Published research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in May 1994, showed that a vegetarian diet may have health benefits. These include reduced risk of chronic diseases, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure and osteoporosis. The desire for better health has, indeed, become a main reason people are choosing to have more meatless meals.
You may have noticed that some vegetarians eat fish and chicken, whereas others eat no animal products at all. Strict vegetarians avoid all foods of animal origin. Their diet is free of all beef, pork, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy products. This type of vegetarian is called a 'vegan.' A 'lacto-ovo' vegetarian, which is the most common type, avoids eating animal meats, but continues to consume dairy products and eggs.
Becoming a vegetarian means much more than simply eliminating animal foods. Special attention is needed to replace the animal proteins with protein-rich plant foods that provide similar nutrients. Vegetarians who do not get the right amount of protein in their diets may lack energy. Worse still, they may be at risk for osteoporosis and anemia, and be more susceptible to colds, flu and infections.
To plan healthy meatless meals, you must understand the different nutrients in plant foods and balance your diet accordingly. Plant foods, such as beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits are important components of meatless meals. When used correctly, these will ensure that you are getting the protein, zinc, iron and calcium you would usually consume from animal protein. The goals of vegetarian eating are:
Do you wonder what exactly a meatless meal looks like? This is where legumes play a major role. Legumes are beans of all types including black, pinto, kidney, navy and chickpeas. They also include lentils, split and black-eyed peas. Hearty and filling, legumes pack a terrific nutrition punch and each type has a unique distinctive flavour. Legumes are important sources of protein, iron, B vitamins and zinc, which would be missing in a diet devoid of animal products.
The versatility of beans, lentils and split peas are endless as they can be used in any dish. They are excellent in summer savory soups, light vegetable stews, or three-bean chilis. They enhance other foods such as when added to a tomato basil sauce. For a quick meal, they can become a main ingredient in a vegetable stir-fry, pinto bean burrito, or a leafy green or wild rice salad.
Other ideas include making legumes into vegetarian burgers for the barbecue, or baking them in a loaf served with an apricot chutney. They can be blended into a spread with herbs and garlic for pita pocket sandwiches or served as hors d’oeuvres. Legume flavours are enhanced by fresh herbs and spices.
For quick and easy meals, canned beans are a convenient choice. These provide the equivalent nutrients of dried beans, yet require little preparation time. They can be added to your favourite vegetable soup or salad, or can be a source of protein on a baked potato.
Tofu or soy products such as wieners, burgers and luncheon slices can add protein with very little fuss. Like canned beans, they require no soaking and minimal cooking time. Marinated tofu can be stir fried with ginger and garlic and barbecued on a shish-kebab with peppers and onions. It makes an excellent base for a vegetable dip.
Nuts and seeds, such as almonds, cashews, pecans, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds add protein to the diet as well. They can be added to a fruit salad, used in a trail mix for a snack, or as 'nut butters' for toast and sandwiches.
An added benefit of legumes is that they are low in fat, contain no cholesterol and are sources of calcium. To meet our protein requirements, we only need two to four half-cup (125 ml) servings of beans, lentils or split peas per day. (Pregnant and nursing women need higher protein levels, and therefore require three to four servings per day.)
The next essential aspect of meatless meal planning is whole grains. Whole grains are far more nutritious than refined cereals and grains, such as white flour breads and pastas. Whole grains provide protein, iron, vitamin E and zinc to the diet, but more importantly, they contribute fibre and essential B vitamins.
Whole grains are remarkable for their diversity. Consider grains like bulgur wheat, barley, buckwheat and quinoa as well as the usual whole wheat breads and cereals.
Whole grains, like legumes, have different tastes and textures. These grains, used with legumes, can make vegetarian meals tasty and interesting. Brown basmati rice can complement a bean curry. Pot barley can be added to navy bean soup, and fresh greens or roasted buckwheat can be enjoyed as a pilaf with basil, carrots and chickpeas. Whole grain breads can also be found that are made of cornmeal, flax, rye, kamut or spelt.
Vegetables and fruits are the third and final component of a vegetarian meal. They add essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phtyochemicals. These can protect us from cell damage, aging, heart disease and cancer. As well, they add fibre to the diet.
A variety of vegetables, such as summer squash, zucchini, fresh tomatoes, garden peas, spinach and green beans can add freshness and a taste of spring to meals. Garden herb vinaigrettes can add a light taste to a bulgur wheat and black bean salad. The juices from citrus fruits, such as lemons, limes and grapefruit lighten up any vegetarian dish.
Be Prepared: Have a variety of beans, lentils, split peas and whole grains on hand. Keep a well-stocked vegetarian pantry including a variety of herbs and spices.
Try Something New: Introduce a few new vegetarian recipes a week. After a few months you will have a repertoire of favourites.
Remember Veggies: Include a wide variety of fresh, frozen, cooked or raw vegetables as they add freshness, flavour and colour to your vegetarian dishes.
Explore New Ideas: Experiment with new cookbooks, share recipes with friends, or visit a local ethnic restaurant for seasonal menu ideas.
The shift to a more vegetarian way of eating can be an easy one if you begin to plan your meals around a variety of plant foods and important nutrients. In no time you will begin to enjoy the experience as you taste the unique flavours and notice the health benefits of meatless cuisine.
Note: Infants and seniors eating a strict vegetarian diet need a careful balance of protein, zinc and vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is of particular concern because a deficiency can lead to irreversible neurological damage. Lack of calcium and vitamin D are also a concern for those who use no milk or dairy products. A consultation with a registered dietitian can assist with diet planning.