For more than 15 years, the Meatless Monday campaign has urged people not to eat meat on Mondays. The goal? To inform people that by cutting down on the amount of meat they eat, they could reduce their risk for chronic diseases (such as heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes), and also help promote the idea of a healthier planet. Recently, the movement toward eating less meat and other animal products has really started to catch on. And, increasingly, people are enjoying vegetarian and vegan meals. Here are some reasons why you may want to eat more meatless meals, too.
Better for your health
A vegetarian diet is one way in which people with type 2 diabetes can maintain good blood glucose (sugar) levels, says Joanne Lewis, healthcare provider education & engagement director at Diabetes Canada, who also points out that it is one of the healthy dietary patterns that the organization recommends in the Diabetes Canada 2018 Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Prevention and Management of Diabetes in Canada.
So how does a plant-based diet help? It offers a range of nutrients with blood sugar benefits, including fibre and compounds that increase insulin sensitivity, making the insulin more effective.
“[These] diets have been fully explored by a series of studies and show that the benefits for those with diabetes include better control of blood sugar as well as blood lipids [cholesterol and triglycerides],” says researcher Dr. David Jenkins, professor in the departments of Nutritional Sciences and Medicine in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. He is also a staff physician in the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. Problems with controlling blood sugar and blood lipids tend to worsen heart disease, “and heart disease is the chief cause of death for those who have diabetes.” Jenkins is co-creator of the Glycemic Index (or GI, a scale that ranks carbohydrate rich foods by how much they raise blood sugar levels compared to a standard food), and is a vegan, which means he eats no meat or animal products, such as eggs and cheese. (See “What’s a Vegetarian?” for an explanation of the different types of vegetarian eating preferences.)
Whether or not you have diabetes, a vegetarian diet is good for anyone trying to lower the cholesterol in their diet. The beneficial ingredients of a vegetarian diet—including proteins found in foods such as soy and pulses (such as beans), fibre, and unsaturated fats found in foods such as nuts and seeds—are linked to lower levels of both blood cholesterol and triglycerides (the main component of animal fats). In the human body, high levels of triglycerides raise the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Other benefits? Research shows that vegetarians tend to weigh less than meat-eaters. Lower blood pressure readings are another advantage of a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet. Your kidneys may also benefit: “Emerging research shows that for those with diabetes, plant proteins may be gentler on the kidneys than animal foods,” says Dr. Jenkins. People following a vegetarian diet have also been found to have a lower risk of developing some cancers such as colon cancer.
Better health for our wallets
As food costs rise, the price of meat has skyrocketed as well. Many plant foods offer plenty of protein and a range of nutrients, and although we have seen some steep price increases for fruits and vegetables recently (remember the $7 cauliflower?), they are not likely to be as expensive as meat overall.
Better for our planet
Internationally renowned scientists with a variety of nutritional philosophies, including Dr. Jenkins, met at “Finding Common Ground,” a nutrition conference in Boston sponsored by the non-profit health education group Oldways. They talked about what we should be eating. Whether they were nutrition experts who promote vegetarian or vegan diets, or those who recommend eating meat, they all agreed that when making food choices, we should take the environment into consideration, both in terms of how foods are grown and what effect they have on climate change.
The cows, pigs, sheep, and other animals that are raised for our meat, for example, contribute to the release of greenhouse gases (such as methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide) because of the manure they produce, the fertilizers needed, and the digestive processes of these animals. These greenhouse gases are believed to lead to climate change and dramatic weather changes. Livestock production also uses large amounts of water. As well, large-scale production adds to water pollution, while the large amounts of manure allow potentially harmful substances into the water supply.
Plant proteins can have the opposite effect: Because a vegetarian diet generally requires less energy, land, and water resources than a meat-based diet, it sustains these resources better, maintaining them for use by future generations. Growing pulses actually increases the fertility of the soil, which then has a positive impact on the environment. In fact, the Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations declared 2016 to be the International Year of Pulses. (See “Top 10 Foods for Vegetarians or Vegans” for more on pulses.)
What’s a vegetarian?
Here’s a short guide explaining the different types of vegetarian eating styles:
- Vegetarian: someone who does not eat meat, poultry, fish, or any products containing these ingredients, but may eat other animal products such as dairy and eggs
- Lacto vegetarian: a vegetarian who also eats dairy products
- Ovo-vegetarian: a vegetarian who also eats eggs
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian: a vegetarian who also eats dairy products and eggs
- Flexitarian: this is a new classification; it describes a person who eats mainly vegetarian but does eat some animal products occasionally
- Vegan: someone who does not eat any animal
Top 10 foods for vegetarians or vegans
1. Pulses Pulses, from a Latin word that means thick soup, are the edible seeds of dried peas, beans, lentils, and more. Not only are pulses an inexpensive source of protein, they are also full of fibre and key vitamins and minerals such as folate and potassium.
2. Soy foods Fresh soybeans are used to make a variety of high-protein foods such as tofu and soy milk. These foods supply assorted benefits, including blood cholesterol-lowering action.
3. Nuts They provide protein, fibre, and healthy fats. Walnuts contain omega-3 fats, a type of fat that is most often found in coldwater fish such as salmon and sardines. All nuts are rich in a variety of nutrients—but enjoy them in moderation since, like seeds, they are also high in fat and calories.
4. Seeds Seeds such as hemp, flax, and chia are also rich sources of omega-3 fats, which may be in short supply in vegetarian and vegan diets. (Like nuts, these should be enjoyed in moderation only, because they are also high in fat and calories.)
5. Whole grains They are full of all kinds of key nutrients for vegetarians such as fibre, protein, iron, and magnesium. Try quinoa if you have not yet tasted it; it ranks above other grains in protein content. Or stretch your food horizons further and go for other whole grains, such as barley, millet, and kamut.
6. Extra virgin olive oil and/or canola oil These healthy fats improve the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients such as beta-carotene and lycopene, the colourful pigments found in fruits and vegetables.
7. Leafy greens These vegetables are loaded with nutrients, particularly iron and vitamin C. Iron is a nutrient necessary for healthy red blood cells, but it can be poorly absorbed from plant sources. Kale is an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and K; and also offers calcium, folate, and potassium. If it is not your favourite vegetable, other good options include Swiss chard, spinach, and broccoli.
8. Citrus fruits These are well-known for their vitamin C, a nutrient that boosts absorption of iron from plant food sources. Including a vitamin C-rich selection at meals is key for those who do not eat meat. Other vitamin C-rich fruits include papaya, strawberries, and pineapples.
9. Allium vegetables This family of vegetables includes onions and garlic. When cooked together with whole grains, these vegetables have been found to increase the amount of iron and magnesium the body absorbs from the grains. Magnesium is a mineral that plays a role in regulating blood sugar and blood pressure. Like iron, it can be poorly absorbed in a meatless diet.
10. Mushrooms All types offer health benefits but for vegetarians, they also supply tasty options. For example, they can be used to make rich-tasting broths that can replace prepared chicken or beef broth. Mushrooms also offer a meaty texture in dishes such as sauces, and can even be a replacement for burgers.
Here are four delicious recipes where you won’t even miss the meat.
Green Goddess Dip
Nourish: Whole Food Recipes Featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans (Whitecap) by Nettie Cronish and Cara Rosenbloom is hot off the press. This book is filled with lots of delicious recipes, but is also packed with nutrition information and tips for healthy eating. Here is a dip that will entice anyone to eat more vegetables.
12 oz. (350 g) silken tofu
¼ cup (50 mL) extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp (25 mL) fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp (15 mL) honey
¼ cup (50 mL) finely chopped fresh dill
2 tbsp (25 mL) minced sweet onion
3 tbsp (45 mL) minced dill pickles (about 1 small pickle)
1 tsp (5 mL) Dijon mustard
½ tsp (2 mL) sea salt
⅛ tsp (0.5 mL) freshly ground black pepper
In a food processor, combine all ingredients. Process for about 1 minute or until puréed.
Pair this dip with fresh vegetables—such as carrots, jicama, red peppers, celery, grape tomatoes, and cucumber—sliced to your preference.
Makes about 8 servings (1 cup/250 mL)
Nutritional breakdown per serving (each about 2 tbsp [25 mL]): 2 g carbohydrate, 1 g protein, 4 g total fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 g fibre, 108 mg sodium, 47 calories
This recipe is also from Nourish: Whole Food Recipes Featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans. Co-author Nettie Cronish has been a vegetarian for decades and offers this advice about tempeh: If you love chopped liver, the flavour profile of this pâté will please your palate. Tempeh has a firm, chewy texture, and adds a meaty layer to recipes. It is made by fermenting crushed, cooked soybeans that have been treated with a bacterial culture. The fermentation process enhances the flavour and makes the protein in the soybean easier to digest.
1 cup (250 mL) raw unsalted almonds
2 tbsp (25 mL) extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups (500 mL) sliced button mushrooms
½ lb. (250 g) tempeh, fresh or thawed, cut into ½-inch/1 cm) cubes
1 tsp (5 mL) sodium-reduced tamari
½ tsp (2 mL) each dried thyme and dried sage
½ cup (125 mL) chopped fresh dill
¼ tsp (1 mL) sea salt
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Spread almonds on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake until golden, about 5 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
In a medium-sized saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, and sauté 5 minutes or until soft. Add mushrooms, and sauté for 3 to 5 minutes.
Add tempeh to the vegetable mixture, and stir to combine. Add tamari, thyme, sage, dill, and salt. Cook for 12 to 15 minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated.
In a food processor, grind almonds. Add cooked mushroom mixture and process until pâté is thick and smooth. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes.
Serve with cut vegetables and whole-grain crackers.
Tip: Find tempeh in the fridge or freezer at the grocery store or health food store. Always check the expiry date on fresh tempeh and keep it refrigerated. Tempeh can be frozen for a maximum of 6 months.
Makes about 8 servings (1 cup/250 mL)
Nutritional breakdown per serving (each about 2 tbsp [25 mL]): 7 g carbohydrate, 8 g protein, 12 g total fat, 2 g saturated fat, 2 g fibre, 106 mg sodium, 162 calories
Chickpea and Cauliflower Curry
This recipe is from Pulse Canada, which is the national industry association that represents growers, processors, and traders of pulse crops in Canada. Their website, pulsecanada.com, contains information about pulses, as well as a variety of recipes.
3 tbsp (45 mL) canola oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp (25 mL) curry powder
1 tsp (5 mL) cinnamon
1 tsp (5 mL) paprika
½ tsp (2 mL) cayenne
1 bay leaf
½ tsp (2 mL) fresh or ground ginger
1 tsp (5 mL) sugar
1 can (540 mL) chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 small cauliflower, cut into small pieces
1 cup (250 mL) frozen green peas
¾ cup (175 mL) reduced-sodium vegetable broth
¾ cup (175 mL) coconut milk
10 sprigs cilantro, chopped
Heat oil in a large skillet. Sauté onion and garlic about 5 minutes or until golden. Stir in curry powder, cinnamon, paprika, cayenne, bay leaf, ginger, sugar, and salt. Stir until fragrant, about 2 minutes.
Add chickpeas, cauliflower, and peas. Stir in broth and coconut milk. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 20-25 minutes, or until cauliflower is cooked through.
Remove from heat and remove bay leaf. Garnish with cilantro and serve.
Makes about 8 servings
Nutritional breakdown per serving: 29 g carbohydrate, 10 g protein, 13 g total fat, 5 g saturated fat, 6 g fibre, 105 mg sodium, 256 calories
Zucchini and Yellow Split Pea Sauté
Here is another offering from Pulse Canada. Many pulses that are purchased in dried form (such as kidney beans or chickpeas) need to be soaked before they are used, but those such as split peas and lentils do not. If you do not have the time to soak, canned pulses are a great alternative (just be sure to rinse them before cooking, to get rid of excess sodium).
1 tbsp (15 mL) olive oil
2 green onions, chopped
2 medium zucchini, sliced
1 cup (250 mL) dried yellow split peas, cooked according to package
2 medium tomatoes, sliced
1 cup (250 mL) reduced-fat shredded cheddar cheese, divided
1 large red onion, sliced into rings
1 dash each of garlic powder, light soy sauce and pepper
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Sauté green onions and zucchini until slightly tender, about 5 minutes. Add cooked yellow split peas. Stir gently.
Layer tomato slices overtop and sprinkle with 2/3 cup shredded cheese. Layer onion rings over mixture and add remaining cheese. Sprinkle garlic powder, soy sauce and pepper overtop.
Reduce heat to low, place lid on pan and heat ingredients for about 5 minutes. Serve immediately.
Makes about 8 servings
Nutritional breakdown per serving: 17 g carbohydrate, 10 g protein, 5 g total fat, 2 g saturated fat, 3 g fibre, 184 mg sodium, 144 calories
The last word
“If you’re thinking about moving toward a vegetarian diet, start with having meatless meals one day a week, and increase the frequency as you find new recipes you like. Making the change gradually can help families adapt to going meatless.” – Joanne Lewis, healthcare provider education & engagement director, Diabetes Canada
Did you know?
(This article originally appeared in Diabetes Dialogue, Spring 2016.)
Author: Rosie Schwartz, RD, FDC
Category Tags: Healthy Living;
Sign up & stay connected
Browse our delicious collection of savoury and sweet recipesView recipes About Recipes
Tools & resources
Take charge of your health with tools and resources from Diabetes Canada.Get started About Tools & resources
Find out how to manage your diabetes, including suggestions for helpful self-care practices.Learn more About Lifestyle management