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Dietitians Dish: Tips on switching to a meatless diet

By By Lauren Vesely
July 22, 2014 at 2:22 a.m.


People choose vegetarian diets for many reasons, including personal preference, health concerns, dislike for meat or other food from animals or belief that a plant-based diet is healthier.

According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, vegetarian eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes, including lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of heart disease and lower blood pressure. Vegetarians tend to consume a lower proportion of calories from fat, fewer overall calories, more fiber, potassium and vitamin C than nonvegetarians

Becoming a vegetarian, especially if you've been a lifelong carnivore, isn't always easy. Your best bet is to switch to a vegetarian diet in steps. A gradual change will give you time to find vegetarian foods you like.

A good first step is to review your current diet. Make a list of foods you regularly eat, paying special attention to vegetarian foods you like. Next, aim to incorporate these foods - along with a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans - into your eating plan. A good way to include vegetables is to add them to the foods you already enjoy, like pasta or rice dishes.

Plant-based meat substitutes are an option for vegetarian protein sources. Choices may include soybean or wheat proteins. Check your grocer's freezer department for vegetarian versions of hamburger, sausage, chicken or bacon. These are good in dishes, such as chili or casseroles, but keep an eye on portion size and sodium content.

If you're considering going vegan and eliminating all animal-based food products, look for dairy substitutes, including calcium-fortified soy milk, soy yogurt and soy cheese. Pick up a vegetarian cookbook or search the Internet for vegetarian recipes and ideas and explore vegetarian ethnic foods.

Be wary of potential weight gain when choosing a vegetarian diet. You may eliminate a lot of fatty foods by cutting meat from your diet, but if you consume full-fat dairy products, high-fat snacks, fried foods and foods with added sugar, you may be eating too many calories.

You may also be eating too much fat, especially the types of fat, namely trans fat and saturated fats, that can contribute to heart disease. If a food has hydrogenated oil as an ingredient, the food contains trans fat. Many packaged baked goods, snack foods, margarines and fried foods contain trans fat. Saturated fat is high in fats from animals, including milk fat and lard. Instead, cook with heart-healthy fats like canola and olive oil, which are rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. But remember that these fats are also high in calories.

Control calories and fat by planning meals around whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans.

Plant foods high in fat, such as avocados, coconuts, olives and oils from plants and seeds and are also high in calories. Nuts are excellent sources of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, but they're also calorie-dense. Consume them in small amounts. Choose fat-free milk or milk substitutes. Vegans may opt for dairy substitutes like low-fat or fat-free soy, rice or almond beverages.

If you're not interested in going vegetarian, try introducing one new fruit or vegetable into your diet every week.

This summer, spice up your cookout by adding fruits and vegetables to the menu. As momma always said, "Eat your vegetables."

Lauren Vesely is a registered dietitian nutritionist for DeTar Healthcare System.

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