By Jenn Sturiale
Good news: You don't need to declare yourself an anything-arian to be a part-time vegetarian. There are plenty of good reasons to occasionally skip animal-based food in favor of plant-based alternatives, including better health, a lighter impact on the environment, compassion towards animals and smaller grocery bills. It's surprisingly easy to make part-time veggie food choices without sacrificing pleasure or health in the slightest.
Not quite convinced? Read on and see if you can get past these excuses...
But... I absolutely love meat. If you grew up eating meat and animal products, those flavors and textures are deeply ingrained in the pleasure center of your brain. An occasional switch to a veggie-based meal will introduce you to new dishes and foods while waking up your taste buds. The best part is that you get to make the rules. You can skip animal-based foods at one meal per day. Or, try observing Meatless Mondays (which even the Norwegian Army is giving a whirl). Or, try the "flexitarian" Vegan Before 6[pm] plan that's espoused by renowned food writer (and avowed omnivore) Mark Bittman.
But... being a part-time vegetarian won't make a real impact. "Anytime we can switch over from animal products to plant products, we're going to benefit nutritionally," says Gayl Canfield, director of nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center. "There's no cholesterol in plant products and there's far less saturated fat content in most plant products, so we benefit cardiovascularly." Vegetarian diets have been conclusively linked to lowered blood pressure. Research has shown that vegetarians and vegans are less likely to be obese, and vegetarians have a lower all-cause mortality rate. The environment also benefits, as the production of red meat has been found to create 10 to 40 times as many greenhouse-gas emissions as the production of vegetables and grains. Nearly all of the deforestation in the Amazon has been linked to beef production, and the water pollution from a factory farm can produce as much waste as a small city. So, yes, tweaking our food choices can make a real difference!
But... people need protein from meat to be healthy. "We do need protein, but it doesn't need to come from meat," says Canfield. "There's actually no physiological requirement for a human to eat animal protein." A small mental shift and some information is all it takes to start getting your protein (and other important nutrients) from plant-based sources. In fact, you may already be getting lots of protein from vegetarian foods without realizing it. "When people have a bowl of oatmeal in the morning, they don't assume that they've had any protein, so they put an egg with it," says Canfield. "When we think protein, we think meat, eggs, dairy, chicken and fish. But 14 percent of the calories in oatmeal are in the form of protein."
But... vegetarians are pasty and weak. Vegetarians who eat improperly balanced meals can most definitely be pasty and weak. But those who eat a well-rounded diet can easily be very strong and stalwart. Check out GreatVeganAthletes.com for a roster of superstar athletes who are vegan -- including Olympians Meagan Duhamel and Carl Lewis.
But... I don't like vegetables very much. Lots of foods you're already eating are meat-free, including hot and cold cereals, fruit smoothies, salads and bean-based burgers. Stick with the vegetables you do like, and start preparing them in new and creative ways. Try a grain salad instead of tuna fish or spicy black-bean soup instead of beef chili. Chances are you'll never even miss the meat.