Friday, November 09, 2007


Giving up meat doesn’t mean giving up taste

Pasta with butternut squash and shallots. Grilled portabella mushroom sandwiches. Black bean burritos. Barley and roasted vegetable soup. Lentil curry. Tofu kabobs.
Today’s markets, cookbooks and restaurant selections offer many vegetarian dishes created with flavorful food combinations. Whether you choose a vegetarian eating style or not, these dishes can add food variety and taste experiences to smart eating.
A plant-based diet is nothing new. The term vegetarian was not coined until with late 1800’s although the concept dates back at least to the sixth century B.C. when the Greek Philosopher, Pythagoras, encouraged meatless eating. Many centuries later in the Western world meatless eating was church-related. Harvey Kellogg, a vegetarian, not only developed breakfast cereals; he also invented nuttose, the first meat analog made from peanuts and flour; the first peanut butter.
Vegetarian eating styles differ, as do the reasons why people choose to become vegetarians. With today’s focus on fitness, many cite health reasons. Others express concerns about the environment, compassion for animals, or religious reasons. Others simply prefer the flavors and food mixtures of vegetarian dishes, and many recognize that a plant-based diet often costs less.
Studies show a positive link between vegetarian eating and health. In general, the evidence of some health related problems – heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer - tends to be lower among vegetarians.
In a broad definition, being vegetarian means avoiding foods from animal origin and replacing them with plant sources. If you are a vegetarian, you may describe yourself in one of these ways:
• Lacto-ovo vegetarian: choose an eating approach with eggs and dairy products but no meats, poultry and fish.
• Lacto vegetarian: avoid meat, poultry and fish and eggs but eat dairy products.
• Vegan: choose no meat, poultry, fish, eggs or dairy.
• Semi vegetarian: usually follow a vegetarian eating pattern but occasionally eats meat, poultry or fish.
Can vegetarian eating supply your body with sufficient nutrients? Yes. As with any eating style, you need to choose foods carefully and consume the right amount of overall calories to support a healthy weight.
Healthy eating guidelines still apply: go easy on the saturated fat, transaturated fat, cholesterol as well as total fat. Added sugars and added salt should be minimal along with aiming for whole grains, adequate fruits and vegetables. For vegetarians who eat dairy products and perhaps eggs, nutrition issues are not much different from those of non vegetarians: For vegans, the nutrition issues differ somewhat. Without any foods from animal origin, getting enough calories to maintain a healthy weight can be a challenge, especially for growing children and teens. Nutrients that may come up short need special attention: vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron and zinc. Nonetheless, planned wisely, a vegan diet can provide enough nutrients for overall good health.
Not up to giving up your animal products? A great place to start is to add a meatless meal to your weekly menu. It can be a simple switch from a pasta dish with meat sauce to a vegetable topping, tomato sauce with beans or with olives and capers. Or perhaps it can be as simple as cutting the animal protein in half in your chili or other Mexican-type recipes and replace with kidney, black or pink beans. Not only will these suggestions potentially cost less, they will be much healthier and they will be tasty as well.

Sarah Hospod is a registered dietitian in the Food and Nutrition Department at The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Hospod and all of the Healthy Living columnists at

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