Choosing a vegetarian diet is rarely a simple decision. Unless we were raised vegetarian, many of us find it unsettling to give giving up many of the protein-rich foods we love.
Still, numerous Americans call themselves "vegetarians," making the claim for religious, philosophical or, most commonly, health reasons.
Different Vegetarian Diets
There is no absolute definition of a vegetarian. Some folks call themselves vegetarians but occasionally eat fish. Some include poultry as well as fish.
The only common denominator is that no vegetarians eat red meat!
Most vegetarians consume a diet rich in legumes, grains, soy, cheese, eggs, leafy and root vegetables, and fruit. Many happily eat as much ice cream and cake as anyone else!
Vegans are different from vegetarians in that they eat no animal products at all, which means they never touch cheese, eggs, or even yogurt. The lack of these high-protein foods mean vegans must supplement their diet with foods high in vitamin B-12, such as soy-based products.
Macrobiotic adherents rely on a diet rich in whole grains, which account for at least 50 percent of their daily intake. They eschew diary products, most fruits, and sugar. Some eat fish; most do not.
Those who follow a macrobiotic diet do so based on a specific belief system that food affects your health and well being. The diet and belief are based on ancient Chinese dietary practices, and strive to maintain a balance with nature and the universe.
The Protein Debate
Some argue that pure vegetarian diets can be dangerously low in protein. In fact, vegetarians who consume sufficient amounts of cheese, eggs, and legumes don't have to worry about getting ample protein.
Vegans and vegetarians who want to reduce the amount of dairy products in their diet should become familiar with so-called meat alternatives: tempeh, textured soy protein, tofu, soy milk, and seitan (wheat gluten).
Legumes are also good sources of protein, which explains why so many vegetarian dishes are based on ingredients such as kidney, lima, navy, and other beans.
Children and Vegetarian Diets
There is no evidence that children raised on a wholesome vegetarian diet are less healthy than any other children. True, kids require higher percentages of fat and protein than adults, but these requirements can be met easily.
Toddlers need about 16 grams of protein and 1300 calories a day, while school-age kids need about 28 grams of protein and 2000 calories a day.
Parents should monitor their children's eating habits so that they don't fill up on carbohydrates but eat meals and snacks rich in protein. These can be composed of cheese, soy products, nuts, and seeds--all good sources of protein.
Other Hallmarks of a Vegetarian Diet
Although not universally true, most vegetarians care a good deal about overall health. This means they consume diets high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals and avoid too much fat, salt, and sugar.
Vegetarians prefer whole foods and unrefined products. Grains such as brown rice, barley, oats, and millet are popular with vegetarians. They choose whole wheat flour over refined white flour, and honey or brown sugar over white sugar.
Many vegetarians like to cook. They believe that preparing food at home is the best way to insure that it is made with pure products, untainted by processing. Vegetarian or not, cooking at home and from scratch is one of the best way to insure healthful meals.
As more and more Americans abandon meat for two, three, or more meals a week, we find joy in preparing vegetarian meals. And great flavor and texture, too!