By: Michelle Morra-Carlisle Sep 08, 2010
  Article

How to cut out the meat but keep the nutrients when going vegetarian

After 15 years of living without animal-based products, there’s no turning back for Melissa Aubertin-Coutu. She feels great and doesn’t miss that weighed-down feeling she used to get after a dense, meaty meal.

“Steak and potatoes, omigod,” she says. “Overall, as a vegetarian you have a lot more energy because you’re not eating such heavy foods. Digestion happens faster. You feel lighter. And environmentally, it’s the thing to do.”

There are several categories of vegetarian, but the main ones are “lacto ovo,” who consume dairy and eggs but no meat or fish; and “vegans” who eat no animal products at all.

Long-time vegetarians will tell you they gave up meat for humanitarian, environmental and/or health reasons, and stuck with it because they feel great.  When people first make the switch, however, many find themselves unsatisfied or lacking energy if their new diet doesn’t make up for certain nutrients found in meats and other animal products.

Aubertin-Coutu, a nutritionist who runs Sukha Yoga and Nutrition Centre in St. Catharines, Ont., often hears questions about how to give up meat and animal products but still get enough protein.

“Really, it’s not that difficult, but it takes a bit of planning,” she says. For example, instead of eating canned beans she soaks dried beans overnight and cooks them the next day.

She has seen people, notably young girls, embark on a meatless diet without much thought or planning. “Something that happens to new vegetarians is, they gain weight,” she says. “That’s because they’re still hungry and they overeat to compensate.”

New vegetarians can also become iron deficient very quickly, she adds. Even people who eat meat have trouble getting enough iron, especially women.

Common pitfalls

If you’re giving up meat, try not to slip into these habits:

The Peanut Butter Bulge. You love peanut butter for its flavour and energy boost, but remember: it’s only a condiment. Aubertin-Coutu says many new vegetarians rely far too much on peanut butter, forgetting that besides the protein it’s also high in fat, salt and sugar.

The Italian Trap. Many new vegetarians resort to eating too much of an old, familiar comfort food: pasta and tomato sauce. This classic favourite is here to stay, but a nutritionally complete meal it is not. Enjoy on occasion, but it won’t be long before your body craves iron and protein.

The Barrage of Bread. Bread satisfies, but not for long. Loading up on too many buns, bagels and sandwiches without meat or meat substitutes will leave you unsatisfied, undernourished and possibly heavier than what you bargained for!

Making a successful switch

If you want to give up meat and/or animal-based products, expert advice is easy to find. And today’s supermarkets offer no shortage of items that will become your new food staples. 

Aubertin-Coutu offers these tips to help make the transition smooth, healthy and tasty:

Start simple. You can begin by incorporating canned beans, lentils or chickpeas into your diet, but rinse them first because they tend to be high in salt. Then toss them into your favourite soup, green salad, pasta salad, couscous, rice dish or stirfry.

Venture way out. Vegetarianism often starts with veggie versions of your meaty foods, from pizza with soy cheese and meatless pepperoni to burritos and vegan “beef” crumbles. But these are salty, so don’t live off them. Your diet can evolve into vastly more exciting and exotic meals. Ever wonder why so many meatless ethnic foods are so popular even among meat eaters? Spend some time in ethnic grocery aisles and in your kitchen and you’ll soon find out.

Freshen up. Making meals burst with flavour need not be complicated. Fresh garlic and lemon here, a handful of fresh herbs there, and you’ll wonder why you ever thought flavour meant ketchup. Need ideas? Aubertin-Coutu features a “Recipe of the month” on her website and we’ve included three of them, below.

Build on salads.  No one will call it rabbit food if your salads are textured, colourful and packed with flavour and crunch. Start with the basics but add steamed, sautéed or roasted vegetables like zucchini or mushrooms. Experiment with new combinations and add avocado, fresh or dried fruit, nuts, seeds, wasabi peas and/or a generous heap of fresh herbs.

Get your fats. The only supplement Aubertin-Coutu takes as a vegan is the occasional dose of DHA fatty acid, which is typically found in fish. It is essential to brain, eye function, heart health, and can even help combat depression and other mental health disorders. “You can buy algae-based DHA supplements. Not everybody needs to, but if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding I’ll recommend it just to make sure you’re getting enough,” she says.

Discover quinoa. One of the higher protein grains, it’s also high in calcium and iron. You just cook it like rice, 2 to 1, for about 20 minutes. Eat it hot, cold, plain, or dressed up with seasonings, nuts, raisins, veggies – anything.

Keep fortified foods and beverages on hand. Especially if you’re vegan and don’t consume any animal products, you’re missing out on the vitamin B12 you might otherwise find in milk or cheese. Fortunately you can get 50 per cent of your B12 intake in fortified foods.

Monitor your nutritional intake. A doctor can detect any deficiencies through a blood test if you have health concerns. If you’re feeling fine but still not quite sure how well you’re doing nutritionally, there’s a handy tool at the Dietitians of Canada website’s Resource centre. Click on “consumer tools,” and then go to the Eating + Activity Tracker (officially called EATracker). It costs nothing, lets you track your day's food and activity choices, gives personalized feedback on your total intake of energy (calories) and essential nutrients and compares this to what is recommended for your age, gender, and activity level.

While you enjoy new flavours, remember the health benefits of your new, meatless way of life. “Most vegetarians tend to be of healthier weights,” Aubertin-Coutu says. “They are less prone to heart disease and cancer, and there are also bonuses with blood pressure, because more fruits and vegetables provides potassium, which reduces hypertension.”

Here are three easy recipes she shares with new vegetarians:

Asparagus Lentil Soup

Ingredients:

  • 6 cups of vegetable stock
  • 1 cup of dried green/brown lentils
  • 1 medium onion or 1 leek (white part only), chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped
  • 8-10 medium or 18-20 thin asparagus spears, remove ends
  • ¼ cup of grated parmesan cheese
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

1. In large saucepan, place all ingredients except asparagus and cheese.  Simmer, covered for 30 minutes or until lentils are tender.

2. While lentils are cooking, slice the asparagus diagonally into 1 inch pieces.  Once lentils are tender add the asparagus and cook 3-6 minutes or until asparagus is tender.

3. Once asparagus is tender, add the cheese.  Simmer gently until cheese is melted.  Serve.


Edamame and Corn Salad

Ingredients:

  • 2 tsp canola oil
  • ½ cup red bell pepper, chopped
  • ½ cup red onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 ½ cups of frozen shelled edamame
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
  • ¼ cup vegetable stock
  • ½-1 tsp fresh ground pepper
  • ¼ tsp salt, or more to taste
  • 2 TBSP fresh basil or 2 tsp dried basil

Directions:

1. Heat oil in a large non-stick pan over medium heat.   Add bell pepper, onion and garlic and cook for 2 minutes.  Stir in the edamame, corn and vegetable stock; cook for 4 minutes stirring frequently.

2. Remove pan from heat.  Stir in salt, ground pepper and basil.
Serve and Enjoy.

Gingery Quinoa Salad with Apples, Peas and Coconut

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup slivered almonds
  • 2 tsp vegetable oil
  • ½ cup chopped onion
  • 2 Tbsp minced ginger
  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 1 ½ cups of beet-carrot or carrot juice
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 1 medium apple diced
  • 1/3 cup shredded coconut

Directions

1. Toast almonds in sauce pan over medium heat for 2-5 mins, stirring often until they begin to brown. Set aside to cool.

2. Wipe out saucepan and add oil and onion. Saute onion 2-3 mins or until translucent, stirring occasionally.

3. Stir in ginger, quinoa and juice and season with salt and pepper if desired.  Bring to a boil.  Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 15-20mins or until liquid is absorbed. 

4. Remove from heat and scatter peas and apple over cooked quinoa.  Cover and let stand 10 mins, until peas are thawed.

5. Stir in coconut and almonds into the salad.  Serve warm or at room temp.

Michelle Morra-Carlisle has written professionally for almost 20 years, at a federal government agency, for a trade magazine publisher and most recently as a freelancer. She enjoys the ever-changing nature of freelance work and the variety of topics she gets to cover - from jewellery design to schizophrenia - and has won several awards for her articles. Michelle is especially pleased to be covering health, fitness and wellness for Primacy.ca and says that with each article, she picks up valuable tips for improving her own health and lifestyle.