Many people explore vegetarian and vegan diets as a way of improving their health, and with good reason. For many years, medical studies have shown that diets high in the fat and cholesterol found in animal-based foods contribute to cardiovascular and cancer, two of the most common killers. Weight control is also a major issue. Today, with diabetes on the rise and the presence of dangerous bacteria such as E. coli, listeria, salmonella and more, there has never been a better time to shift to plant-based foods. Even better, many people notice positive results within just a few weeks of changing their habits.
Diets consisting of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes and plant-based proteins such as soy and quinoa are popular because they’re tasty and they’re healthy. Even if you like the taste and texture of meat, there are remarkable vegetarian and vegan versions of popular “meats” ranging from burgers and hot dogs to products that taste like chicken, pork, turkey, shrimp and more. The market for vegetarian and vegan foods is rising rapidly, which in turn has given rise to more products available in more places.
But remember: Meatless doesn’t automatically mean healthy. If you’re loading up on deep-fried vegetables, snack foods or lots of cheese, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Stick to vegetables and meat-free proteins cooked with healthy oils or dairy-free sauces to get the most nutrients. You don’t need a nutritionist to plan your meals but do get a good book or two (we recommend those by Dr. Neal Barnard, Kathy Freston, Dr. Michael Greger and Colleen-Patrick Goudreau) to get up to speed on what your body needs for your age, gender, body type, etc. But do consult a doctor if you have specific health concerns or goals that might require more personalized attention. (And if your doctor doesn’t seem veg-friendly, find another one!)
In 2003, the Bloomberg School of Health at Johns Hopkins University began a program called Meatless Monday, which encourages everyone to address “the prevalence of preventable illnesses associated with excessive meat consumption.” The university estimates that the average American eats as much as 75 MORE pounds of meat per year than past generations have, and that’s not good. The Meatless Monday program believes that everyone would benefit by eating meat-free meals at least once a week, and we think it’s a great starting point for a healthier lifestyle. One day becomes two, then a week, then a month or a lifetime!
Many people start out by cooking their favorite foods using vegetarian/vegan substitutes for meat or dairy products. Soy crumbles can be used in place of ground beef in spaghetti sauces and other dishes; faux chicken strips can be used in stir-fry, salads and pastas; and a wide variety of beans can be used in Mexican and Italian dishes. It’s an easy way to eat familiar foods while greatly improving the nutritional value of each meal.
Cheeses (like Daiya brand), mayonnaise (like Just Mayo brand) and salad dressings without eggs or dairy ingredients are now easy to find in mainstream stores. Some stores have dedicated natural foods sections, but also look in the freezer aisles for many of the meatless “meats” and convenience foods like ravioli stuffed with butternut squash instead of cheese. There are entire frozen meat-free meals, too.
Restaurant menus now often note their vegetarian/vegan options. Even fast food and casual restaurants such as Subway, Atlanta Bread Co., Burger King, Taco Bell, Chipotle, Panera, Moe’s, Zoe’s Kitchen and others have veggie burgers and other good choices (although we recommend going fully vegan and skipping the cheese). Did you know the Mellow Mushroom and Brixx pizza chains offer non-dairy cheese?
For information about plant-based diets specifically for athletes, visit www.nomeatathlete.com.