On Nutrition

I recently wrote about how you don’t have to give up meat to eat a healthy diet — despite what certain Netflix “documentaries” say. But what if you’re curious about whether a diet without meat would be satisfying, feel good, and maybe help your food budget go a bit further? Is a vegan or vegetarian diet your best bet — and what’s the difference?

In a nutshell, a vegan diet eschews all animal-based foods, including meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy and honey, while a vegetarian diet includes eggs, dairy or both (as well as honey). Because “what about protein?” is a common question, let me assure you that you can certainly get enough protein on a 100% plant-based diet — through soy foods, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and smaller amounts in whole grains and even vegetables — but it is easier on a vegetarian diet. Plus, you may really enjoy protein-rich eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese and not want to give them up.

As I’ve come to understand recently from some vegan colleagues, a “vegan diet” all by itself doesn’t make you vegan. While someone certainly might eliminate all animal foods because they don’t enjoy them or feel that it’s healthier, vegan diets are generally adopted for ethical reasons, in the context of a lifestyle that uses no animal-derived products at all — no leather, wool or other consumer goods, including household and beauty products, that contain animal products or were tested on animals. So if you decided to not eat animals, but you still wear them, please don’t call yourself vegan. Just FYI.

But back to vegetarian, as that’s a more common path for eaters who don’t enjoy or aren’t comfortable with eating meat, and find that simply sharply reducing meat via a flexitarian diet — which sharply minimizes but doesn’t avoid animal foods — isn’t enough. You could get your feet wet by eating vegetarian one day a week, perhaps Meatless Monday, than add a few more vegetarian meals during the week. I included a recipe below to get you started.

I think eating vegetarian today is much easier than when I made a pathetic stab at it in the early 1990s — this was right in the middle of the unfortunate low-fat era, which meant a lot of white bread and pasta that in hindsight was neither satisfying nor optimal — in part because so many global cuisines that don’t emphasize meat are now mainstream. Think Indian, Ethiopian, Greek, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean. All of these rely more on pulses (beans and lentils), grains and vegetables than on meat.

But if you’re vegetarian-curious and find it challenging to move away from a “meat as the center of the plate” eating style, you might benefit from investing in a cookbook or two. There are so many great vegetarian cookbooks today (way better than in the ’90s), and I have quite a few in my collection. But if I had to choose three to recommend, I would start with Deborah Madison’s epic volume, “The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.” Every time I leaf through it, I find several recipes I want to make immediately. Then I would add Heidi Swanson’s “Super Natural Cooking” and “Super Natural Every Day” — these are my desert island cookbooks, and I’m not even vegetarian.

Not Quite Fried Rice

Makes: 4 servings

While this recipe includes a few elements of what you expect from fried rice — namely the rice (cooked so it has some crispy edges) and the egg — the rest is more Mexican-inspired (thus, the “not quite”). Not only does this recipe work for any meal of the day, it’s a great way to use up veggies you have on hand, as well as one of those cans of beans from your pantry. I used veggies already in my fridge for the version I made for the photo. I used Green Dragon Hot Sauce from Trader Joe’s, but Tabasco and Cholula are other options. You’ll notice I didn’t use brown rice. … while brown rice is my go-to rice, I find that white rice works better for this recipe. A long-grain white rice such as basmati digests a bit more slowly, if that’s of concern to you.

Ingredients:

  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 2 medium (or 3 small) orange or purple carrots, chopped
  • 1 cup thinly sliced purple cabbage
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • ¼ cup sliced scallions and sliced green tops for serving
  • ¼ cup finely chopped cilantro stems
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves
  • 2 tablespoons hot sauce, plus more for serving
  • 3 cups cooked long-grain white rice, such as basmati or Texmati
  • 1 can black or pinto beans, drained and rinsed
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Optional: diced avocado, sour cream, or crumbled Cojita cheese for serving

Steps:

  1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large nonstick skillet over high heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, add the beaten eggs and cook undisturbed for 10 seconds. Stir with a spatula until the eggs are just set, about 30 seconds more, then transfer them to a plate.
  2. Add remaining 3 tablespoons of oil to the skillet, then add the carrots, cabbage, bell pepper, scallions and cilantro stems. Season with salt and pepper, and cook until soft, stirring frequently, for about 5-6 minutes.
  3. Stir in the cooked rice and the hot sauce. Spread the mixture into a single layer and let cook undisturbed until the underside becomes slightly crisp, about 5 minutes.
  4. Stir in the beans and cook for about 1 minute, then fold in the cooked eggs and the cilantro leaves. Add more salt and pepper to taste, and serve with more hot sauce, the scallion greens and the optional toppings (if desired).

Recipe and photo by Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN