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Life on the Veg

As people are increasingly choosing to cut down on meat and boost their vegetable intake, we look at how the trend is growing and starting to shape our food landscape.

Michele Chiappetta
March 28, 2018

Today, an estimated 6 to 8 million Americans consider themselves either vegetarian or vegan. It’s a way of eating, a lifestyle, and it’s not just about avoiding burgers and steaks, either. In many ways, adding more fruits and veggies to your diet is a smart way to improve your health and better your life.

Though many people assume that being a vegetarian or vegan means jettisoning meat and dairy from your meals, there are actually many approaches to this style of diet, allowing people to choose the foods best for their personal needs. For example, lacto-vegetarians avoid meat, fish, poultry and eggs, but indulge in milk, cheese and yogurt, while ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but avoid dairy and meat. Pescatarians eat fish but don’t eat meat, dairy or eggs. Pollotarians avoid red meat but enjoy chicken and turkey. Strict vegans avoid all meats, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, and focus totally on non-animal food sources — such as vegetables, fruits, grains and beans.

So, why do people choose to drop certain foods from their diets? For starters, many people simply prefer not to take an animal’s life. “I first went vegetarian because I didn’t want to eat animals,” says Jenny Gowan.

Other people are concerned about how food animals are treated — they’re often raised in crowded conditions and denied access to the outdoors. “I loathe the way animals and fowl are treated for meat production,” says Kathy Lebron. Beyond the inhumane treatment that many food animals suffer, the use of antibiotics in raising cows and chickens may be contributing to the increasingly bacteria-resistant diseases out there.

Ultimately, though, most people cite personal health concerns as the reason for their switch in diet. Vegetarian and vegan eating, when approached from a careful nutritional angle, can help reduce the likelihood you’ll develop certain forms of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Avoiding meat also helps to lower LDL, the “bad” cholesterol that increases your risk for heart attack, stroke and peripheral artery disease. “I shifted to vegan about three years ago because my husband’s cardiologist recommended it,” says Gowan.

Vegetarian and vegan diets also combat a significant challenge caused by the typical American diet — many of us are not getting enough vitamins and minerals from the processed foods and meats we ingest. By switching to a vegetarian or vegan approach, you’re likely to eat a lot more vitamins A, C and E, dietary fiber, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, and phytochemicals (plant chemicals) such as carotenoids and flavonoids — all of which help your body stay healthy and energetic. “I feel much better and think clearer when I eat a plant-based diet,” says Amber Warner.

And a vegetarian/vegan diet lessens a person’s intake of saturated fats, which not only contribute to health problems like heart disease, but also are a significant cause of weight gain. For those who want to drop weight, adding more vegetables and eating less meat makes a lot of sense, an approach that worked well for Kristi Kenley. “When my husband Tom and I began focusing more on our health, eating vegetarian was one of the ways I conserved my calories,” she says.

If you’re interested in adding more vegetarian or vegan meals to your daily routine, it’s easier than ever to do so. “It hasn’t really been that difficult to switch to a vegetarian/vegan diet,” says Gowan. It takes some planning, she says. But there are great cookbooks and online resources for that, as well as advice available at local health food stores like Natural Grocers, Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Akins.

Even when you’re eating out, restaurants today are finding more and more ways to incorporate vegetarian meals into their menus. “Chimera, Elote, India Palace, Eritrean and Ethiopian Cafe, Tandoori Guys, Roppongi, and Ri Le are just a few reliable favorites, and more places are adding vegan options every day,” says Gowan.

At River Spirit Casino’s Fireside Grill, chef Saul Paniagua Jr. says he is always looking for creative ways to offer savory, satisfying vegetarian meals to Oklahoma’s meat-and-potato-based diet. “We look at our menu from the viewpoint of, what if a gluten-free or vegetarian person is eating it,” he says. “We do a vegetarian stock, for example, with corn, garlic, rosemary and other herbs for vegetarian meals, instead of a beef or chicken stock.” The restaurant will be updating its menu in the next couple of months so that vegetarian and gluten-free options are easy for visitors to spot.

When the restaurant caters, Paniagua says he can design meals to make fruits and vegetables the star of the dishes. And he’s always testing out new recipes. Anything is possible, he says — from making corn chowder with corn stock, green chilis and potatoes rather than chicken, to marinating a cauliflower steak in a savory marinade to give it fantastic flavor without the red meat, to serving quinoa cakes instead of meat burgers. The options for tasty, rich, healthy vegetarian dishes are nearly endless.