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A look at plant-based diets

DULUTH, Minn. -- A typical Midwestern meal consists of meat and potatoes; or maybe a meat-based hot dish, noodles and cream soup. Many of my clients are unfamiliar with vegetable-based diets, but often inquire about how to utilize more vegetables and more plant-based proteins.

I grew up in a hunting and fishing household. My parents and I are meat-eating omnivores. My sister is vegetarian, and my brother is vegan.

My meat-and-potato-eating mother has spent countless hours researching and experimenting with vegetarian recipes. We shared many diverse family dinners, and I am very grateful to have been exposed to a wide variety of meals.

There are many different types of vegetarianism. A vegan diet excludes all animal products such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy. A lacto-vegetarian diet excludes meat, poultry, fish and eggs but consumes dairy products. A lacto-ovo-vegetarian excludes meat, poultry, and fish but consumes eggs and dairy. A flexitarian is a term that is used to define a semi-vegetarian diet. For example, a flexitarian may consume fish, dairy and eggs but excludes meat and poultry.

People make the decision to become vegetarian for many different reasons. When my sister was 14, she really wanted the cheese pizza that was reserved for vegetarians only. In the following 21 years, she has remained vegetarian but her reasons have continued to evolve.  My brother became vegan due to concerns regarding treatment of animals. Others make the decision based on environmental concerns or health benefits.

A vegetable-based diet has many health benefits. Vegetarian diets tend to be low in fat and high in vitamins and fiber. Vegetarians have lower levels of obesity. They also have a reduced risk of heart disease and certain cancers.

But just because a food product is vegetarian does not make it healthy. I lived with two vegetarian teenagers, and I witnessed many unhealthy vegetarian meals. It is easy for vegetarians to over consume carbohydrates (pasta, bread, rice) and processed food items (chips, packaged pasta, candy). There are nutrients that vegetarians need to monitor to assure they are meeting their nutritional needs.

  • Plant-based proteins include beans, soy products (milk, tofu and tempeh), nuts (nut butters and nut milks) and whole grains. Make sure to get a wide variety of these proteins daily.
  • Iron can be found in spinach, collard greens, kidney beans, black eyed peas, lentils, whole wheat breads and peas.
  • Calcium is found in fortified soy milk, fortified orange juice and leafy greens. A calcium supplement may be required.
  • Zinc can be found in white beans, kidney beans, chickpeas and fortified cereals.
  • Vitamin B12 is found in fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, veggie burgers and soy milk. A supplement may be required.

Vegetarians need to learn how to read food nutrition labels. This assures you will be consuming the nutrients you need. Also, sometimes food that may seem animal product free can contain ingredients like gelatin or lard. While reading labels is important, I like to give the advice to consume a wide variety of foods that do not contain a nutrition label. Eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, vary your nuts, try a new and different whole grain (amaranth, spelt, millet), and mix up beans and lentils.

There are many ways to incorporate more vegetables and less meat into your diet. A favorite quick and easy dinner at my house is bean (black, kidney, pinto) tacos with lots of fajita-style peppers and onions. Another is Asian-style pasta with a variety of vegetables and peanut sauce. Continue to look for new ways to utilize an ingredient. Roast chick peas to add a toasty topping to a salad, blend them to make hummus, or dice them to make falafel. Black beans can be blended into brownies to provide creamy fudge-like texture. Stir peanut butter into your morning oatmeal. Make a savory pine nut and basil pesto for spreading on whole wheat crackers or using as a veggie dip.

I asked my siblings what their top advice is for those who want to follow a vegetarian diet. My vegan brother's response: "If it suits the rationale underlying your choice, empower yourself to decide that breaking the rules is OK once in a while. Long-term, you will likely find that partaking of your relative's hot dish on Thanksgiving isn't the end of the world."

I would like to turn this advice to those of us meat-loving carnivores -- me included -- that having a vegetarian meal is not the end of the world. Try to embrace a vegetable-based diet, even if it is just a few meals per week.

Brenda's 10-minute Bean Tacos

1 15-ounce can low sodium beans (black, kidney, pinto)

1 tablespoon cumin

1-3 teaspoons chili powder

3 bell peppers (red, green, yellow, orange)

1 large onion

Garlic

Whole wheat tortilla shells

Salsa

Fresh garnishes (lettuce, tomato, onion)

Optional: Cheese

Rinse beans under water, add cumin and chili powder, and heat (can be heated in the microwave or on the stove). Slice peppers, onions, and garlic and sauté in a non-stick skillet on medium high until they begin to turn soft, about 5-10 minutes. Fill whole wheat tortillas with warm beans and pepper mixture. Garnish with salsa and fresh cut vegetables.

Schwerdt is a clinical dietitian at St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth.

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