Wannabe Vegetarians

As more research reinforces the value of a diet rich in vegetables and low in meats, more individuals likely will be considering a vegetarian lifestyle. What used to be a choice of conscience now is increasingly becoming a choice of health consciousness.

The Meatless Monday campaign, in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, reports that going meatless even one day per week won’t only reduce cancer and heart disease risk, help prevent diabetes, curb obesity, and increase life-span, it also will support the environment by reducing people’s carbon footprint and water usage as well as decreasing dependence on fossil fuels.

Whether or not persons wish to become vegetarians (avoiding meat but still eating eggs and dairy), vegans (eschewing all animal products), or pescatarians (including fish and seafood in an otherwise vegetarian or vegan eating pattern), the transition can seem daunting. But if individuals begin with a clear understanding of protein sources, a willingness to try new things, a little patience, and some creativity, they’ll get off to a better start.

While dairy and eggs are the most obvious sources of protein in the vegetarian diet, plants contain protein as well. For example, the soybean has long been a versatile leguminous protein source in Asian cultures. Eaten steamed right out of the pod (edamame), roasted (soy nuts), coagulated (tofu), and fermented (tempeh), or as a paste (miso), porridge, nut butter, or milk, soy is an excellent source of protein. Other legumes, such as beans, lentils, peas, and peanuts, provide protein as well, and many dishes can be built around them, such as rice and beans or couscous with chickpeas.

Nuts and nut butters are a tasty way to add protein to meals, along with good monounsaturated fat. Grains and quinoa also contain protein. While it was once believed that plant-based meals had to be eaten in combinations that produced complete proteins (containing all nine of the essential amino acids), it’s now understood that eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds over time can provide all of the amino acids the human body needs.

Meat and Dairy Substitutes
Today’s market is flooded with a wide variety of meat substitutes. Vegetarian burgers, hot dogs, and sausage; faux chicken patties and nuggets; crumbles for tacos and Bolognese sauces; and even meaty “steak tips” are readily available in the refrigerated or frozen sections of mainstream and specialty stores. Many of these products are soy based, but others consist of grains, beans, vegetables, or mushrooms.

Ready-to-eat vegetarian entrées also are increasingly available, and just a few minutes in the microwave away from the table. While these prepackaged options can be helpful additions to a vegetarian diet, fresh-prepared meat-free meals can be simple and satisfying. Adapting some traditional favorites can ease the transition. Vegetarian chili with beans is nutritious, but adding bulgur or other grains can provide a meaty chew. Top chili with shredded cheese, sour cream, and sliced green onions or cilantro, and serve with sides of rice and cornbread for a meal. Make tacos or sloppy Joes with prepackaged meatless crumbles, but lentils work nicely as well. Portobello mushrooms are known for their meaty flavor and texture, so suggest to eat them whole as a burger replacement or chopped in pasta sauce.

Macaroni and cheese is a comfort food that’s still on the menu for vegetarians as well as grilled cheese, pasta primavera, veggie lasagna, and pizza. For those avoiding dairy, cheese substitutes that actually melt can keep these favorites on the menu and, with some experimentation, milk can be used as a substitute in baking and breakfast cereal.

The willingness to try new things can open up a whole world of flavors to emerging vegetarians. Many non-Western diets rely less on meats and offer a variety of unexplored flavors. For example, Chinese vegetable stir-fries and tofu dishes may be familiar to many, but the fresh tastes of Vietnamese cooking, the rich coconut milk curries of Thai, the lentil dal in Indian food, bean dishes in Mexican cooking, and the chickpea-based hummus and falafel from the Mediterranean region are just a few examples of vegetarian options clients can discover. For those who cook, suggest you choose a vegetarian cookbook or use the many free vegetarian websites or the vegetarian sections of popular recipe resources on the Internet.

One Day at a Time
Eating meatless meals just one day per week is a stress-free way to ease into vegetarianism. This approach allows individuals to experiment with new recipes over time without the intense planning necessary to change purchasing, cooking, and dining decisions all at once. After a list of favorite vegetarian meals are developed, it doesn’t take much effort to add another day or two of vegetarian cuisine.

Whether committed to improving health, the health of the planet, or the welfare of animals, vegetarianism can achieve their goals. Going meatless doesn’t have to be a chore. There are many resources and all it takes is a little patience and practice. Vegetarianism opens up new worlds of wonderful tastes and textures that can reawaken the senses to the joys of food.

By: Judith C. Thalheimer, RD, LDN, is a freelance nutrition writer and community educator living in the Philadelphia area.

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