Remember the first time you came home for a holiday from college? Your mom had a good home-cooked meal of tofu, kale, asparagus, and quinoa waiting for you on the table, right? Maybe not. Odds are it was a giant meaty-meat fest with a side of meat. We’re Americans, so eating meat is what we do, right?
Again, maybe not. According to a Vegetarian Times study, as of 2008 there were 7.3 million vegetarians in the United States, and 22.8 million more people who follow a “vegetable-inclined” diet, which raises the questions, “How the heck do they do it?” and, perhaps more importantly, “What do they do for holidays?”
That’s what we’re here to discuss today. What is a vegetarian diet? Does it mean you have to survive on sprouts and wheat grass? Why would anyone choose to give up bacon? And if you were to choose a “greener” diet, could you get the kind of body you’re aiming for and still be healthy? Let’s find out.
What exactly is a vegetarian?
Vegetarians follow a plant-based diet, including but not limited to fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds, and maybe dairy products and eggs. Generally, they do not eat meat. That includes red meat, game, poultry, fish, and shellfish. The simple way to look at it is that vegetarians don’t consume anything that has an eyeball.
There are several degrees of vegetarians, ranging from the completely observant vegan, who eats no animal products, including eggs, dairy, honey, or gelatin (and in many cases doesn’t wear leather, silk, or wool), to the far more liberal pescatarian, who includes eggs, dairy, fish, and/or seafood in their diet, but no other meat. Somewhere in the middle is the ovo-lacto vegetarian, whose diet can include eggs, dairy, and honey, but no other animal products.
Why, why, why?
Why would anyone ever give up a “Royale with cheese” (as John Travolta called a Quarter Pounder in Pulp Fiction)? Well, it might make you a heck of a lot healthier. Most vegetarians have lower cholesterol levels than their omnivorous counterparts do, because dietary cholesterol only comes from animal-related sources. Vegetarians with diabetes also tend to manage the disease, and studies have proven that a combination of a low-fat vegetarian diet and exercise can sometimes reverse type 2 diabetes. A study in England has shown that vegetarians are about 40 percent less likely to develop cancer than meat eaters are, and Harvard studies that included tens of thousands of people have shown that regular meat consumption increases colon cancer risk by roughly 300 percent.And beyond the health benefits, there are social, ethical, economic, religious, and philanthropic issues to be considered.
And how do I pull this off?
As easy as it may seem to just exclude certain things from your diet, vegetarians should avoid trying to subsist on French fries and waffles. A lot of nutritional deficiencies are blamed on removing meat from the diet, but most of these can also be attributed to populations that consume a lot of processed foods. If you want to be a healthy vegetarian, here are some things to keep an eye on:
Protein. Believe it or not, protein intake in a vegetarian’s diet is only slightly lower than it is in an omnivore’s. Studies have confirmed that not only do most well-balanced vegetarian diets meet the protein needs of the average person, but they also have enough protein for bodybuilders and athletes. Lacto-ovo-pescatarians obviously have the most simple path to proper protein intake, as eggs, dairy, and fish give them a lot of variety in the protein department.But stricter herbivores also have a plethora of options. Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. Depending which textbook you refer to, there are 20 to 25 different amino acids, 10 of them considered essential or semi-essential, which means your body can’t make them, so you need to get them in your diet. Foods with all 10 essential amino acids are considered to have “complete amino acid profiles.” Many folks assume that meat is the only way to get a complete amino acid profile, but you can get those magic 10 from soy, amaranth, seitan, hempseed, tempeh, buckwheat, Spirulina (blue-green algae), Chlorella (green algae), or quinoa. Or if you don’t want to get fancy about it, any combination of legumes (beans, peas) and grains will do the trick. Even if you separate their consumption by several hours, you’ll still get the benefits of a complete protein. Considering the added fiber and nutrients you’ll get from the legumes, it’s a win-win solution.
However, don’t fall into the common trap of always making soy your go-to protein source. While it’s a fine complete protein, it can also have a lot of carbs and fat. To get the same protein that exists in, say, 4 ounces of roasted chicken breast, you’d need to eat more than four times as much tofu. So it’s better to diversify. Four ounces of seitan, for example, has about three times as much protein as the same amount of tofu does. Shaking things up in the protein department will also give you a more diverse set of nutrients.
Iron. Anyone who has ever suffered from anemia-related exhaustion would do just about anything to avoid it. And everyone knows that iron comes from red meat, right? Surprisingly, there’s more iron in 1 cup of steamed soybeans than there is in 4 ounces of broiled sirloin steak. And if you consume shellfish, it’s good to know that cooked clams have more iron than any other food—ounce for ounce, they have more than four times as much iron as braised beef liver, and more than 10 times as much as roasted beef round. If the thought of clams leaves you cold, most whole-grain cereals come in a close second, iron-wise. In addition to finding iron in other shellfish, like oysters, you’ll also find it in pumpkin seeds, white beans, molasses, lentils, and spinach. The truth is, vegetarians with a balanced diet are no more likely to become anemic than meat eaters are.
Calcium. We all know that calcium makes our bones strong and helps us avoid osteoporosis. If you’re a lacto-vegetarian, calcium is pretty easy to come by. Milk, yogurt, and cheese all contain a pretty decent amount; a cup of milk tops the list, with almost a third of your daily requirement. But guess what has even more? One single cup of cooked spinach. Yes, again the leafy green takes the prize. (Keep in mind that’s one cup measured after, not before, cooking.) Other amazing calcium-rich foods include broccoli, kale, turnip greens, mustard greens, açai berries, almonds, oranges, tofu, chickpeas, and sardines. The average person should take in 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day, which could be covered in one big green salad if you choose your ingredients well.
B12. Often a deficiency of vitamin B12 has no symptoms, but when symptoms do appear, they can include tiredness, a decreased mental capacity (especially where work is concerned), weakened concentration and memory, irritability, depression, and sleep disturbances. Unfortunately for vegetarians and vegans, the most common foods that naturally contain vitamin B12 are meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. There’s been quite a bit of research done in an effort to discover a plant-based source of B12. As it stands, nutritional yeast, Indonesian tempeh, dulse (red algae), Chlorella, raw nori (edible seaweed), Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (blue-green algae), and coccolithophorid algae have the most promise of containing enough B12 to counteract a dietetic deficiency. But to date, that research isn’t really conclusive. If you do consume eggs or dairy products, you should be just fine, B12-wise. If you don’t, a vitamin supplement that contains B12 could really help you out here.
Vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for promoting calcium absorption, modulation of neuromuscular and immune function, and reduction of inflammation. And again, vitamin D is most readily available in fish, dairy, and egg products—unless you live in an area where the sun’s rays penetrate the atmosphere at a high enough angle to let your skin cells manufacture vitamin D, in which case, you can just go outside, although keep in mind that strong sunscreen will counteract your vitamin D production efforts. Sunshine, or ultraviolet light, has all the vitamin D you need, and it’s free, and no heavy sunbathing is required. All it takes is about 20 minutes per day on your face and arms. If you happen to live in Seattle or some other less-sunny climate, you can’t just bask in the glow of an indoor tanning salon’s ultraviolet light, because most of them only provide UVA, and we need UVB to make vitamin D. But take heart; if you get enough sun during the summer months, your body will store enough vitamin D in its adipose tissue to last you through the winter. There are also many vitamin-D-fortified cereals, juices, and milk alternatives, as well as vitamin D supplements.
Omega-3s. We hear a lot about omega-3s, and for good reason. Research shows the right kind can help prevent heart disease and maintain optimum blood pressure and cholesterol levels. For the pescatarian, omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish, including salmon, tuna, and halibut. But some plants and nut oils, like flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, chia seed, canola oil, soybeans, soybean oil, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin seed oil, purslane, perilla seed oil, walnuts, and walnut oil, contain omega-3s as well. Other sources of omega-3 fatty acids include sea plants like algae and cold-water invertebrates like krill.
But how do I prepare all these weird-sounding foods?
One of the great things about being a vegetarian in 2011 is that vegetarian foods are much more readily available than ever before. Most local health food stores carry some form of freshly made meals, or at least the ingredients to create your own. And should you want to spend time in your kitchen, there are hundreds of amazing cookbooks available. Here are a few of my favorites.
– The Moosewood Restaurant-Cooking for Health: More Than 200 New Vegetarian and Vegan Recipes for Delicious and Nutrient-Rich Dishes, by the Moosewood Collective.
– The Gate Vegetarian Cookbook: Where Asia Meets the Mediterranean, by Adrian and Michael Daniel.
– The Real Food Daily Cookbook: Really Fresh, Really Good, Really Vegetarian, by Ann Gentry.
– The Rancho La Puerta Cookbook: 175 Bold Vegetarian Recipes from America’s Premier Fitness Spa, by Bill Wavrin.
Quick and Easy Cookbooks:
– Quick Fix Vegetarian: Healthy Home-Cooked Meals in 30 Minutes or Less, by Robin Robertson.
– How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food, by Mark Bittman.
– Student’s Vegetarian Cookbook, Revised: Quick, Easy, Cheap, and Tasty Vegetarian Recipes, by Carole Raymond.
– The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet: 250 Simple Recipes and Dozens of Healthy Menus for Eating Well Every Day, by Nava Atlas.
“Ultra Healthy” Cookbooks:
– The Everything Vegetarian Cookbook: 300 Healthy Recipes Everyone Will Enjoy, by Jay Weinstein.
– The Get Healthy, Go Vegan Cookbook: 125 Easy and Delicious Recipes to Jump-Start Weight Loss and Help You Feel Great, by Neal Barnard and Robyn Webb.
– The Lowfat Jewish Vegetarian Cookbook: Healthy Traditions from Around the World, by Debra Wasserman.
To sum up
For many people, the idea of giving up a juicy steak for a lifetime of seitan seems strange. But as Robert Cheeke, the well-known vegan bodybuilder, once said, “The standard diet of a meat-eater is blood, flesh, veins, muscles, tendons, cow secretions, hen periods, and bee vomit. And once a year during a certain holiday in November, meat-eaters use a hollowed-out rectum of a dead bird as a pressure cooker for stuffing. And people think vegans are weird because we eat tofu?” While his choice of words is admittedly pretty gross, his point is clear: We often blindly follow trends instead of keeping our focus on healthy lifestyle options, especially food-related ones, that are perfectly natural. Deciding to eat in a way that’s not only healthy but more sustainable for the planet shouldn’t result in being labeled as a freak.