07 April 2011

Veggie newbie 101: Foods that are included & excluded in a plant based diet (part one)

First, you want a little background on the whole veggie dietary situation, don't you? Fantastic...that's what I'm here for.

Those of us who live in the modern world amid urbanized cities rarely give much thought to the fact that our bodies require basic sustenance to operate at peak performance. What we do channel a great deal of energy into is contemplating, “What’s for dinner?” and more importantly, “How will it taste?” Similarly, we rarely ponder exactly how the food that we consume ultimately ends up on our plates, nor do we recognize our good fortune in having seemingly unlimited access to tasty eats on a year-round basis. In spite of the plethora of exotic, diverse and taste bud-tantalizing dietary choices available to us, being blasé about the incredibly variety available at our fingertips is a common affliction among typical consumers.

All of that changes, however, when you choose to pursue a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. With plant-based foods suddenly the main focal point of your plate, the edible playing field – while still full of choices -- narrows just a bit. In the case of those who remove both animal flesh and dairy products from their repertoire, a trip to the grocery store or local restaurant is no longer an auto-pilot experience. In addition to becoming an expert label-reader, you must learn how to decipher euphemistic ingredient terminology in an effort to consistently honor your dietary commitment. Having said that, it’s not nearly as challenging as one might imagine to jump on the veggie train.

Should you decide to take the plunge, the number one requirement above and beyond anything else is a sincere appreciation for the virtues of plant-based fare -- veggie haters need not apply! It’s also probably a good idea to approach this new edible journey with an open mind, a keen willingness to try unusual ingredients and an interest in experimenting with different ethnic cooking styles because that’s where you’re going to experience some of the most unexpected yet palate-pleasing surprises that will make you forget all about the notion of deprivation.

In terms of meal time, embracing vegetarianism and veganism is all about thinking outside of the box and tapping into the creative chef within, even if up until now you’ve been a heat-and-eat kind of person. If puttering around the kitchen and dutifully poring through the latest-greatest veggie cookbook releases isn’t really your thing, take heart because you can still throw together a satisfying meal with very little time or effort, particularly when you stock your pantry with basic staples and make a point of always having go-to-produce items on hand. For those who are completely allergic to kitchen duties of any kind, pursuing a plant-based lifestyle is still as easy as traveling to your local natural or mainstream grocer and selecting among the ever-growing selection of vegetarian and vegan-friendly pre-prepared convenience foods.

Individuals who embrace plant-centric living are compelled for a variety of reasons to eliminate animal-based protein from their dinner plates, with health being among the top motivating factors. As it stands, rates of cancer, obesity and diabetes continue to soar, with heavily processed diets containing vast amounts of animal-based products to blame. More than ever before, research studies consistently point toward diets heavy in plant-based foods as being one of the best ways to achieve optimal health.

Plant foods actually contain a comprehensive matrix of antioxidants that on a superficial level may please our palates, but behind the scenes, work in mysteriously beneficial ways that science is only beginning to understand. What experts do grasp is the fact that those who consume a diverse array of produce enjoy lower blood sugar and blood pressure along with a reduced likelihood of cardiac issues, assorted cancers and Alzheimer’s disease due to the presence of bioactive phytochemicals that work synergistically with other fruits and vegetables to temper free radical damage.

Controlling one’s health destiny is a very powerful motivator, and as a vegetarian, that means removing meat, poultry and fish from the diet in favor of consuming fresh fruits and vegetables, assorted whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Bear in mind that there are several different shades of vegetarianism, including lacto-vegetarians who augment their plant-based diet with dairy foods, lacto-ovo-vegetarians who add dairy and eggs to the list, pesco-vegetarians (aka pescatarians) who consume dairy, eggs and fish and finally vegans who pass on all types of animal-derived foods altogether.

Since meat isn’t an option with the aforementioned meal plans, followers obtain their recommended daily allowance of protein from alternative yet plentiful sources such as quinoa, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, nut butters, nut milks, seeds, wheat gluten-based seitan and soy products like fermented tempeh, tofu, and textured vegetable protein (typically used in veggie burgers and chili).

Your eyeballs need a break, I'm sure, which is why we're going to move onto the meat and potatoes of this topic (ha ha haaaaa) tomorrow. Sounds good? Super. Catch you later ;)

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/mralan