Let’s talk about what elements constitute a well-balanced vegetarian or vegan meal. I find that this is one of the more misunderstood concepts. Often when the urge to become vegetarian is fueled, the resulting diet becomes what I call “pizza and coke vegetarianism”. A diet centering around sugar, white flour and cheese IS vegetarian, ceases support of Confined Animal Feeding Operations and soothes the conscience, but does it serve the body? I don’t believe it does. This interpretation of vegetarianism can lead to weight gain, mineral deficiencies and poor health in general.
Eating a mostly vegetarian diet is not a new thing. Press on Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals points out that Gandhi, Thomas Jefferson and Aristotle questioned the practice of eating meat. But throughout history, most common people who ate a vegetarian diet did so not because of ethics, but economics. Meat used to be expensive. I would guess that is why many cultures who were agriculturally savvy started putting grains and beans together – inexpensive foods that when combined can offer the amino acids needed to create protein in the human body.
In my cooking classes we practice making vegan, vegetarian and omnivorous meals so that students get a feel for how to create balance regardless of philosophy. The well balanced vegetarian meals we make in class are not centered around white flour and cheese but focused on combining a whole grain and a bean. The structure looks like this:
Legume or traditional soy food
Digestive (raw, fermented, cultured, pickled, bitter)
This meal structure provides the full array of amino acids so that protein needs can be met while conveniently providing ample complex carbohydrates. By traditional soy food I mean products such as tofu, tempeh, miso as opposed to soy hot dogs and burgers (see To Fu or Not To Fu). The emphasis on vegetables provides abundant vitamins and anti-oxidants. The digestive element, including a small portion of something raw, pickled or fermented, does just that – aids digestion (and p.s. flavor).
In the vegetarian diet one needs to be aware of providing a B12 source. B12 can only be reliably found in animal products. If you include dairy products or eggs, you’re covered. If you are vegan, you will need to include a regular supplement. This meal structure is high in fiber too. If you are working to lose weight or keep weight off, combining whole grains and beans may give you more satisfaction with less calories than white flour and cheese or meat and potatoes.
Whole grain: Brown rice
Legume or traditional soy food: Chickpeas
Vegetable (green): Broccoli
Vegetable: Carrots, onions. cucumbers
Digestive (raw, fermented, cultured, pickled, bitter): Yogurt (also B12)
I bet you guys have dozens of meal plans that fit into this structure. Share darn it!