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10 Tips for Meatless Meals

Whether you're a vegan or 'flexitarian,' vegging out has health benefits.

Healthy Benefits

Vegetarians have lower rates of almost all chronic diseases, including obesity, says Sass. They are less likely to have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, and their eating style helps thwart the development of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer.

Recent studies have shown that in general, vegetarians have lower body mass indexes (BMIs), lower percentages of body fat, and lower waist-to-hip ratios than nonvegetarians, Sass says.

"Vegetarian foods tend to be more filling due to the fiber and protein and therefore it makes it easier to eat less and lose weight," Sass says.

But not all vegetarian diets will result in weight loss. While many vegetarians prefer nutritious foods, vegetarian diets can still be high in fat and calories.

"If you fill your plate with high-fat selections like French fries and eat too many calories, your vegetarian eating plan can cause weight gain," says Connie Diekman, RD, MEd, president elect of the ADA.

Instead, she advises eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and low-fat dairy.

10 Tips for Eating Meatless

It's easy to be a vegetarian these days, with so many meatless food products on the market, along with all kinds of vegetarian cookbooks and magazines.

If you want to become a 'sometime' vegetarian or just enjoy a meatless meal once in a while, there are ways to do it without learning a whole new way of cooking and eating. First, start by substituting beans for meat or poultry in your favorite dishes, advises Diekman.

"The easiest way to transition into a more plant-based diet is to use familiar recipes substituting vegetarian ingredients," she says.

She recommends making these substitutions in dishes that have strong flavors, such as those with a sweet and sour or marinara sauce. Once you get used to more beans in your diet, experiment with meat substitutes, which look and taste like meat but are made of plant products.

Your second step: The next time you're at the grocery store, pick up one of the many pre-prepared vegetarian convenience foods. Sample several options to find the ones you enjoy.

Here are eight other tips for working more vegetarian meals into your eating plan while meeting all your nutritional needs:

  • Look for foods that are fortified with extra nutrients for a nutritional boost. Choose soy products that are fortified with calcium, vitamin D and B12.
  • Try tofu and soy crumbles, which are mild-tasting and absorb the seasonings and flavor of whatever you cook them with.
  • Eat plenty of dark, leafy greens, which are rich in iron and provide calcium.
  • Top salads, soups, stews, and omelets with beans, nuts, or seeds to add protein.
  • Add a once-daily multivitamin/mineral for nutritional insurance. See your doctor or registered dietitian if you are pregnant or have any other condition that could require extra supplementation.
  • Choose low- and nonfat dairy products.
  • Boost the healthy omega-3 fatty acids in your diet by eating fatty fish (if you include fish in your diet), enriched eggs, walnuts, flaxseed, and canola oil.
  • Try going meatless one day a week at first. You don't have to cook elaborate vegetarian meals; it can be as simple as having a veggie burger and salad for dinner.

Vegetarianism is a healthy lifestyle, but experts point out that lean meat, fish, and poultry also have nutritional benefits -- as long as you keep your portions moderate. To gain the health benefits of a vegetarian diet and still enjoy animal products, think of the meat, fish, or poultry as a side dish and fill the rest of your plate with plant foods. And be sure to choose the leanest cuts when you do buy meat.

Reviewed on December 18, 2008

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