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December 2005

Dear Dr. Harjee,

What do you think of vegetarian diets and do you recommend them?

[Part II on Vegetarian Diets]

Becoming a vegetarian is not easy unless one is clear about the reasoning for such a drastic change in lifestyle. There are religious and moral and other personal reasons for adopting a vegetarian diet. Our previous issues have detailed the various types of vegetarians ? from the non-red meat eaters to vegans and the ones that avoid roots and other varieties. Recent studies clearly show that a vegetarian diet combined with low fat consumption was associated with significant weight loss, particularly in postmenopausal women who often complain of weight gain in their 50s.

Obesity is increasingly prevalent, causing increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, strokes and even cancers. Plant-based diets reduce body weight and also reduce insulin levels. The metabolic syndrome that is most talked about is associated with large body size, increased belt line, high cholesterol, high levels of bad cholesterol, low HDL, high blood pressure and diabetes. This deadly condition promotes premature or sudden death, sleep disorders, and premature arthritis.

Postmenopausal women have been known to lose up to 13lbs in 14 weeks, which is a lot greater than what one loses on diets that have meats. The increased fiber intake reduces insulin levels, reversing atherosclerosis and allowing patients to even come off prescriptions like blood pressure medicines, cholesterol lowering medicines, and even drop doses of diabetes medicines. These women also had fewer complaints of hot flashes because vegetables have plant estrogens that stop the dilation of the small arteries in the skin leading to the sweats at night. Often soy milk adds to estrogens in vegetables. Tofu is a great addition to the vegetarian recipes. As we discussed in our previous article vegan and other vegetarian diets should have some vitamin supplements. Vegetables can be bought ahead of time, cleaned and washed, and be curried and stir fried with spices, herbs and various low fat sauces to make very nutritious meals. Pastas and rice may be used in rotation to create variety and flavors.

Children should be encouraged to have two to three vegetarian days a week. Many ethnic recipes call for vegetarian dishes and are very simple to prepare and can be fun for the whole family to participate. The other day I was shocked at a supermarket register when a young man did not recognize eggplants and began to scan them as broccoli!

Fruits can make great desserts with sugar free homemade yogurt dips. Children can be introduced to daals, moongs and lentils. These are excellent sources of protein and when mixed with rice make a complete meal. Beans are protein sources and may be added to rice, pasta, or curried or included in soups. They may be flavored to make veggie burgers.

Sample menus may be created and varied for family preferences. Breakfast, for instance, can include orange juice, bran flakes, whole wheat toast and soy milk. Veggie burgers with lettuce and tomato, additionally flavored with cilantro and hot sauce, would make a very healthy lunch. Carrot or celery sticks with blue cheese or low oil and vinegar dressing would be sufficient with an apple and a cup of milk. Snack could be low fat yogurt or a fruit or some popcorn. Dinners can be freshly prepared meals of vegetable pasta with a slice of Italian bread, some spinach salad topped with nuts, cranberries or green apples and a small scoop of cottage cheese. A small oatmeal cookie would not hurt.

Curried moong daal with rice can be substituted to provide some variation. Chana mixed with a boiled potato and flavored with tamarind chutney can make a good meal. How about stir frying vegetables with onions, a little garlic, and topping it with fresh basil? Throw in some tofu next time and add some soy sauce and pull out your chopsticks. Prepare vegetable biryani with brown rice on weekdays

Okra and squash are very quick to cook and they make great meals with roti. It is fun to make chutney with cabbage, carrots and hot green peppers to use as a relish with all your meals and keep for several days in the refrigerator. Try a pumpkin curry this season!

Voila you are a vegetarian! Now try cooking Thai food and see how you enjoy that. You can have some spicy fajitas sometimes with your choice of vegetables and hot salsa. This is a quick meal to fix and very healthy. The whole wheat fajitas will taste like roti. Veggie pizza is a good meal if you can top your pizza with a heap of vegetable to cut out too much carb from the dough. Bon appetit!

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