People eat meat from habit, custom, tradition, and as a way of proving to themselves and to others that they can afford it. And they also eat meat for the way it tastes, and for protein. Habits can always be changed, new traditions forged. While nothing exactly replaces the taste of meat, there are plenty of delicious, and habit-forming, alternatives. Many long-time vegetarians, in fact, find that the flavour of meat loses its appeal over time. But what about protein? A lot of people worry – needlessly – about getting sufficient protein without meat. Two factors contribute to this alarm. The first is conditioning, pure and simple. We lived a lot of years when our nutritional “needs” were defined by beef marketing boards, and our culinary “wants” were shaped by the notion that prosperity should be demonstrated by the number of times a week we ate meat.
The second factor emerged in the early seventies, when North Americans first began to experiment with vegetarianism on a widespread basis. The predominant theory taught that you could obtain sufficient protein from a vegetarian diet, but you had to pay very close attention to your diet to achieve this objective. The theory of protein complementary (consumption of non-meat foods in specific combinations to obtain enough protein by combining amino acids) was endlessly discussed and fretted over. Today’s research indicates that North Americans tend to eat far too much protein. Current findings on the synthesis of protein within the human body have demonstrated that most people getting enough calories by eating a balanced vegetarian diet will absorb as much protein as they need.
Growing children and pregnant women have special needs and should eat foods that provide them with enough protein, vitamins, and minerals to meet their increased needs. And now, the details: proteins are made up of specific combinations of amino acids. Proteins that contain the ratio of amino acids most easily used by the human body are described as perfect or complete; meat, eggs, and dairy products each supply this kind of protein in a tidy package. (Unfortunately that package comes wrapped with cholesterol and saturated fats.) There are other ways to achieve correct combinations of amino acids, so that your body can build the protein it needs. Beans, grains, nuts, and – to a lesser extent, even vegetables and fruits – all contain some of the necessary amino acids. When these foods are eaten, together in complementary combinations at the same meal or even over the period of one or two days, our bodies store amino acids to build the protein we need.
Frances Moore Lappé broke new ground on this subject with Diet for a Small Planet (1971). Referencing medical and nutritional studies, she proved that humans could indeed absorb sufficient protein, without eating meat, to thrive. Lappé designed a comprehensive plan for combining beans, grains, and nuts to obtain the proper combination of amino acids. Her work encouraged people to see vegetarianism as a viable option, but also left us with the notion that you would need to be a dietician or a chemist to calculate the correct combinations of food categories. In the two decades since, public attitudes have caught up to research. Fewer and fewer people are wedded to the notion that meat, especially red beef, is absolutely necessary, or even healthy. Current research on nutrition indicates that we need not be obsessively careful of our diet to meet our protein needs.
Lappé revised Diet for a Small Planet in 1981, updating readers on her continuing work with food and nutrition. We now know that the human body copes quite well on its own in building proteins, if given a sufficiently varied diet to work from. Your body can store amino acids and combine them over time to meet its protein needs, so there is no need to consume precise food combinations in the same meal. As Lappé wrote in the revised tenth anniversary edition of her book, “With a healthy varied diet, concern about protein complementarity is not necessary for most of us.”
Another term you may have heard in connection with the vegetarian lifestyle is macrobiotics. Developed in Japan by Georges Ohsawa, macrobiotics is both a philosophy of living and a set of dietary principles. A macrobiotic diet consists of local, seasonal food, simply prepared. Macrobiotic principles encourage individuals to develop their own diet toward the end goal of achieving maximum health and harmony with the environment.
There are a number of ways to begin to live as a vegetarian, and one is right for you. You might begin by cutting down your consumption of red meat, or by choosing chicken and fish instead. Some people experience an overnight revolution in their thinking about food and plunge headfirst into the vegetarian way of life. Others are ordered by their doctors to eliminate cholesterol and fat.
Whatever put you on the road to vegetarian cooking, and wherever you find yourself on the path, remember that a vegetarian diet is not a fad. It is a set of conscious choices about what you consume. You are free to change what you eat, and to re-examine those choices and make new ones, at any time. Hopefully, vegetarian meals will be a lifelong choice for you, with a lifetime of dividends. Going without meat is decidedly NOT a diet of deprivation or sacrifice. It is a world of exciting flavors, tantalizing aromas, vibrant colors, and succulent textures. These may not be the flavours or foods of your childhood. But if the tastes you grew up with are clogging your arteries, weighing you down, or just boring you occasionally, then keep reading.