Vegetarian Confessions

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Do you believe that vegetarians are healthier than omnivores?

By Kevin RR Williams

NUTRITION Have you ever heard of an unhealthy vegetarian? Initially, I avoided all meat products. Though not fond of fish, in my third year I began eating salmon twice a month to supplement the need for protein, omega-3 and vitamin B12. By the seventh year, my metabolism had slowed and I was 70 pounds heavier. (Beginning 40 pounds under weight somewhat offset the extreme gain.) Suffering from hyperglycemic-like blackouts, I returned to the carnivorous society with my vegetarian tail tucked between my legs. Why was I so unhealthy? What went wrong?

Not All Vegetarians Are The Same

Vegetarian is not an all-encompassing word for grass-grazing fanatics. Some ease into vegetable diets; others can't stand the site of leather or animal-derived products. A person may begin by excluding red meat while introducing more vegetables into their diet. Some like the idea of Meatless Mondays or Fish Fridays. Vegetarianism may be sought due to various food allergies or dietary conditions. A person can experience gastrointestinal disturbances after eating hamburgers. The problem may not be the beef but the bun if one has celiac disease. Here is a list of the popular types of vegetarians—from casual to devoted.  [1]

  • Flexitarian — someone who enjoys both vegetarian dishes and meat
    Think veggie cheeseburger topped with bacon and side of fried shrimp.
  • Pescatarian or Aquatarian — a person who abstains from all meat except fish
    Think tossed salad topped with salmon steak alongside sweet potato fries.
  • Ovo-Lacto Vegetarian — someone who avoids meat but eats eggs and cheese
    Think egg salad on a bed of field greens with warm parmesan-garlic bread.
  • Vegan — a strict vegetarian that avoids meat, fish, eggs and dairy products
    Think pasta primavera with tofu and roasted almonds.
  • Raw Vegan — unprocessed vegan foods that have not been heated above 115°F
    Think tossed salad topped with raw lentles, virgin olive oil and rice vinegar.
  • Macrobiotic — vegan foods with emphasis on sea and Asian vegetables
    Think seaweed salad with daikon and sprouts.
  • Fruititarians — fruits, nuts, seeds, without animal products, vegetables, grains
    Think fruit cocktail with walnuts.

My Vegetarian Faults

By the above definitions, I was a (rather poor) pescatarian, since I didn't really care for fish due to prior animal-flesh eating nightmares. The path to rooted-food enlightenment was chosen after a couple of hospital visits resulting from improperly stored meat. A particularly bad reaction left my stomach so scarred, I could only drink liquids for 8 months. Thereafter, I became absolutely paranoid about the freshness of meat — to the point where I couldn't enjoy it. So it pleased me to avoid meat and prevent anxiety. After tiring of tofu and veggie patties, I subsisted on sweet protein bars, protein drinks with ice cream and chocolate syrup, and carbohydrates—pastas, rice, bread, pizza, potatoes, chips, cookies, and cakes. I didn't care for whole fruit but loved fruit juices and vegetables.

Sugar is high in calories. Carbohydrates are complex sugars. Fruits are carbohydrates but they include important fiber and vitamins. All this sugar is stored as fat if not absorbed by sufficient protein. It's not too good for your teeth either. Natural fruit juices can contain complex sugars in higher concentration than whole fruit but lack beneficial fiber; [2] it is better to eat whole fruit and drink water. Too much sugar equals high calories stored as fat so my weight soared an average of 10 lbs per year.

How to Become a Good Vegetarian

My experience taught me that vegetarian meal planning is essential to success. It is best to have specific recipes in mind before grocery shopping. Lately, I have become a flexatarian. Meat is replaced with soy products within most recipes. Hungry while on the road, I recently ordered a lettuce-wrapped veggie burger at the Habit. Perhaps I'm on the path to again become a pescatarian or vegetarian. This is causing me to evaluate a more comprehensive strategy for sustained success.

The Checklist for Vegetarian Success sidebar summarizes valuable suggestions. There are also some great websites and iPad apps to help you plan meals and build shopping lists. Technology has made becoming a vegetarian easier.

  • Allrecipes — The paid iPad app is one of the best available. (Allrecipes Dinner Spinner is available for iPhone.) Allrecipes.com includes perhaps the largest library of recipes, which can be uploaded and reviewed by users. A search for "vegetarian" recipes returned 200. Some user-supplied recipes include generic photos but many professional recipes with photos are available. What makes both the site and app particularly useful is the real-time serving size adjustment for recipes and shopping lists. The shopping list is spectacular, automatically sorted by recipe or shopping aisle and it does a good job of combining measurements from multiple recipes on one list. You can even build multiple shopping lists (named on the site) to plan weeks ahead. Easily print, email, or share recipes with social media accounts. Free Allrecipes.com membership is required for some app edits. Paid Supporting Membership provides a user site for uploading recipes, photos, and reviews along with a user profile. Nutritional information is included.
  • iCookbook — Of the thousands of recipes, over 170 vegetarian dishes are included in the iPad app with free monthly additions. Specialty recipe packs of 25 can also be purchased from the in-app store. Make ingredient substitutions to increase the number of vegetarian entrees. Many recipes are sponsored by processed food brands. The brand can range from a specific mustard or a can of soup to a box of cake mix. (It would be nice if healthy alternatives were offered.) The iPad app includes attractive interface with optional voice command and many tools such as suggested substitutions, timers, and conversions. Automatically generated shopping list displays items sorted by recipe or ingredients on aisles which can be printed or emailed. Manually include additional items to list or change quantities.
  • Simply Organic HD — Enjoy well illustrated healthy recipes made with Simply Organic brand products available from Whole Foods and other outlets. The iPad app allows you to build shopping lists by manually tapping each listed ingredient; multiple items of the same time from different recipes are not aggregated.
  • Whole Foods — If you desire great healthy recipes and don't want to drive all over town looking for the ingredients, Whole Foods has a website with many vegetarian recipes along with an attractive universal iPad app sporting professional photography. Save, email, and print favorites. Nutritional info provided.
  • Pepperplate — No recipes are included but favorites may be added from other sources. The iPad app is good for portable viewing but lacks many important features accessible only on the site. Pictures are not yet supported on site or app. The meal planner includes a calendar. Consider this if you plan to edit recipes from other sites by substituting ingredients or want a convenient place to store your own favorite recipes. Meal planing and automatic shopping list support is included.

How do you convert a carnivorous recipe to vegetarian? In most cases, you can substitute tofu (in a variety of firmnesses) for the meat. This doesn't work as well for spare ribs as it does for casseroles or stir-fry. Here's a little secret I learned that imparts more flavor into tofu. Drain and cut into small pieces. Coat with a 2:1 mixture of flour and cornstarch. Fry in peanut oil (which is good for high temperatures) or olive oil for those allergic. Seasoning is optional because the main point is that these bit-size cubes are now sauce magnets. Dip them in marinara sauce and drop on a pizza or add to any other sauce dish like Tofu Picatta or chili. The cornstarch sucks up the flavor, providing anything but a tasteless tofu morsel.

MorningStar Farms offers a wide variety of veggie burgers and sausage patties (typically frozen) to accommodate the taste buds of many vegetarians. (Other brands are available.) Shop for the lowest sodium content or learn how to make your own. There are a variety of Tofurky and Tempeh products with tastes similar to chicken, hot dogs, and sausages.

Yves Meatless Ground Round (270 mg sodium) can be used in tacos, burritos, chilies, lasagna, pasta shells, and shepherd's pie. Trader Joe's has several seasoned meat substitutes like Soy Chorizo (700 mg sodium) or Soyrizo (469 mb sodium) and Sausage-less Italian Sausage (500 mg sodium).

Vegans don't eat cheese and there aren't any good cheese substitutes. Some Tofutti resembles cheese but doesn't melt or taste like it. Swiss or mozzarella real cheeses are lower in fat and sodium than other varieties. Since we've broached the dairy subject, will you prefer natural butter or margarine? There are advantages to each and it depends upon whether you are a dieting vegetarian or just making healthy choices.

The fat in meat is what makes it moist and juicy. Soy substitutes like veggie patties are somewhat dry. Typically you'll enjoy them more with melted cheese, avocado and perhaps Pico Pica or Picapeppa sauce. When it comes to vegetables and condiments, choose cucumbers over pickles; fresh over frozen; and frozen over canned. When it comes to preparation, steam is better than boil; saute (olive oil) is better than fry; broil or bake is better than saute.

Meat substitutes ease the transition from carnivore to vegetarian while providing essential protein. Eventually the taste for meat will subside and you'll look less for meat-tasting products. As the palate becomes more refined, enjoy the delicate flavors of various vegetables and herbs. Learn how to prepare a variety of fresh soups and sauces. A falafel is a tasty dish made from chick peas. Learn how to make it from scratch or try it at a reputable mediterranean restaurant. Wherever your path leads you, don't forget the protein. A balanced meal contains the ideal ratio of 40-50 percent carbohydrates, 25-35 percent protein, and 20-30 percent fat. [3]

Tags: dietitian, herbivores, lacto-ovo vegetarian, pescetarian, suggestions

References
  1. Top 7 Types of Vegetarians. about.com
  2. Budget Eating that Supports Heart Health. partnersforyourhealth.com
  3. Caloric Ratio Pyramid. nutritiondata.self.com
  4. 7 Major Reasons to Go Organic. naturalbias.com
  5. Is Organic Food Better for You?. webmd.com
  6. How to Go Vegetarian or Vegan. about.com
  7. How to Make Vegan Chocolate Cookies. about.com