help ensure a healthy diet.

"Eat a rainbow, because the more colors you eat, the more different antioxidants and health benefits you get," Barclay said.

Maintaining a well-balanced vegetarian diet can be tough for those on a budget, but it is possible. Shop and cook in bulk to cut down costs and save time later on by reheating the leftovers. Buy frozen fruits and vegetables -- they'll last longer and pack just as many nutrients as they would fresh. Save money by knowing the Dirty Dozen, the top 12 fruits and vegetables that use the most pesticides and should be bought organic -- all others can be bought at a cheaper, non-organic price.

Barclay and Huling both point out that being open to trying new things can make the transition into a vegetarian diet easier.

"I encourage people to go at their own pace, but at the same time, not to be hesitant to try new foods," Huling said. "There are so many different ethnicities of dishes that are delicious and vegetarian-friendly. People can be exposed to new kinds of food perhaps by leaving meat off their plate."

This post originally appeared in Ethos Magazine.