When I was 15, I spontaneously decided to become a vegetarian. I was living in India at the time and there was an abundance of fresh, nutritious and tasty vegetarian meals available pretty much everywhere. Maintaining a vegetarian lifestyle was incredibly easy because there was tremendous cultural support for it.
Then I moved to the United States and things changed. This was in the late 1990s and the closest thing one could find to a veggie burger was lettuce and tomato on a bun. Eating at home was fine. I just couldn’t find much to eat at school or when I went out with friends.
So I ate pasta. And I ate a lot of French fries. I also ate enough cheese sandwiches to last the rest of my life. A few times, when there were no vegetarian options available, I would move straight to dessert…for dinner.
Finally when I was served the same salad for two courses at a wedding, I started feeling like I had to incorporate animal food back into my diet just so I would have something to eat. Then I realized – what I really needed was to expand my knowledge about what makes a healthy vegetarian diet.
The Starch Trap
A vegetarian lifestyle can be incredibly healthy and has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic and inflammatory diseases, cancer, and obesity. But it has to be done right! Preparing a vegetarian meal requires planning and creativity. When done right, it can really pack a nutritional punch.
It wasn’t easy being vegetarian for me. I, like so many other well-intentioned vegetarians, fell into the starch trap. I did eat a lot of vegetables, but the bulk of my calories ended up coming from rice, pasta and bread. This kind of diet over time not only negates some of the benefits of a vegetarian diet, but can also lead to malnourishment.
But It’s Vegan!
I was recently watching a food show where the hosts were talking about a vegan bakery. They showed all sorts of yummy-looking treats and were so excited that everything was vegan. Then the hosts showed us what went into these baked treats. Margarine. Partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Buckets of sugar. Some sort of powdered egg substitute. A congealing agent whose name I couldn’t pronounce.
The host kept insisting how amazing these baked goods were because they were vegan. These days, ‘vegan’ has become synonymous with ‘healthy.’ And while a vegan diet is linked to superior health outcomes, not everything that is vegan is good for you. Case in point: a cupcake made with margarine or a meatless “BBQ Burger” comprised of textured vegetable protein and artificial smoky flavor.
All About Balance
In order to be sustainable and healthy, it’s important for vegetarians and vegans to make sure there is variety in their diets. Look for nutrient powerhouses like quinoa, beans, nuts, and eggs (for vegetarians) in addition to whole grains, fruits and veggies. Supplement with vitamins when necessary.
A spinach omelet is vegetarian. So is white pasta with alfredo sauce. Black bean soup is vegan. So is fake bacon. Look beyond the health claims. Discerning what is quality food closest to its natural state and what is processed junk is key to reaping the benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet.