February 2006

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Making the Switch to a Whole Foods-Vegetarian Diet

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Making the Switch to a Whole
Foods-Vegetarian Diet

by Kathy Humiston, Newsletter Writer

Many folks start the New Year with a vow to get healthier—new diet, new exercise plan, gym membership or home exercise equipment. By the time February rolls around, many of those plans have run aground and the treadmill is serving as a coat rack.

Overwhelmingly, research shows that when it comes to preventing or easing many health problems, a dietary lifestyle change may be what is needed. Heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity and other chronic health issues have become rampant in our society. Many of these problems can be improved or eliminated through dietary changes. According to the website of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, vegetarians have much lower cholesterol and blood pressure readings than meat-eaters, leading to significantly less heart disease than the general population. Rates of diabetes and many types of cancer are also lower in vegetarians and vegans have the lowest numbers of any group.

If you are unlucky enough to develop a disease or food allergy, the incentive to change your diet is pretty strong and a real motivator for most people. But if you are contemplating a new dietary lifestyle to prevent future problems it can be tougher to change your eating habits. Food often has emotional ties for many of us and we all know what our favorite tastes and textures are, creating more challenges to change.

Becoming vegetarian

Most people have a pretty good idea of what makes a vegetarian—a person who does not eat meat but does eat dairy products and/or eggs is called a lacto-ovo vegetarian. Pure vegetarians, or vegans (VEE-guns), do not eat meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, and usually honey. People who eat “only fish” or “no beef or pork” are not vegetarians.
In many cases, a lifelong change, whether diet- or exercise-related, is easiest to implement if it is undertaken somewhat gradually. Think about making the change over a period of three weeks or so. You might start by eliminating or changing just one category of food each week: first eliminate meat, fish and poultry; the next week switch to non-dairy milk products; and then replace eggs if you are going vegan. Many experts believe that it takes 40 days of consistent practice to make a lasting change in eating or exercise routines, but many people begin to notice health benefits after just the first week of a better diet.

If you have health issues, your dietary changes will probably need to be pretty abrupt. “Cold turkey” can be frustrating—or energizing. Keeping a positive attitude will help a lot. Experimenting can be fun too! This might be a time to try several different brands of frozen veggie burgers to replace your favorite meat burger. Host a tasting party to find your new favorite burger—and don’t forget all the traditional trimmings.

Replacing dairy products

Replacing dairy products can be another big challenge for many folks. Many people find soy milk to be an acceptable substitute. There are several different brands of soy milk available—some are found in the dairy cooler and some in aseptic packaging in the grocery aisle. Soy milk comes sweetened or not, and some brands offer flavor choices such as vanilla, chocolate, or eggnog. Each brand has its own “signature”—the basic flavor will vary a bit, as well as the mouth-feel or texture. Most are enriched to provide a good selection of vitamins and minerals, including calcium. Rice milk is another popular choice, but try oat and almond milks too. Non-dairy cheeses have come a long way in the past few years. Many are better melters than in the past and have improved flavor. Again, try different brands until you find one that suits your needs. Other non-dairy products that are available include soy yogurt, sour cream and non-hydrogenated margarine.

Replacing eggs

Replacing eggs might be the toughest challenge for many folks switching to a vegan lifestyle. Eggs are everywhere—we eat them throughout the day and they show up in many recipes for baked goods and desserts as binders and leavening agents. Powdered egg replacers are easy to use in baking; mix with water according to package directions. Flax seed can also stand in for eggs in baked goods. As a general rule, to replace one egg, mix one tablespoon ground flax with three tablespoons water and let stand about 15 minutes. Other substitutes include applesauce and mashed tofu. Experiment to see what works best in your recipe and for your taste buds.

Updating your favorite foods

You probably have many favorite foods that can easily be made vegetarian or vegan if they aren’t already. Burritos and tacos are tasty when made with beans or soy burger crumbles instead of meat. Replace the meat in your chili recipe with two or three types of beans and some extra veggies, like corn and zucchini. Fried rice is great made with brown rice—try adding some tofu or edamame. Have mushroom marinara on your pasta and grill a portabella instead of a hamburger. Try removing the meat from any of your favorite meals and replace it with tofu, tempeh or beans or just add more vegetables.
Adopting a whole foods diet

Switching to whole foods involves a little more effort than just getting animal products out of your diet. By definition, whole foods are those as close as possible to their natural state. These are foods that have had little to no processing and retain their original nutrients, fiber and flavor. This means fresh apples as opposed to apple juice, brown rice rather than white, whole-grain flours and baked goods with natural sweeteners. This also means that your food is going to taste great—but if you have been eating processed foods for a long period of time, these changes might take a little getting used to.

What is a whole grain?

All whole grains are made up of three parts: the bran or outer, protective layer; the endosperm, or starchy middle; and the germ, or nutrient-dense center. Most grain products available in the conventional marketplace are refined or highly processed. When a grain is refined or milled, it is stripped of virtually all its bran and most of the germ, thus eliminating the natural fiber and nutrient content of the grain. What remains are basically starchy calories. Whole grain products, by definition must contain all parts of the grain in their naturally occurring proportions. If you are buying a commercially prepared grain product such as bread, be sure to check the label. Bread can look dark and grainy, even be called multi-grain, but not be a whole-grain product. The ingredient label must specify whole wheat, whole grain corn, etc. or the product is not really whole grain.

Whole grains are satisfying bases for many meals. Whole-wheat pasta, barley or brown rice will keep you feeling satisfied longer than their refined counterparts. The flavors are more robust, often described as “nutty,” and harmonize nicely with vegetables and beans. The biggest change you may notice in your kitchen is that whole foods can take longer to prepare. There are some good canned beans available, but whole grains such as barley, millet, wheat and brown rice do require more cooking time than the refined versions. You can make your life a little easier by cooking extra of these foods. Refrigerate leftovers to use in another meal within a few days—think beans for soup, and rice or another grain in a casserole or under a stew. Extras can also be frozen for up to three months in an airtight container. Sometimes your tastebuds will transition to whole grains more willingly if you start by mixing them with the product you are used to eating. Each time you prepare a recipe, gradually increase the proportion of the whole grain or rice until it is at 100%.

One thing to keep in mind as you start to eat more whole grains, beans and vegetables is that you are drastically increasing your fiber intake. All that extra fiber is great for reducing your cholesterol, maintaining healthy blood sugar levels and helping to manage your weight, but it can create some tummy complaints at first. Keep your digestive tract peaceful and functional by drinking eight-to-ten glasses of water each day, and be sure to get some regular exercise too. Your system will adjust to your new eating style if you just give it a little time.

The sugar dilemma

Is there room for sugar in a whole foods diet? Some sources say table sugar in small amounts is acceptable, others are less positive. It is known that the average American consumes about 150 pounds of sugar each year, which translates to about 600 calories every day. A typical can of soda contains seven to nine teaspoons of sugar. The American soft drink industry cranks out the equivalent of 600 12-ounce cans of mostly sugar-sweetened soda per person, annually. In 2001 Americans spent $21 billion on candy, contributing directly to health and dental problems, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, inflammatory conditions and fungal problems.

Better sweetener choices

While all sweeteners have some effect on the body, refined table sugar is possibly the worst. Other less processed sweeteners are digested more slowly, causing fewer problems. These include barley malt, brown rice syrup, blackstrap molasses, and herbal sweeteners such as stevia. A whole foods diet does not include artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin or sucralose. Indulge your sweet tooth if you must, but only occasionally...a challenge most of us struggle with daily!

Eat up!

Eating a well balanced, whole foods vegetarian diet will provide you with great health benefits, as well as great taste. This style of eating can be adapted to suit most everyone’s needs. If you have special nutritional concerns, or if you are pregnant, nursing or feeding a growing child, be sure you know how to meet your dietary requirements and then enjoy exploring this new lifestyle you have chosen. Remember to be patient with yourself, allow your new eating patterns time to become habit and savor the flavors everyday.