Are You Vegan-ish?

By August McLaughlin

If your heart broke in childhood when you learned that pigs like Wilbur, of "Charlotte's Web" fame, provide the bacon on your breakfast plate, you're not alone. Although "Vegetarian Times" reports that fewer than 1 percent of Americans are vegan, a 2010 Animal Welfare Institute report indicates that most Americans place high value on the positive treatment of farm animals. If you're among them, you can consume animal-derived foods, maintain physical health and demonstrate your concern for the welfare of animals simultaneously. How? By emphasizing plants in your diet and making efforts to ensure that the animals whose meat, eggs and milk you consume were treated humanely. In other words, by becoming "vegan-ish."

Looking at a bag of skinless, boneless chicken thighs, you lose some of the appreciation and respect for where the food came from.

Caroline Johnson, cooking instructor

In Praise of Plants

The first step in developing an animal-friendly diet may seem obvious: Eat more plants. In his book, "In Defense of Food," renowned journalist Michael Pollan states it simply: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

If you’re new to vegan-ish-ism, approach this gradually. Incorporate fresh fruit into your breakfast, and plan your lunch and dinner around plant-derived foods. Ask yourself what you'd like with your brown rice and spinach tonight rather than what would pair well with your steak. Between meals, snack on fresh or dried fruit.

Before heading to the grocery store, make a list of your favorite plant-based foods. Choose more of these and fewer processed foods. As Pollan says, avoid foods your grandmother wouldn't recognize and those with lengthy lists of difficult-to-pronounce ingredients. These include many items common in the vegetarian diet, such as enriched breads, cereals and pasta, potato chips, pretzels, crackers, and commercially prepared cookies, cakes, pies and pastries.

Choosing Meat Wisely

When did you last purchase, de-bone or even see a whole, raw chicken? If you're like many Americans, you don't recall.

Respecting animals requires conscientious shopping. "Looking at a bag of skinless, boneless chicken thighs, you lose some of the appreciation and respect for where the food came from," said Caroline Johnson, a cooking instructor and director of adult education for the NE Minneapolis Farmers Market. Purchasing meats, cheese and eggs from local farmers markets and food cooperatives may allow you to interact with the farmers and learn about their farming techniques.

If you don't have access to fresh-off-the-farm foods, Johnson recommends checking labels at the store to find free-range whole chickens, organic milk and eggs from grass-fed chickens. To earn the certification "free range" or "free roaming," farmers must prove to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that their animals have the ability to roam somewhat freely outdoors. The label "natural" indicates minimally processed meat, free of artificial coloring and additives. Beef labeled "no antibiotics" or "antibiotic-free" means the animals were not treated or injected with antibiotics.

“Hormone-free” labels are not necessary, because the USDA does not allow hormone use in poultry or in animals used to make processed meats, such as hot dogs. An "organic" label indicates that 95 percent of the food's contents meet organic farming standards, which involve animal- and environment-friendly techniques such as use of natural fertilizer instead of chemicals. "100 percent organic" means the entire food resulted from organic farming.

Knowing Your Nutrients

If your idea of a healthy plant-based diet involves plates of pasta and white rice, think again.

Brendan Brazier, author of "Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life" and formulator of the natural food brand Vega, says he made many common mistakes when he began his pursuit for wellness. As a professional triathlete, Brazier sought a plant-based diet to optimize his physical performance, reduce fatigue and expedite recovery from grueling workouts and races. It worked -- eventually.

"For the first year or so, I ate lots of refined carbs and white bread and didn't feel great," he said. So what changed? Rather than focus on what he should eliminate, he added fresh fruit to his morning routine. "Smoothies worked really well for me. They take all the flavor of fruit and they're so filling -- a lot of fiber and a lot of nutrition." His palate started to change.

Starting your days in a similar fashion can go a long way toward meeting your dietary needs. A smoothie made with soymilk, fresh or frozen berries and ground flaxseed, for example, provides protein, antioxidants, fiber and healthy fat.

Lauren Schmitt, a registered dietitian and owner of Heat for Health, says all essential nutrients can be found in a plant-based diet, "but the strength of certain nutrients may be lower.” Plant-derived protein sources, such as nuts, seeds and beans, provide less protein than red meat, poultry and fish. For these reasons, upping your intake of nutrient-rich, plant-based foods is vital.

Some plant-based nutrients also differ in absorption rates. Non-heme iron, the form in legumes and enriched cereals, is less absorbable than heme iron, which is prevalent in meat. On days you do not consume meat, pair legumes with vitamin C-rich foods, such as citrus fruits, leafy greens and bell peppers, which promote non-heme iron absorption. To create well-balanced meals, incorporate fruits and/or vegetables; a healthy starch source, such as brown rice, barley or whole-grain bread; a lean protein source, such as lentils, tofu, fish or yogurt; and a healthy fat source, such as nuts, seeds, avocado or vegetable oil.

If you eat a variety of foods and consume meals and snacks at appropriate intervals, you're unlikely to miss out on nutrients, Schmitt said. When you do indulge in "treat foods," which is important for overall enjoyment and preventing a sense of deprivation, keep your portions modest.

Spicy Cabbage Pockets

If the phrase "plant-based diet" brings to mind images of your backyard weeds and tasteless vegetables you'd prefer to spit out, fear not. "Many people haven't learned how to prepare tasty vegetable dishes. It's really not hard," said cooking instructor Caroline Johnson. Add zest to veggies with lemon juice, garlic and other natural spices. Toss leafy greens in a natural vinaigrette. Johnson's recipe for Spicy Cabbage Pockets reportedly has transformed cabbage-haters into fans.

Ingredients: 1 small onion, chopped 1 medium cabbage, shredded 3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil 1 tsp. turmeric 2 tsp. cumin 1/8 tsp. powdered cayenne pepper 1 tsp. salt 1/2 cup water 4 large whole-wheat pita pockets 1 can garbanzo beans*

Directions: Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and saute for two to three minutes or until lightly browned. Add cabbage, garbanzo beans and spices. Stir well. Add water, then cover pan. Cook over medium heat for eight to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Fill pita pockets with cabbage mixture.

*Vegan-ish variation: Add or substitute 1/4-lb.cooked, free-range ground turkey.

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