Food: Make mine meatless

In harvest season, the abundance of succulent vegetables and plump, lush fruits makes “vegging out” an easy meal-planning choice. The trend to meatless meals is definitely hot.

One reason for this popularity may be the scientific evidence. Meals based on a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds provide a host of health perks, compared to the old standard of meat and potatoes.

For many 50-plus diners, meatless meals have become standard fare. Others are moving toward a meat-optional plan, where meat appears only occasionally on the menu.

And of course, there is a large group for whom dinner is not considered complete without a generous slab of meat. 

Eating meatless common
Meatless food patterns have a long and rich history. Economic need or ethnic and religious beliefs have encouraged many cultures to pursue a vegetarian style of eating.

The peasant cuisine of the Mediterranean was based on what the land had to offer — grains, legumes and vegetables, for example. A hearty bean and pasta soup along with a salad and fruit for dessert was standard fare.

Animals were slaughtered only for special ocsions. And even then, portions were quite meagre, as the meat had to last for many meals.

As families enjoyed more affluence, meat made more frequent appearances on the dinner table and even found its way into breakfast and lunch. Serving sizes moved from a garnish to the star attraction. Soon, menus seemed incomplete if meat was missing.

Well-rounded nutrition
Historically, vegetarian dietary practices have been based on a heritage that included satisfying yet nutritionally balanced dishes. A few examples of traditional vegetarian offerings include:

  • A fragrant Indian curry with lentils combined with yogurt
  • A cumin-scented North African couscous topped with chickpeas and vegetables.

In our multicultural society, however, it’s easy to pick and choose from a variety of cuisines and leave both tradition and balanced eating behind.

For example: Simply boosting the veggies while deleting the lentils from the vegetarian curry or the chickpeas from the couscous dish make for a tasty meal, but the protein and iron content could plummet.

P>Vegetarians are healthy
Vegetarians are not pale, thin individuals who eat nothing but earthy-tasting brown rice. In fact, those who select meatless meals tend to suffer less from lifestyle-related diseases, such as heart disease and a variety of cancers.

Plant-based meals with their abundance of nutrients and phytochemicals not only prevent a range of ailments but may also slow down the aging process.

Opting for a spicy pasta sauce with beans or lentils instead of a hearty meat-based Bolognese sauce not only provides less saturated fat but more fibre as well.

Frequent meat eaters may also be at a higher risk of developing colon cancer because of compounds produced when meat is cooked.

Too much cheese
Yet in their enthusiasm to banish meat, vegetarians can make big fat mistakes, literally. Believing they’re slashing fat from the menu, they often replace meat with protein-rich cheeses.

A meatless lasagna brimming with cheese may seem a leaner selection than one containing beef. However, just one ounce (30 g) of cheese, such as cheddar, contains almost the same amount of fat as a four-ounce (125 g) piece of lean, well-trimmed beef.

On the other hand, lower-fat varieties, such as skim or partly skimmed versions of mozzarella or cheddar, can provide plenty of fat savings.

Another option is to combine just a little of a flavourful higher-fat cheese with a lower-fat one.

Soybean is superstar
Soybean, another meat alternative, is becoming a nutritional superstar. Not only can a tofu-laced hot and sour soup be tantalizing to the taste buds, but soy-based dishes have been shown to have a protective effect against a variety of diseases.

There are also many top-quality soy products, such as hot dogs and ground meat, in the marketplace that could fool even the most ardent meat connoisseur.

Rinse beans first
Other meat alternatives pack quite a nutritional wallop. Legumes such as kidney beans and chickpeas have high protein and fibre content. At the same time, they can make a meatless meal a satisfying one.

Savour them in a spicy black bean or lentil soup, or add them to everyday fare, such as pasta sauces or tossed salads.

In a hurry? Use the canned variety, but rinse and drain them to reduce both the sodium content and the gas-producing sugars.

Fish plus plants best
A final note about fat and healthy meal plans:

  • Vegetarian diets do offer a variety of health benefits
  • Plant foods plus fish provide even more heart-health perks than one containing plant products alone.

Research shows an eating plan containing both fish and plant foods is the best choice.
And meat eater or not, opting for some meatless meals need not be an exercise in deprivation.

In fact, vegetarian fare provides a change of taste for those seeking new flavours.  Reaping health benefits along the way is an added bonus.

Nutrient shortfalls
While meeting nutritional requirements with a vegetarian diet need not be a daunting task, there are few nutrients that can be in short supply when meat is excluded from the diet. Among them are iron, zinc, protein and vitamin B12.

While iron from meat sources is easily absorbed, that from plant foods, such as dried peas and beans, whole grains and dark leafy greens, is not.

To boost absorption, simply include a fruit or vegetable rich in vitamin C at the same meal by slicing some strawberries into your morning cereal or tossing mandarin sections into a spinach salad.

Other options containing vitamin C include citrus fruits, cantaloupe, tomatoes and peppers.

This mineral—important for optimal immune system functioning—is found in meat and eggs, but dried peas and beans, whole grains and milk products are also a super source.

Vitamin B12:
As this vitamin is naturally found only in foods of animal origin, those who consume only plant foods (vegans) should opt for fortified products, such as fortified soy milk.

And because the absorption of this vitamin decreases as we age, it’s recommended that those over 50, even meat eaters, consume foods fortified with vitamin B12 or take a supplement containing the nutrient.

Fighting sugar cravings
Simply cutting out protein-rich animal products can also result in a roller coaster of blood sugar readings potentially leading to cravings for carbohydrates and sweets.

If after casting aside meat, you find your hand in the cookie jar a little too often, consider assessing your meal balance.

Shifting meat alternatives, such as eggs, tofu or legumes, to meals earlier in the day rather than just at dinner can help ease a desire for sweets.