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Vegetarian, Flexitarian or Pescatarian?

Choosing the right diet no longer boils down to meat or no meat. There are many options for people who want a nutritious and delicious regimen.

Each day, I choose an array of colorful, fresh vegetables and fruit for our diet regimen. Mostly, I buy organic or farm-fresh vegetables, trying to ensure our plates are full of veggies, beans and lots of vitamins, nutrients and variety.

While we take this commitment seriously, we still have a taste for seafood and chicken. Research shows we’re part of a growing trend of flexitarians, whose numbers are growing in tandem with the recognition that meals rich in legumes, vegetables and fruit offer a wide array of health benefits including an overall lower Body Mass Index, which helps calculate weight in relation to body fat. Yet plant-based eating doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, as the list below shows:

  • Vegans:  No meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, gelatin ( because it is all animal-derived)
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians:  No meat, poultry, or fish. Eggs and dairy products are acceptable.
  • Lacto vegetarians: No meat, poultry, fish, or eggs, but dairy products are acceptable.
  • Ovo-vegetarians: No meat, poultry, fish, or dairy products, but eggs are okay
  • Flexitarians: Avoid meat, but may eat fish (pescatarian) or poultry (pollo-vegetarian)

According to research commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group, about eight million adults in the United States eat diets without meat, fish, or poultry. Estimates also show that several million more eat limited amounts of chicken and fish, while at least two million vegans consume a diet free of milk, cheese and eggs. And the list is growing.

Education, Awareness, Local Classes

Whole Foods Sarasota, open for nearly seven years, has always filled their healthy eating classes. Sourcing foods through local producers is part of their philosophy, said Nikki Logan, who works in community relations and is the Marketing Team Leader. A nationwide, mushrooming interest in plant-based choices is evident in Florida, too.

“We’re excited to see how many people remain interested in healthier diet choices, and locally-produced food,” Logan said.

She pointed to classes developed by Kathryn McCue, Healthy Eating and Green Mission Specialist, teaching consumers how to read labels, thus ensuring they make choices excluding additives and how to choose nutrient-dense foods. To assist customers, the Sarasota store is offering a free Health Starts Here Store Tour- Healthy Eating on a Budget on  Thursday, April 12 at 6 p.m. That’s followed by a $10 class on Thursday, April 26 called Oil-Free Italian Cooking. To register call 941-955-8500. For Pinellas County residents, Slow Food Tampa Bay offers a few resources.

So what are the benefits of plant-based eating?

  • Nutrient-dense meals, including antioxidants and phytochemicals
  • Decreased intake of saturated fats/cholesterol/animal protein
  • Reduced risk for diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, hypertension, lung and colon cancer.

With diabetes and cardiac disease numbers growing at an alarming rate in this country, physicians are starting to weigh in on dietary choices as well. The website run by Physicians for Responsible Medicine advertises a 21-day vegan challenge.

My 28-Day Challenge

The Engine 2 Diet, which gave plant-based eating a higher profile, caught my attention. So when my local Whole Foods store offered a 28-day challenge, I signed up. In February, I began my own 28-day plant-based diet, and the results have already exceeded my expectations, providing even more motivation.

The first week was admittedly tougher than expected. I wasn’t trying to lose more than six pounds, but hoped to trim off about 10 percent body fat, eat more locally-grown foods and get control of a rising cholesterol number. I already ate a lot of veggies and fruit- just not every day.

That first week was tough. I was hungry, and craving all sorts of things I didn’t normally eat. By day three, I had a whopping headache, though adding an extra 24 ounces of water with lemon to my regimen helped a bit. By day four, I was ravenous, but realized I could more of the whole grains and veggies we;d discussed in clas. So I got busy cooking, By day six, my energy level was nothing short of remarkable. And it was simple enough.

I omitted most of the olive oil I used for cooking, switched to almond milk from two percent milk, and nixed most cheeses. In just five weeks, I lost four percent body fat and my total cholesterol dropped 16 points. For full disclosure, I had also started walking three miles every other day and doing 12-25 mile bike rides each weekend. But I wasn't tired! The dramatic boost in my energy and mental clarity, though more anecdotal than scientific, really caught my attention. 

Preparation is Key

For me, the trick to healthy eating is preparing foods ahead of time. My fridge always has containers of cooked barley, whole wheat couscous, and whole wheat pastas. It’s easy to re-heat and I can add steamed fresh veggies, concocting an interplay of spices to add interest and flavor.

I generally have a cooked sweet potato sliced and ready to eat. Our pantry is stocked with cannellini beans, black beans, diced tomatoes, our vegetable bin brimming with fresh local greens, a bowl of fresh fruit sits on our counter, and our freezer always has edamame, corn, chopped herbs and peas. I  freeze vegetable stock so it’s handy for defrosting. That makes meal prep a snap and keeps thoughts of unhealthy choices off the table. The class also taught me how to truly understand labels and ensure I eat legumes with no added salt or preservatives. 

Eventually, I added a few servings of fish and chicken into our regimen each week, making us true flexitarians. Yet something else has happened. We have become creative with healthy snacks and food prep., and find ourselves craving the healthier stuff and planning snacks ahead of time.

Here are a few tips for meals and snacks:

  • Start the day with whole grains. After taking the E2 28-day challenge, I now start each day with a bowl of two kinds of oatmeal, psyllium seed husks, grape nuts, a sprinkle of wheat germ, dried fruit (cherries and cranberries), blueberries and banana slices. I literally rocket through my day because of all the low-fat, whole grain, energy I have on board.
  • Eat five to six servings of fruit daily (but if diabetic, check with your physician first). Starting my day with fruit helps me easily achieve my goal.
  • Avoid bottled dressings; make them yourself and be creative! Tahini, citrus juices and balsamic vinegar make a great base and adding chopped herbs is with the prep time. The trick is to create a salad with visual and taste appeal before you add dressing. I add pumpkin seeds and almonds for crunch, dill, parsley, cilantro and even mint, several kinds of lettuce and tomatoes, cukes, mushrooms, zukes and whatever else might be in season. Adding some grapefruit slices, peaches, blood orange slices, or watermelon changes the mix a bit and can be refreshing on a hot day.
  • Mix it up! Cook whole wheat corkscrew pasta, add cannellini beans, lightly steamed kale and green beans, with freshly-squeezed lemon to create an easy, healthy dish offering both energy and flavor. It’s satisfying, but light. Try cooking a mixture of sundried and diced, fire-roasted tomatoes, white corn, green peppers, black beans, scallions and chick peas, adding fresh cilantro, freshly-ground pepper and Tabasco sauce. I slow-roast a mixture of sliced cauliflower, carrots, peppers, eggplant and tomatoes adding curry and other spices plus vegetable broth, Then i serve any of these dishes over rice or barley. Cook some reed quinoa and ad radish slices scallions, dried cranberries and pomegranate seeds. None of these use any oil and the spices make the nutrient-dense dishes tastier. 
  • Reduce or eliminate sugar. Reduce alcohol consumption and ensure you get a variety of whole grain fiber daily.
  • Keep the intake of trans-fats to a minimum
  • Make time to exercise daily ( if busy, I march in place for 15 minutes several times a day , adding in knee bends )

This all sounds pretty easy, right? But I’ve also learned that nutrition is a complex subject. For example, foods work in tandem with one another to aid (or disrupt) absorption of vitamins and minerals.

Tips for lowering bad cholesterol and increasing good cholesterol:

Some diets promote olive oil; some tout the elimination of all oils.  So when experts encouraged eating almonds or walnuts daily, I got a bit confused. However, they do have a low glycemic index and contain many antioxidants, vegetable protein, fiber, and Omega-3 fatty acids, even though they are loaded with calories, so I eat very small amounts several times a week. Research shows they may lower LDLs (the bad cholesterol). And then it gets more complicated.

Certain fish contain an entirely different set of omega-3s which raise HDLs (good cholesterol) levels and lower triglycerides. And for vegetarians who do not eat eggs or fish, some nutritionists recommend supplements with algae.

Now for some veggies. Both spinach and broccoli are rich in calcium, but also contain oxalates, which may interfere with the absorption of calcium. And for those at risk for kidney stones, it’s also wise to know some fruits and vegetables have high contents of both potassium and magnesium, which lower the blood’s acidity. Since that can impact your ability to excrete excess calcium, it may be wise to consult an expert. Again, this is complicated stuff, but well worth the time investment to understand it better.

What you can do:

  • Know your numbers, set attainable goals and track your progress
  • Understand the cumulative effect of additives (and learn to read labels)
  • Ask the experts, and read updated research to achieve dietary balance
  • Stay hydrated at all times
  • Include a variety of whole grains and nutrient-dense veggies and fruit in your diet
  • Limit oils, trans-fats and sugars
  • Practice portion control
  • As I’ve written before, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Seek evidence-based data -some websites to help inspire you, are listed below

Remember, you have many dietary choices. If you indulge in bad habits one day, get right back on a healthy diet the next. I’ve included some websites for your nutritional journey. Have fun exploring the many options in the vegetarian subset and then share your favorite recipe.

victorzsoto April 02, 2012 at 10:52 AM
Major brands always give out their popular brand samples (in a way to promote the products) best place on the internet is "Official Samples" find them & enjoy your samples
Charles Schelle April 02, 2012 at 01:39 PM
Great information Judy! Looks like I'll be getting my oatmeal fix tomorrow!
Lisa Tawil April 03, 2012 at 02:41 AM
We are healthy eaters but I definitely got a few creative ideas to shake it up!!
Richard C Joyner April 04, 2012 at 02:25 PM
Two comments. I stumbled onto the book; Preventing and Reversing Heart Disease by Dr. Esselstyn. What I found amazing in the book is that we need far less protein than is recommended. The FDA recommendations are a compromise from various industries that are represented as decision makers on the board. The premise is don't eat animal based products especially those made up of cassien protein (sp?) and nothing with a face or a mother and virtually no oil including healthy oils. Just this alone made me feel wonderful. Oil sticks to the lining of your vascular system and causes it to get sticky and that is what holds crap aka plaque which then builds up and collects garbage (cans and what not) until a blockage is created.
Cherlene Willis April 11, 2012 at 09:58 PM
I always love Judy's column! Lots of info and I enjoy the snacking "tips" and recipes!

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