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Getting Started As a Vegetarian

It’s Easier Than You Think

You’ve decided to stop taking half measures to fight your high cholesterol. Or maybe you’re asking yourself why, if you love animals called pets, you eat animals called dinner. Or you’re feeling guilty about using up more than your fair share of the earth’s resources by eating an animal-based diet. Whatever your reasons, you want to become a vegetarian. Congratulations!

But then the doubts surface. Will I make myself sick if I don’t do it right? Will I get enough protein? Enough calcium? Enough iron? Don’t I need to know a lot about nutrition? Is the food expensive? Do I have to shop at a special store? What if I don’t have time to cook?

Relax! Being a vegetarian can be compatible with anyone’s lifestyle and food preferences. All you need is a little knowledge, some common sense, and a few good recipes. Once you make up your mind to try, you can move along the path to vegetarianism--your way.

Know Yourself
We all have our own style for making major changes. Some of us like to do it all at once, to “get it over with.” Others prefer to move gradually, taking further steps as we feel ready. Do what works best for you.

In becoming vegetarians, we want to improve our health, not make it worse. So most of us are interested in good nutrition. Don’t believe those who tell you it’s hard to plan a good vegetarian diet! The US Department of Agriculture’s most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans affirm the healthfulness of meatless eating: “Vegetarian diets are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines and can meet Recommended Dietary Allowances for nutrients.”

Healthy Eating
To make health-promoting food choices as a vegetarian, this is all you need to know:

  • Eat a variety of foods from the New Four Food Groups suggested by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine--grains, legumes (including tofu and soy milk), vegetables, and fruits (dairy and eggs, optional).
  • Strictly limit saturated fats, partially hydrogenated and trans fats, and simple sugars (not just white sugar, but honey, molasses, maple or rice syrup, etc.). These “empty calories” displace nutrient-rich foods in your diet and can promote heart disease, cancers, obesity, and tooth decay. Also keep down the total fat in your diet.
  • Instead of refined foods, choose whole starches like whole wheat and pasta, brown rice, whole cornmeal, other grains, potatoes.
  • Eat dark leafy greens every day, foods like broccoli, kale, green cabbage, bok choy, sea vegetables, romaine, and dark green leaf lettuce. These supply calcium, iron, riboflavin, and vitamins A and C. Spinach and chard are also rich in iron and calcium, but the body may not absorb them as well.
  • Eat enough calories from nourishing foods to maintain normal weight.
  • Replace the meat in your diet with grains and legumes, not dairy products.

You may lower your iron level to the point of anemia if you substitute cheese for meat. This is because dairy products are very low in iron, whereas meat is high in iron. Grains and legumes also supply iron, which the body absorbs better if you eat something with vitamin C, such as citrus fruit, strawberries, tomatoes, or broccoli, at the same meal.

Complete Protein
If you eat this way, you will get enough protein and the other nutrients you need. You do not need to worry about “combining proteins” by eating grains with legumes or other combinations. In the 1997 position paper on vegetarian diets of the American Dietetic Association, we read: “Plant sources of protein alone can provide adequate amounts of essential amino acids if a variety of plant foods are consumed and energy needs are met. Research suggests that complementary proteins do not need to be consumed at the same time.”

What about B12?
The only nutrient which cannot be reliably supplied in a pure-vegetarian diet is vitamin B12. Our bodies can store and recycle B12 with varying efficiency, so signs of deficiency may not appear for years. Given the serious and permanent consequences of B12 deficiency, vegans should use supplements or fortified foods as sources of this vitamin. If you eat eggs or dairy, you may be getting adequate B12 from these foods. If you avoid all animal-source foods, reliable sources of B12 include fortified cereals, fortified non-dairy milks, and other fortified foods (check the label), or a microbial-source B12 pill or multivitamin a few times a week. Using a vitamin D supplement or fortified foods is also important for people who do not get enough sunshine.

Getting plenty of the B vitamins folate, B6, and B12 helps reduce blood levels of homocysteine, which appears to be associated with increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Folate and B6 are abundant in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes common in good meatless diets, but B12 may be low or lacking unless you use fortified foods or supplements.

Consuming a better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids may reduce your risk for heart disease and other health problems. Some ways to do this are to use monounsaturated oils like olive and canola for cooking and salads rather than polyunsaturated oils like safflower, corn, and cottonseed. Daily use of flaxseed oil, hemp oil, or ground flaxseeds on salad or over cooked foods will supply omega-3 fatty acids (no, you don’t have to eat salmon or tuna!). Flaxseed oil and hemp oil break down easily and are not suitable for cooking.

Replacing the Tripartite Plate
Vegetarian nutrition is a non-problem if you follow these simple suggestions. But what do you eat instead of meat? Here, a good cookbook is essential (although you can just eat some whole grains with lots of raw or cooked vegetables or fruit, if you prefer simple food).

Get out of the tripartite-plate mindset (meat, starch, vegetable) and think of new meal patterns, like grains with vegetable sauces, or hearty soups with bread and salad. Make meatless versions of foods you already enjoy, like spaghetti with marinara sauce, split-pea soup, chili, bean enchiladas, stir-fries, curries, vegetable soups, wholegrain waffles with fruit, and meatless sandwich spreads.

Needed: A Good Cookbook
There are many excellent vegetarian cookbooks available. Look for one that emphasizes low-fat selections rather than foods high in oil, nuts, or cheese. The New Laurel’s Kitchen is a classic that is comprehensive and has a reliable, though somewhat dated, nutrition section. The New McDougall Cookbook by John and Mary McDougall features recipes low in fat, sugars, and salt and free of animal products. Meatless Meals for Working People, sold by the VVS, concentrates on easy, mainstream recipes using common ingredients. Any bookstore or natural foods store can order these books for you if they don’t have them in stock.

You can buy all the foods you need for your vegetarian diet in the supermarket. However, natural foods stores offer a better selection and organic foods, besides. You can be adequately nourished with conventional food if you can’t afford organic.

No Money, No Time?
If you need to save money, stick to basic whole foods and avoid expensive nuts, exotic imports, and prepared foods. If you don’t have time to cook, you can buy frozen and packaged convenience foods at natural foods stores. Supermarkets, too, carry meatless foods, such as vegetarian beans, soups, and pasta sauces. Magazines like Vegetarian Times and Vegetarian Journal regularly feature quick and easy recipes.

Do It Your Way
Eating out can present a challenge, though vegetarian foods are becoming more common on restaurant menus. Chinese, Indian, and Italian restaurants usually have a good selection of vegetarian choices, as do Mexican restaurants if they don’t use lard routinely. Even a steak house salad bar can contain many appetizing and filling meatless items. Fast-food restaurants still don’t have much to offer vegetarians; those with salad bars are often the best choice. Vegetarian Journal magazine regularly surveys fast-food companies and some, such as Taco Bell, Subway, Little Caesar’s Pizza, and TGI Friday’s, do offer vegetarian and vegan selections. Be sure to let the manager know of your desire for vegetarian choices. Supply will follow demand.

Dealing with a reluctant spouse or children can be another challenging situation. Remember that there are many successful “mixed marriages,” and you can work out most problems with good communication and mutual consideration.

Becoming a vegetarian, then, need not be complicated, difficult, or expensive. And there are no “Vegetarian Police” checking up on how you’re doing. You decide what your goals are, and why. And as you progress, you’ll find the rewards are not long in coming.
©Copyright 1998, 2001 by Judith L. Miner.

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