World Vegetarian Day, October 1st, kicked off annual Vegetarian Awareness Month. This month is dedicated to educating the public about the environmental, ethical, and health benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle. Even for non-vegetarians, this month is a great time to take an extra minute or two to reflect on personal food choices. While people decide to become vegetarian for many reasons, a vegetarian diet can always taste great and improve your overall health, with proper planning. Interested in learning more about vegetarianism?
What is a Vegetarian Diet?
There are generally four different types of vegetarians:
- Strict vegetarian or vegan: This is the most restrictive diet and only includes food from plant sources. It excludes all animal products such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, as well as other dairy products
- Lactovegetarian: A vegetarian diet that excludes meat, poultry, fish and eggs but includes dairy products
- Lacto-ovovegetarian: A vegetarian diet that excludes meat, poultry and fish but includes eggs and dairy products. Most vegetarians in the United States fall into this category.
- Flexitarian: A semi-vegetarian diet with a focus on vegetarian food with occasional meat, poultry, or fish consumption.
What are the health benefits of eating meat-free?
For starters, let’s be clear that not all vegetarian diets are created equal. Just like any other diet, it is important to choose a variety of foods to ensure that you are meeting your nutritional needs each day. But a well-planned, varied vegetarian diet can have enormous health benefits. The best vegetarian diets include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds in the appropriate amounts. Vegetarian diets are often also healthier because they include more vegetables, fruits and legumes than a typical diet, providing vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals. Additionally, vegetarians usually have lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol due to their avoidance of certain foods. These characteristics, plus lifestyle factors, may contribute to the health benefits among vegetarians such as lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of heart disease and lower blood pressure.
How to get started?
A great way to start is by choosing one meal or day to try vegetarianism. Many people practice “Meatless Mondays” to start off the week. You can start by eliminating meat from just one meal, and as you gain more confidence, try to challenge yourself to eliminate meat from your Monday meals entirely!
As you dive further into your vegetarian journey, remember to include a wide variety of foods. Due to the restrictive nature of the vegetarian diet, you must take extra care and planning to get all of your essential nutrients. Vegetarians often miss out on calcium, iron, protein, Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D if they do not plan correctly. Try using MyPlate tips for vegetarians to help make sure you are meeting your nutritional needs each day, or talk to your dietitian for tips.
Recipe – Syrian Lentils
Serves: 6 (as a side or a dip)
2 cups lentils
1/3 cup olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 small head garlic, mashed or crushed
1 bunch swiss chard, stems removed and sliced very thinly (about 8 leaves)
1 bunch cilantro, minced
1 lemon, juiced
3-4 Tbsp pomegranate syrup (available at Whole Foods or a Middle Eastern market)
water, as needed
salt & pepper
1. Rinse the lentils, cover with a few inches of water, and cook 20-40 minutes, until just tender. (Cooking times really vary with lentils, so I suggest checking them after 20 minutes)
2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Add garlic and cook for a minute until fragrant.
3. Add in the thinly sliced chard and de-stemmed cilantro leaves (reserve a bit of cilantro for garnish, if desired) and cook another two minutes.
4. Add the cooked lentils, lemon juice, and pomegranate syrup and cook until the lentils are a bit mushy, about ten more minutes. Add water as needed to keep the mixture loose and to keep it from drying out.
5. Season really well with salt, to brighten up the flavors.
6. Serve warm with an extra drizzle of olive oil and wedges of pita bread.