(Originally featured in Arizona City Independent Edition, April 2, 2003)
When I revealed my status to you as a "lazy vegetarian," above, I assured you that going meatless was easier than most people think because a slew of delicious and healthful convenience foods makes it as easy as popping a TV dinner into the microwave.
On the other hand, you can take a different route by adding plenty of raw or lightly cooked veggies and fruits to your regimen. In fact, there's a school of vegetarian thought that believes a diet of all raw foods is the healthiest way to go.
Having blended the two policies into my diet, I can share some insight into the techniques and benefits of both. In the years since we became vegetarians, I've developed several tricks to help us avoid meat.
Just as people tend to do with any new project, most "baby" vegetarians will jump right into the plan--you'll excuse the expression--"whole hog." Fearing that grocery chains and restaurants don't provide what they need for a balanced vegetarian diet, they'll seek out specialty stores where they buy tons of cookbooks, food products, and supplements, and they'll cook all their meals at home.
As will happen with any new project, dedicating so much energy to an unfamiliar regimen tends to quickly wear out all but the most dedicated tyros. When that happens to you, the best thing to do is review the reasons you made the change in the first place. While motives vary, most people give up eating meat for three reasons: health, cost, and respect for animal rights.
The last benefit is obvious, so I won't discuss it in depth here. Suffice it to say that being a responsible citizen of the planet is a happy byproduct of this regimen. On the other hand, jumping all at once into a totally vegan diet, cutting out all dairy foods along with the meats, tends to overwhelm a lot of newbies. It might be wiser to take it one step at a time, giving up meat at first, then milk and eggs at a later date.
The benefits to your health and budget depend on how well you make and follow a plan. Brewing up a lot of homemade soups, stews, and chilis can be beneficial for both, especially if you prepare large pots of these concoctions and freeze individual servings. Preparation takes planning and execution, but in a single afternoon you could cook up enough chow for a month of guilt-free eating.
How you plan your meatless diet depends on taste, cost, and convenience. The popularity of vegetarianism has engendered a host of excellent products, many of which are sold in the major grocery chains. Perhaps the best-known of these is Morningstar Farms, which, along with Loma Linda and Worthington Foods, is made by Kellogg, the same people who produce breakfast cereal. They have a wide range of tasty products, but I do wonder at their decision to use chemical food coloring--which many people, including me, are allergic to--in such products as hot dogs and breakfast strips.
More people can safely eat annatto, a "natural" food color product, but I can't, which is why I avoid a couple of products made by Gardenburger and Amy's. Boca makes some of the same products with neither chemicals nor annatto, so I'm not totally deprived. All these brands offer juicy veggie burgers that taste like the best of the "real" thing, and Amy's offers a wide range of delicious frozen meals that are stocked with all these brands in the freezer section. You can also find Amy's canned soups and other products in the specialty food section of many grocery stores.
In the refrigerator corner of the produce section of many stores, you'll find hot dogs, bacon, and veggie "cold cuts" from Lightlife, Yves and other brands, along with tofu for meatless cooking. We always keep plenty of Lightlife or Yves "turkey" slices on hand for Jim's brown-bag lunches, along with a variety of soy "veggie slices" and shredded pieces, from Galaxy and other brands, that make good substitutes for cheese for those who've gone totally vegan.
All these brands provide tons of information on their internet web pages. While some companies offer a wide range of products, the selection available in our area of rural Arizona is limited. I don't like to play favorites in this column, but I will say that three of the four Casa Grande grocery stores offer several of these brands. I haven't had a chance to find out whether the Food City on Florence Boulevard carries any of these brands, but if they don't, it wouldn't hurt to suggest it to the store management. No matter where you live, if you can't find a vegetarian product you see on the internet at your favorite grocery store, go ahead and talk to the manager there. You might be surprised at how accommodating they like to be to a special-interest group like vegetarians.
Allergies are one reason you still have to read ingredient and nutrition labels, even on products labeled "vegetarian." And if you eat out but want to avoid meat, ask to see ingredient information before you order. Don't assume you're okay by ordering a salad or a simple pasta dish. One Atlanta Italian restaurant I went to poured bacon grease on everything! Yuck! I ended up taking it home and letting my cats get a good lick out of it. (They loved it!)
Vegetarian diets are not necessarily low-calorie; you still have to watch yourself if you want to control your weight. On the other hand, avoiding animal fat does tend to have a beneficial impact on cholesterol levels, because high-fat non-meat foods are rich in HDL, the so-called "good" cholesterol. In the last few years I've lowered my cholesterol almost 100 points, to a safe level for the first time in a couple of decades, without medication.
Jim can finally enjoy small helpings of a sweet treat every few days without spiking his blood sugar, thanks to his vegetarian diet. And though the amount of raw veggies we include in our diet goes up and down, depending on how we're feeling, the weather and other factors, Jim has lost around 20 pounds and I've lost nearly 30, as of this writing.
The weight loss has been slow because we haven't really done anything else to "diet" besides giving up meat. On the other hand, the effect has been so steady that if we ever decide to get seriously trim, we could cut out some of the starches for, say, a few weeks at a time, then do maintenance until we're ready to sacrifice a while longer. Since we're following a lifetime regimen, making sacrifices for short periods of time wouldn't be all that difficult.
You'll find information on the raw-food philosophy at www.TopRawMen.net. Besides explaining the experiences of Charles Nungesser and Stephen Malachi, authors of the "cook" book "How We All Went Raw," various links will lead you to several other web sites that will help you understand the raw-food plan and its purported benefits.
One more point that those going meatless should prepare themselves for is the negative reaction of the flesh-eaters in their circle. Rather than trying to convert them, it's better to react with patience and offer them an occasional bite of your tastiest fare. When some people discover how delicious vegetarian products are these days, they often decide to try the diet themselves, at least when they're in your company.
For example, when Rob Wilco, the bipedal star of Darby Conley's comic strip "Get Fuzzy," tells Satchell Pooch that he (Rob) is planning to have vegetarian "tofurkey" for Christmas dinner, Bucky Katt, the feline member of the family, tells his human, "Vegeble (sic) eaters are just people who can't catch real food . . . They're loooosers, Rob." The "generous" Bucky even offers to "rustle up some rat for" (the vegetarian Sir) Paul McCartney. (December 19, 2002)
Sometimes it takes an unreconstructed carnivore to put things into perspective.