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More and more health professionals are encouraging consumers to cut back on fat, and vegetarian meals are finding a welcome place in the lives of more Americans. This does not mean that all Americans are becoming vegetarians, but many are now eating meatless meals at least several times a week.
More than ever, American shoppers are motivated by health concerns, especially about fats and cholesterol, and are turning away from meats and toward meals that are based on whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. American attitudes about the need to eat meat every day are changing, and with health experts agreeing that a diet with little or no meat can be a balanced diet, shoppers are reacting. Concerned about fats and cholesterol, and looking to add more fiber to their meals, people are choosing more vegetable-based meals and cutting back on the saturated fat found in meat and dairy products.
Surprisingly, some people seem to be leery of meatless meals, afraid that these meals will leave them feeling hungry and deprived. I have found just the opposite to be true. Because vegetarian meals can be made to contain less fat and fewer calories, they can be eaten in large quantities without the negative side effects associated with large amounts of fat and cholesterol. You can eat a huge amount of pasta (in a meatless sauce), for example, and never come close to consuming the amount of fat you would consume if you ate a small piece of meat.
Ethnic meals are becoming more popular, especially meals that de-emphasize meat. Many people regularly enjoy ethnic favorites without actually realizing that these foods are meatless. Bean burritos, pizza, and chop suey, for example, are extremely popular meatless foods. Other cultures have already figured out how to make satisfying meals that are not dependent on meat, and it's not surprising to learn that many of their people have a lower incidence of the diseases that are believed to be diet-related. It's a known fact that lower rates of chronic disease exist in countries where diet focuses on fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, breads, and beans. The Chinese and Japanese, for example, use very small amounts of meat and fish and round out their meals with lots of vegetables and rice. As a result, people in these countries consume a lot more fiber and a lot less fat than most Americans.
Basics of Vegetarian Meals
Whenever I tell people that I am a vegetarian, I invariably get lots of questions. Following are the most frequently asked questions. In answering them, I have tried to take today's complicated health concerns and make them easy to understand and to apply.
What Are the Health Benefits of Vegetarian Meals?
Scientific studies have consistently shown that the higher the consumption of meat and high-fat dairy products, the higher the risk of heart disease, certain types of cancer, and possibly other diseases as well. On the other hand, studies have shown that the frequency of heart disease and cancer decreases as the consumption of fruits and vegetables increases.
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Vegetarian meals are also a good source of carbohydrates, the "fuel" that gives our bodies energy. In countries where high-carbohydrate diets, based on fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans are the norm, there are lower incidences of the diseases that appear to be linked to high-fat foods. The old way of thinking was that foods such as pasta and potatoes were "fattening." Now we know that pasta and potatoes are high in energy-producing carbohydrates, and the only fattening part is what we put on them!
What Are the Main Components of Vegetarian Meals?
The main components of vegetarian meals are fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans (legumes). Like any other meals, vegetarian meals should be balanced and consist of a wide variety of foods. Simply eliminating the meat from your diet is not enough. The rest of your food should be fresh and wholesome, with as few packaged or processed ingredients as possible. In other words, if you give up the steak but the rest of the meal consists of fried potatoes, iceberg lettuce, pastries, and beer, you are definitely on the wrong track!
Consume ample portions each day of:
- Fruits -- all types, preferably fresh
- Vegetables -- green, such as broccoli, kale, spinach, cabbage, and romaine lettuce, and yellow, such as carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin.
- Grains -- whole, such as brown rice, corn, millet, oats, bulgur, barley, buckwheat, and wheat (including breads, pasta, and cereals)
- Legumes -- lentils, split peas, soy beans (including tofu), and all kinds of beans -- navy, kidney, pinto, lima, black, etc.
But Will I Get Enough Protein?
Most people are unaware that there is high-quality protein in vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. You can get protein and fiber without all the fat and cholesterol that comes from meat. Also, contrary to what we once believed, it is not necessary to combine protein at each meal. The answer is to eat a balanced diet and include a variety of protein-rich foods each day. For instance, the proteins from oatmeal for breakfast, peanut butter on whole wheat bread for lunch, and lentil casserole and broccoli for dinner will all "find each other" and combine so that your body can utilize them.
Fat and Cholesterol
The subject of fat and cholesterol can be very confusing. Many people do not realize that fat and cholesterol are not the same thing.
What Is the Difference Between Fat and Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a substance that is produced by the body and is used in the production of body tissues. We also get cholesterol from consuming foods that contain cholesterol. When faced with more cholesterol than the body can handle, the response is to "store" the excess cholesterol in the arteries. Health professionals feel that this is a major factor in the development of heart disease.
No plant contains cholesterol; it is only found in animal foods. However, some plant foods are relatively high in fat, so, while large amounts of them do not actually contain cholesterol, they still contribute too much fat to the diet and may raise cholesterol levels in the blood. These high-fat foods should be consumed in moderation. They include nuts, nut butters, coconut, olives, avocados, margarine, and vegetable oils. Be sure to read labels carefully and be aware that some advertisers may tout the advantages of their products as being cholesterol-free but fail to mention the possible high-fat content of the ingredients.
Which Foods Contain Cholesterol?
Remember that only animal products contain cholesterol. This includes meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, egg yolks (the egg white contains no cholesterol), and animal fats such as butter, chicken fat, suet, and lard. However, remember that any fat with a high percentage of saturated fat can also potentially raise your blood cholesterol level. Vegetable sources with a high percentage of saturated fat include palm kernel oil, coconut, and coconut oil.
What Is the Difference Between Saturated and Unsaturated Fat?
Different fats affect the body in different ways. Saturated fats are thicker fats that are solid at room temperature. They tend to elevate blood-cholesterol levels. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, and it is believed that they generally do not raise blood cholesterol levels. Many health professionals recommend that we use the fats that contain the lowest amounts of saturated fat and the highest amounts of monounsaturated fat. The better choices are olive oil and canola oil. (In all of my recipes that call for vegetable oil, I have used canola oil.) But remember that these oils are still all fat and should be consumed in moderation.
How Much Fat Should I Eat?
Many health professionals recommend that we get less than 30 percent of our total daily calories from fat. Still others feel that we should go as low as 10 percent. Most, however, are somewhere in the middle. Of the total amount, most fat calories should come from unsaturated fat. No one is suggesting that you keep a calculator nearby whenever you eat. However, it is a good idea to keep track of your fat grams for a few days to see what you are actually consuming. You may be surprised. Many unsuspected foods contain hidden fats that can really add up if you are not careful.
Are Some Fats Better for You Than Others?
A tablespoon of any oil contains 120 calories and 14 grams of fat. However, many researchers feel that the use of oils that are mostly monounsaturated, such as olive oil and canola oil, may contribute to lower rates of heart disease. Remember that these oils are still fat and should be used in moderation.
What Is Hydrogenated Fat?
Hydrogenated fat is formed when hydrogen is added to liquid oil, a process used by many dessert manufacturers and fast food companies to add both texture and shelf life to their products. Hydrogenated fat is also found in margarine and peanut butter (except in "natural" peanut butter). Hydrogenation changes an oil by making it more saturated, thereby giving it the potential to raise blood-cholesterol levels. If a manufacturer brags about the vegetable shortening used in a product, but the ingredient list indicates that this is a hydrogenated fat, be aware that the product contains saturated fat.
Which Foods Contain the Most Fat?
The foods that are highest in saturated fat are butter, whole milk dairy products, meat, poultry, eggs, and also the recipes and products that contain them, such as mayonnaise, cheese, puddings, and chocolate products.
Where Are the Hidden Fats?
Many people are surprised to learn that foods such as crackers may contain very high amounts of (often saturated) fat. Other potential sources of hidden fats are some cereals (usually the granola types), non-dairy coffee creamers, whipped toppings, snack foods, and even the seemingly innocent foods such as packaged popcorn and dry bread crumbs. The answer here is to always read the labels and lists of ingredients carefully.
Which Is Better, Butter or Margarine?
At one time health professionals advised people to use margarine instead of butter; however that advice has changed. We have learned that margarine contains trans-fatty acids that many health experts feel can raise blood cholesterol even more than butter. However, it is important to remember that even if you use butter, it is best to use it in moderation since it is still high in saturated fat. It is best to get your fat from monounsaturated sources, such as canola oil or olive oil.
What About Dairy Products?
When choosing dairy products, always choose those that are lowest in fat and cholesterol. Choose skim milk, nonfat yogurt, evaporated skim milk, buttermilk, nonfat dry milk, and nonfat or reduced-fat cheeses. If you want "meltability," the reduced-fat cheeses generally melt better than the nonfat ones.
Many people either are unable to, or choose not to, eat dairy products for a variety of reasons. Fortunately there are many new reduced-fat soy and rice-based substitutes on the market today, including milk and cheese. I have found these to work in any recipe that calls for dairy products.
What About Eggs?
In recipes that call for eggs, two egg whites can be substituted for each whole egg, thereby eliminating the cholesterol (found only in the yolk) and lowering the fat content. Commercial egg substitutes will also work. These are made from egg whites, and you may want to compare the price to that of regular egg whites. If you want to eliminate the eggs completely, a three-ounce piece of tofu, blended until smooth, can be substituted for one whole egg (or two egg whites) in baked goods. There are also several completely egg-free egg substitutes available in health food stores.
What About Sugar?
Whatever your choice of sweetener, whether it's sugar, honey, molasses, or maple syrup, the nutritional values are about the same. When our well-meaning mothers told us that foods such as chocolate, cake, and pastry were "fattening," we all assumed that the sugar was causing the bulges. Now we know that the fat in these products is the culprit. The main goal is to reduce the total amount of fat called for in a recipe, and to remember that moderation is the key.
What About Calories?
It's a difficult concept to "swallow," but counting calories is out! It's the fat that's clogging our arteries, not the calories! No one is saying that you can eat everything in sight without regard to calories, but pay attention to the amount of fat in foods and make sure that in your daily diet you are getting no more than 20 to 30 percent of your calories from fat. If you do this and plan your diet around fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, you will automatically eat fewer calories. Isn't it nice that most of the foods that are low in fat are also low in calories?
Fiber is the flip-side of the coin. We always think of cutting back on things, but fiber is something that we actually need more of. Isn't it convenient that most of the foods that are low in fat are also high in fiber?
What Is Fiber?
The word fiber refers to the indigestible parts of plant food, such as pectin, cellulose, and bran. In recent years there has been quite a lot of publicity about fiber. The reason for this is that studies have shown that a high-fiber diet may be our first line of defense against heart disease and several forms of cancer. One particular type of fiber -- water-soluble fiber -- may significantly lower blood-cholesterol levels. This type of fiber is abundant in many plant foods including oats, apples, figs, prunes, carrots, plums, squash, barley, kidney beans, split peas, and chickpeas. The other type of fiber -- insoluble fiber -- is found in whole grains such as cornmeal and whole wheat flour (especially wheat bran), and in fruits and vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, raspberries, and strawberries. This type of fiber seems to improve intestinal function, and many researchers feel that it may help in preventing some types of cancer. It is important to have both types of fiber in our diet. Our grandmothers were right about fiber. They called it roughage and knew it was good for us.
Remember that fiber is only found in plant foods. No animal food contains this important nutrient.
How Much Fiber Do I Need?
Many health professionals recommend that we boost our intake of fiber-rich foods, preferably to between 25 and 30 grams a day. Remember that fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains and legumes, are our main sources of fiber, and we need to have several servings of each of these foods every day. Meat and dairy products contain no fiber.
How Can I Add More Fiber to My Meals?
Here are some quick and easy ways to add fiber to your meals:
* Choose whole-grain breads, crackers, and pasta.
* Choose breakfast cereals made from whole grains.
* Make your own bread crumbs from toasted whole-grain bread.
* Add peas, beans, and lentils to soups, stews, and salads.
* Leave the skin on fruits and vegetables whenever possible.
* Add grated vegetables to sauces and casseroles.
* Use pureed vegetables to thicken soups and stews.
* Make tossed salads using vegetables of all colors.
* Eat fresh or dried fruit for snacks and desserts.
* Use brown rice in place of white rice and try other whole grains, such as oats, millet, barley, and wheat.
* Add cooked grains to soups and casseroles.
* Replace at least half the flour in baked goods with whole wheat flour.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Surrey Books. ©2001. http://www.surreybooks.com
The Vegetarian Gourmet's Easy International Recipes,
by Bobbie Hinman.
In this revised edition, Bobbie Hinman offers more than 350 vegetarian dishes from around the world adapted for people who appreciate low-maintenance cooking. Recipes include Pumpkin-Almond Custard, Corn Fritters with Peanut Dipping Sauce, and Risotto with Asparagus. The book also includes complete nutritional information.
Info/Order this book.
About the Author
Bobbie Hinman is the author and co-author of many cookbooks, including Lean and Luscious, Lean and Luscious and Meatless, More Lean and Luscious, and The Vegetarian Gourmet's Easy Low-Fat Favorites. She is a pioneer in the field of low fat cooking. Bobbie is constantly in demand as a speaker and cooking teacher, and has appeared on many TV and radio shows, and is a frequent contributor to The Vegetarian Journal.