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Diabetes Forecast

The Healthy Living Magazine

Vegging Out

Going Green: A guide to eating well

By Tracey Neithercott ,

A vegetarian diet may also be a boon to the environment. According to a 2006 report by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, animals raised for human consumption contribute 18 percent of the planet's total greenhouse gas emissions, graze on 26 percent of the earth's ice-free land, and cause 55 percent of the annual soil erosion in the United States.

Whether you're concerned about global warming, trying to slim down, or just have a soft spot for chickens and cows, a meat-free lifestyle can help you live healthier. The recipes that follow show how delicious that life can be, in the form of an Asian- inspired dinner party with an eco-friendly vibe.

But before you say so long to your omnivorous ways, here's a primer on the challenges—and rewards—of going vegetarian.

1. Yes, vegetarianism can help you manage your diabetes. If done the right way, vegetarian eating—which is generally lower in bad-for-your-waistline fats than a carnivorous diet—can help you shed unwanted pounds, which can prevent heart disease and lower your body's insulin resistance. According to a number of studies, including one that compared vegetarians and nonvegetarians belonging to the primarily meat-free Seventh-day Adventist religion, a person's body mass index was found to rise as meat consumption increased.

Giving up meat may also help you gain better blood glucose control. "Generally, vegetarian diets tend to be higher in fiber and [full of] lower glycemic index foods … that can impact someone's blood glucose in a positive way," says Amy Campbell, MS, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.

2. But weight loss is not guaranteed. Scarfing down a bag of Doritos is, technically, vegetarian eating. But "vegetarian" in this sense doesn't automatically mean healthy. You must make a conscious effort to introduce nutritious foods into your typical meal plan. For example, you can replace the meatballs in your spaghetti—and a portion of the pasta—with a helping of veggies. "Vegetables are what you should be adding. Not eating less of something," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, LD, a Chicago-based registered dietitian and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. The same goes for carbs and eggs. Go overboard, and you can put yourself at risk for weight gain, heart disease, and out-of-control blood glucose. Replace carbs with beans and nuts. And limit yourself to two eggs a week; the rest of the time, get the same protein—minus the cholesterol—from egg substitutes, tofu, yogurt, or soy milk.

Another pitfall: overestimating your hunger. "A lot of people actually gain weight when they start because they overcompensate and eat too much," says Carol Johnston, PhD, RD, professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition at Arizona State University. "People are used to having some main entree, and usually that's meat." For vegetarians, however, "a plate of veggies is your meal," she explains.

3. It's not easy going green. One of the more difficult aspects of vegetarian eating is keeping it interesting. "Be open to trying new things," says Campbell. "A lot of my patients would turn up their noses at tofu. But if they were served a tasty dish of stir-fry tofu, it's like, 'Mmm, what's that?' " Start by purchasing a vegetarian cookbook, advises Blatner. Planning a vegetarian menu shouldn't be any more difficult than cooking any other diabetes-friendly meal. The key is making up for missing nutrients typically found in meat. (Check the chart below to discover easy ways to add important nutrients to your food.) You might also want to talk to your nutritionist about taking a daily multivitamin.

And be realistic about your expectations for your new vegetarian life. "It's not for everybody," says Johnston. "The choices at some of the restaurants are nil for vegetarians. People need to think about this." You should also investigate the effect the new diet may have on your diabetes management. Speak with a registered dietitian about your nutritional goals, and monitor your blood glucose patterns frequently to learn how your body reacts to different meals.

4. Stricter is not always better. In a study published in the journal Diabetes Care, 43 percent of participants with type 2 who followed a vegan diet (which eliminates all foods containing animal products, including dairy and honey) for 22 weeks had a reduced need for medication. This and other studies touting the health benefits of vegan eating may tempt you to swear off animal products for good. But even though veganism may give you the best control over your diabetes, it's the toughest diet to follow. Instead, give yourself some wiggle room. Try a less strict form of vegetarianism—semi-vegetarians eat everything but red meat; lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat dairy and eggs but no meat; and lacto-vegetarians eat dairy but no meat or eggs. And don't worry about the occasional slipup. "People have a difficult time if they try to make too many changes. If someone doesn't eat any vegetarian meals, [they should] start to eat one or two more and build up from there," says Blatner. "You can be a little loosey-goosey and still get results."

5. Vegetarianism may even help you live longer. If you have diabetes, you're at a greater risk for cardiovascular disease. According to a report published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, multiple studies show that vegetarians have lower blood pressure, lower rates of hypertension, lower cholesterol, and less of a chance of dying from ischemic heart disease than those who consume meat. Other benefits include a decreased risk for osteoporosis, kidney stones, renal disease, and even colon cancer. Plus, says Johnston, there's a reported link between vegetarian eating and longevity.

No, vegetarianism isn't a cure-all. But the lifestyle can inject a surprising amount of flavor and variety into a stale mealtime routine. And if you become healthier in the process? Just consider it icing on the tofu cheesecake.

Daily Doses

Nutrient

Where to find it

Iron Soy, nuts, beans, pumpkin seeds, fortified cereals, enriched whole- wheat bread, apricots, broccoli, kale, baked potatoes with skin, dried fruit
Zinc Soy, nuts, beans, pumpkin seeds, barley, fortified cereals, quinoa, wheat germ, mushrooms, peas, cow's milk, cheese, eggs
Protein Beans, eggs, nuts, low-fat dairy products, legumes
Riboflavin Almonds, fortified cereals, cow's milk, yogurt, eggs, mushrooms, nutritional yeast, soy milk
Vitamin D Fortified cereals, egg yolks, cow's milk, soy milk
Vitamin B12 Fortified cereals, cow's milk, eggs, B12 yeast, soy milk (but only in small amounts; talk to your nutritionist about supplementation for B12)

Tackling Tofu

Does tofu, that wiggly, wobbly meat substitute, scare you? Take a deep breath and read on. This versatile soy product is really just a hill of beans: "Milk" derived from soybeans is curdled like cheese and then pressed. It's also a great source of protein, bringing in about 10 grams per half cup. When purchasing tofu for pie filling or blended drinks, pick the "silken" or soft version, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, LD, a Chicago-based registered dietitian and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Its creamy texture gives cheesecake and smoothies a silky consistency. But don't use this kind as a meat substitute. Instead, Blatner suggests picking firm or extra-firm tofu to replace chicken, beef, and pork in your favorite meals. Begin by draining the liquid. Then chop the tofu into small pieces ("like feta-cheese crumbles," she says). Substitute every ounce of meat you'd prepare with a quarter cup of chopped tofu. "Try it in a stir-fry. It's very, very tasty," says Blatner. "You can still get stuff that's pre-seasoned if [you're] really nervous." Don't give up if your first effort falls flat. Learning how to cook tofu may take trial and error, but the nutritional benefits are worth it.

See Recipes:

Cabbage and Carrot Slaw

Vegetable Lo Mein

Spring Lettuce Rolls

Cool Melon Salad

 
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