Vegetarianism: An Easy Guide to Meat-Free Eating

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?

A Woman Holding Vegetables

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 pescetarian, 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.1 A study in England has shown that vegetarians are about 40 percent less likely to develop cancer than meat eaters are,2 and Harvard studies that included tens of thousands of people have shown that regular meat consumption increases colon cancer risk by roughly 300 percent.3 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:

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.

"Fancy" Cookbooks:

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.
To help you attempt a greener diet, here's a colorful recipe that would look fantastic on anyone's table, for a holiday or any day.

Spinach Salad with Quinoa, Garbanzo Beans, and Paprika Dressing

Spinach SaladQuinoa, a delicate grain with a texture similar to that of couscous, cooks up in just 15 minutes. It's a complete protein that's nutritious and tastes great.
Place quinoa in a large saucepan; add enough salted water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cover and simmer until quinoa is tender, 15 to 16 minutes. Drain. Chill until cool. Meanwhile, combine spinach, garbanzos, cucumber, tomatoes, mint leaves, and half of the feta cheese in an extra-large bowl. Add cooled quinoa and toss gently to blend. Whisk vinegar and paprika in small bowl. Gradually whisk in oil. Season dressing with salt and pepper. Pour dressing over salad; toss to coat. Season with more salt and pepper. Sprinkle remaining feta over salad and serve. Makes 8 servings.
Total Preparation Time: 40 minutes.
Cooking Time: 15 to 16 minutes.
Nutritional Information: (per serving)

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