We’ve talked a little bit about meat substitutes, tofu, and grains like quinoa ... but what are they? What do you use them for? And where the heck do you get them? Luckily, as more and more people become vegetarian (and non-vegetarians cut back on animal foods) more co-ops and whole foods stores keep cropping up, even in smaller towns. Mainstream grocery stores keep expanding their "natural foods" sections because customers are demanding soy products and whole grains. It’s just a matter of knowing what you’re buying, and all the delicious ways you can add variety to your vegetarian diet.
Tofu for you
The two most common meat-substitute protein foods you’ll find in vegetarian cooking are tofu and tempeh. They’re both soy-based foods, but they’re very different.
Tofu is a smooth, almost flavorless curd made from soybeans. While Westerners still think of tofu as exotic or as a strictly vegetarian food, it’s been a staple in other countries’ cuisine for thousands of years. The Chinese have been eating tofu since at least 200 B.C., and it’s used every day in Asian homes. "Bean curd" is another term for tofu, so keep an eye out in Chinese restaurants for menu items that feature curd – that’s tofu!
Tofu is made from soy milk in a similar manner to the way cheese is manufactured from animal milk. A curdling agent is added to the soy, causing the solid matter to clump into curds. The curds are then pressed into a solid block.
The flavor-free quality of tofu is precisely what makes it so versatile – tofu is spongy and porous, and absorbs other flavors very well, so it can be adapted to almost any kind of dish. It comes in a variety of textures, from extra-firm to soft, so it can be used as a meat substitute, and egg substitute, or it can stand in for dairy in fillings, sauces, dips and puddings. Recipes will tell you which type to use, and once you get used to cooking with it you’ll come up with countless ideas on your own.
For a meat substitute, firm or extra-firm tofu is usually cut into cubes and added to stir-fry dishes, or marinated in soy sauce (or other flavorful liquid) and cooked in big chunks. If you freeze tofu and then defrost it, the texture becomes more chewy – ideal for people who miss the texture of meat.
Silken tofu, combined with melted chocolate (vegan or otherwise) makes an excellent chocolate pudding or cream pie filling. Soft tofu can be used to make creamy sauces – just puree cooked vegetable in a blender or food processor and add tofu. This same method works to make creamy, dairy-free soups.
Whatever form it takes, tofu is a marvelous source of nutrition. Primarily eaten as a high-quality source of protein, tofu that’s been processed with calcium salt is also a great source of calcium (another reason you don’t need dairy!) It’s also loaded with iron and other minerals. People on a low-fat diet should remember that tofu is fairly high is fat, but it’s free of cholesterol and generally lower in fat than animal proteins – and there are also lower fat tofu products on the market. Firm tofu is usually higher in fat than soft tofu.
Because of its soft consistency and bland taste, tofu is a good source of nutrition for babies or older people who have difficulty chewing hard foods. It’s most commonly sold in tubs or vacuum packs and can be found in either the dairy case or produce section of your supermarket. Once opened, leftover tofu may be stored by rinsing, covering with fresh water daily and stored in the refrigerator, where it will keep for up to a week. Tofu can be frozen for up to five months.
We’ve already discussed many of the problems associated with consuming dairy, from the horrible practices of factory farming to the difficulty the body has digesting cow’s milk. Well ... we’re going to do it again! Because while you may choose to be an ovo lacto vegetarian – and that’s a great step towards eating a healthy, socially responsible diet – there are still some very good reasons to limit the amount of dairy products you eat.
The truth about osteoporosis
You probably believe that osteoporosis, the crippling disease that results in weak, brittle bones, is caused by a deficiency of calcium. For pretty much your entire life you’ve heard that "milk does a body good" and that the only way to prevent osteoporosis is to drink lots of milk, and to eat plenty of cheese and yogurt. You know, "for healthy teeth and strong bones!"
And yet, Americans and Canadians eat more dairy products than any other country while having the highest incidence of osteoporosis. In fact throughout the world, the level of hip fractures (a symptom of osteoporosis) rises in direct relationship to how much calcium the people consume!
The truth is that, like heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes and a host of other ailments, osteoporosis is the by-product of affluence, not of calcium deficiency. As scientists study osteoporosis, they’re discovering that it’s the result of a bad, overall lifestyle, including diet. Calcium certainly plays a part in building strong bones – as we discussed earlier, however, bones only build their density in our younger years, so by the time we reach adulthood that die has been cast. Consuming a lot of calcium as an adult simply has no bone-building effect.
Animal protein is high in sulfur-containing amino acids, which requires the body to find a way to offset the effects of those amino acids. Our bodies do this by first using the small amount of calcium in our food, then by taking it from our bones – after which point it exits the body through our urinary tract. The more meat and dairy products you eat, the more calcium you need to process them through the body. A researcher at the Creighton University School of Medicine named Robert Heaney – an advocate of dairy consumption – found in his research that the single most important factor in the rate of bone growth in young women is not how much calcium they consume, but how much calcium they consume in relation to animal protein. The more protein eaten, the more calcium must be consumed to offset the calcium drain. Most people in the U.S., Canada and Northern Europe eat more than twice the recommended amount of protein, and more than four or five times the amount of protein actually needed, with 70 percent of it coming from animal sources. Osteoporosis is not a result of calcium deficiency – it’s a result of eating too much animal protein
That burning feeling
Have you ever downed a glass of milk to sooth an upset stomach, only to find an hour later that your stomach feels bad all over again? That’s because milk actually causes the stomach to become more acidic. Here’s how it works: animal products are more difficult to digest than plant foods, which means that your stomach needs to produce more hydrochloric acid (HCI) to break them down. So let’s say that you had a bowl of cereal with milk for breakfast, a little cream in your coffee and a slice of toast with melted cheese. All that dense protein needs plenty of acid to digest it, so HCI is produced. You feel that familiar burn of acid indigestion a few hours after you ate, so you drink a glass of milk to settle your stomach. And it does, temporarily, by neutralizing the acid. But you you’ve just added more animal protein to your stomach, and now your stomach has to produce even more acid to digest it! Milk is a highly alkaline substance, so whenever you drink milk with a meal, you’re actually hindering your body’s ability to digest your food properly.
The hormone factor
If nothing else has convinced you to get your calcium from rich plant sources like broccoli, tofu, nuts, seeds and leafy green vegetables, try this on for size – your ingesting antibiotics and hormones every times you consume dairy products.
They don’t the meat and dairy industries "agribusiness" for nothing – they’re businesses, and their primary goal is to make a lot of money. They make that money by selling lots and lots of animal products, and that means keeping animals healthy and growing them big/ To do this, they pump them full of antibiotics and hormones.
Just like a nursing baby ingests whatever its mother has eaten, you consume the cow’s diet when you eat animal foods. That means that you’re getting hormones in your food, hormones that were used to fatten pigs, make cows give more milk, hormones to force chickens to produce more eggs and for turkeys to grow massive drumsticks.
Hormones regulate every aspect of the human body, from how much weight we gain or lose, to our sex drives and our moods, to how much hair we have. They influence your sleep cycle, your complexion, your reproductive cycle and your brain functions. When cows are given excessive, unnatural levels of artificial hormones to produce more milk, what affect do you think it might have on you when you drink the milk they produce?
If you’ve ever taken any sort of a hormone for medical purposes – steroids, birth control pills, cortisone shots – then you know how quickly that small amount of hormone introduced into your body makes dramatic changes. An imbalance of hormones in your body can make you grow hair in unexpected places, create accelerated maturity in children and adolescents, cause you to feel anxious, depressed, angry or overly emotional, and cause your face to erupt in blemishes.
If you have an ongoing health concern like diabetes, or if you’re pregnant (or trying to conceive), or if you’re an athlete in training for a sport, you naturally have concerns about whether a vegetarian diet is your best option. The answer is – yes, if you’re eating enough of the right foods. Vegetarianism is great for keeping blood sugar under control and getting the body in peak shape, whether you hope to run a marathon or have a baby.
Doing vegetarianism as a diabetic
For diabetics, diet is the first line of defense, literally the difference between life and death. Left untreated, diabetes can cause blindness, kidney failure and even loss of the hands and feet, and it affects people of all ages. If you’re a diabetic, your doctor has already told you that your diet is the single most important weight you can manage your diabetes – a low fat, high carbohydrate and high fiber vegetarian diet is an excellent option.
Worldwide, over 30 million people suffer from diabetes. Essentially, the condition is one in which the body is unable to process nutrients efficiently. In a "normal" body, the food we eat is converted to usable energy in the form of glucose, a sugar that’s carried by the blood to all of our various functions with the help of the hormone insulin. Diabetics, however, have an imbalance of insulin – either too little or none at all – which means that the body has difficulty converting blood sugar to usable energy. This means that the glucose remains, unconverted, in the bloodstream and never gets where it’s needed, leading to fatigue, muscle pain loss of concentration and coordination and blurry vision. When someone has a hypoglycemic episode, that’s what’s going on – the amount of usable sugars in their bloodstream is too low. In extreme cases this can lead to the person lapsing into a coma, or even dying.
As a matter of controlling their blood sugar, diabetics have to keep a close eye on their diet, eating a wide variety of foods and making sure they sit down to regular meals. Carbohydrates must be watched carefully – at least half of the recommended diabetic diet must include complex carbohydrates from sources like baked potatoes, whole grain breads, vegetables and legumes. Sounds like a vegetarian diet, doesn’t it?
The vegetarian diet is so good for diabetics, in fact, that some vegetarian diabetics can transition off medication, including many who previously had to inject insulin. The level of control that vegetarianism allows diabetics allows them to feel confident that they’re eating for optimal health.
Adding a third vegetarian to the family
If you’re hoping to get pregnant, both you and your doctor want you to be in the best possible condition to insure that both you and your baby are healthy. Eating well is important before and during pregnancy – and the more of a head start you can get on good health before you conceive, the better.
Vegetarians may eat a healthier diet than omnivores, but you’ll still need to follow the same advice as meat-eaters in many respects. Take a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement for several months before you get pregnant, and make sure it offers plenty of B12 and folic acid, or folate, a B vitamin that helps prevent birth defects of the spine and brain. Get plenty of physical activity and drink lots of water, and avoid alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. Eat nutritious foods and cut back or eliminate junk food and refined sugar.
As a vegetarian, you’ll probably be in better shape than if you were eating meat, and closer to your ideal weight. You’ll also have a strong immune system now that you’re avoiding animal foods, which you’ll pass on to your baby. Just make sure that you’re getting plenty of iron – many women begin pregnancy deficient in iron, and as your body grows and you store more blood to nourish your baby, you don’t want to risk becoming anemic.
We all start out life as lacto vegetarians. Out first food is our mothers’ milk, made just for us and full of all the nutrients we need. Infant formula, the alternative to breast milk, is made as close as possible to that of mother’s milk, and it’s all we require or should eat for the first four to six months of life. The good news is, if you’re a vegetarian, your breast milk is superior to that of meat-eating mothers – you’re not passing on any of the antibiotics, pesticides or other contaminants that you would if you were eating meat. (And if you’re a vegan and you breast feed, your child is still a vegan, too – breast milk is a natural food for humans while cow’s milk is not).
Whether or not you breast feed is entirely your decision but, for most babies, breast milk is the optimal food. In addition to the sugars and other nutrients, scientists believe that there are other, as yet unidentified, substances in breast milk that make it superior to infant formula. Should you decide not to breast feed, choose a soy-based formula – soy is less likely to cause allergies than cow’s-milk-based formulas. But don’t give regular soy milk to a baby less than a year old, as it’s not designed to meet their nutritional needs.
Cow’s milk should never be fed to babies under one year old, as it can cause intestinal bleeding and lead to anemia. Also, studies have shown a link between infants drinking cow’s milk and their increased risk to become diabetic later in life.
At the four-to-six month mark, it’s time to introduce your baby to solid foods. The timing varies from baby to baby – when your child reaches 13 pounds or double his birth weight wants to breast-feed eight times or more during a 24-hour period, and when she takes a quart or more of a formula per day and still acts hungry, it’s time to transition to solid foods.
You’ll want to introduce solid foods slowly, so that their systems can get used to the change in diet. Start with cooked grains – rice cereal is best, as almost every baby can digest it easily and unlikely to cause an allergic reaction. Once your baby eats cooked cereal, begin to slowly introduce other foods. You can buy commercial baby foods or puree your own fruits and vegetables in a blender. If you buy prepared foods, buy ones that are free from added sugars, preservatives and any other additives that your baby doesn’t need. Start with raw, mashed fruits and move on to cooked vegetables like mashed sweet potatoes. It’s smart to introduce new foods one at a time, so if your baby has sensitivity to a food you can easily identify it.
When your child starts teething (somewhere between 12 and 24 months) they can move on to foods that need to be chewed. Raw vegetables can be introduced then, starting with veggies that are easy to chew and unlikely to present a choking hazard. When giving babies "finger foods," take care that the foods aren’t too hard, large, sharp, or round. Good choices are carrot sticks, lettuce and other leafy green vegetables, and lightly blanched and cooled broccoli. As long as it’s safe for the baby to chew, an vegetables that adults eat are fine for a child.
Follow the same feeding schedules and advice that you would for any other baby, except for not feeding them meat. Adapt the guidelines in the baby books to the vegetarian diet. Just make sure that you don’t let other people convince you that you should be allowing your baby to drinkl cow;s milk – once your child is old enough to transition off formula, you can give him water, regular soy milk or rice milk, juice, regular soy milk, or any other nutritious liquid.
At seven to ten months, start introducing high-protein legumes to the baby’s diet. Slowly add tofu into their meals and snacks, as well as soy cheese and soy yogurt – two servings per day, about a half-ounce per serving. Most babies are very fond of lentils, which can be cooked until fairly soft and have a pleasant, bland flavor. Nut butters should not be fed until after 12 months.
As you ease into the toddler/preschooler years (ages 1 to 4), you can start offering your child some vegetarian versions of classic kids’ favorites. Vegetarian and vegan children are just like any other kids – they’ll be a bit fussy sometimes, but there are a wide variety of nutritious foods that children universally enjoy:
Spaghetti with meatless sauce
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
Baked french fries with ketchup
Veggie burgers, hot dogs and sandwich slices
Whole wheat bread and rolls
Grilled soy cheese sandwiches
Veggie pizzas with soy cheese
Pancakes or waffles, with fruit or maple syrup
Baked potatoes with non-dairy sour cream
Rice and beans
Calcium-fortified soy milk and orange juice
Cold cereal with vanilla soy or rice milk
Chicken-Free nuggets (soy protein nuggets that taste just like breaded chicken)
Fruit, cut up into bite sized pieces
Raisins and banana chips
Vegan cakes, cookies and other baked goods
Vegetarian diets feature a lot of bulky, filling plant foods, and since small children have equally small stomachs, they sometimes don;t get all the calories they require. Make sure to include a lot of calorie-dense foods in your child’s diet so that they get all the energy their growing bodies require – add avocado, which is calorie-dense and full of good fats, to sandwiches. Peanut and almond butters are excellent sources of calories for kids, too.Very young children also need to eat more than three meals each day. So be generous with the snacks featuring grains, fruits and vegetables to add lots of necessary nutrients to their diet. Don’t worry about a vegetarian diet affecting your child’s growth – a 1989 study of children living in a vegan community in Tennessee found that while they were slightly shorter than average at age 1 to 3, they caught up by age 10, when they were actually taller than average, and weighed slightly less than children raised on an omnivorous diet.
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