Have you recently wanted to expand your repertoire of vegetarian foods? You are not alone. We all could stand to open up to a greater diversity in the foods we eat. Sometimes we get caught in a rut, and need a little encouragement to change.
One of my favorite things about spring is it means more abundance of local and seasonal fruits and vegetables. Spring and Summer are perfect times to start packing in the extra nutrients that will sustain us through Fall and Winter, when there is often less variety and diversity in the diet.
Have you recently wanted to expand your repertoire of vegetarian foods? You are not alone. We all could stand to open up to a greater diversity in the foods we eat. Sometimes we get caught in a rut, and need a little encouragement to change. Both regular doctors and alternative health care practicioners alike are encouraging their patients to eat a wider variety of foods. Hippocrates, father of modern medicine, said “Let food be thy medicine.” Eating a vegetarian diet gives us the opportunity to be creative, vigilant, and scientific about eating a wide variety of grains, seeds, nuts, sprouts, vegetables, legumes and fruits so that we can enjoy optimal health and a balanced intake of protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins. Foods grown in different soils and latitudes pack different nutritional contents and qualities; thus, varying the type, place and grower of plant foods ensures getting different trace elements and a broad spectrum of nutrients. As mono-cropping and genetically modified crops gain more ground, buying a wide variety of plant foods also helps preserve bio-diversity and important, but lesser known, plants.
Recently, my interest in what I enjoy most about being vegetarian has been perked by many friends and colleagues asking me about my food choices. One woman remarked to me: “Doesn’t it get boring just eating fruits and vegetables? I mean, what do you do for food?” All I could do in that moment was smile and say “No, if anything, life really got going for me as soon as I opened myself up to a vegetarian diet.” Another customer at the living foods resource center that I work at asked “Why are you a vegetarian?” Rather than rant on with a political diatribe and list off the usual fair of reasons, like animal rights, the ecology, food politics, spiritual reasons, health, and concerns over meat-borne diseases, I just chose the response that felt most sincere: “Color. Vibrancy. Variety. The perfect diet for human life.” Yes, this may seem childish, but isn’t it just like the wisdom of children to keep us all simpler and humbler, and more in tune with the flow of life? Couldn’t we all use a dose of simplicity in our lives? What could be more simple than the perfectly packaged, roaring-with-nutrition-and-anti-oxidants then the purple grapes I see myself feasting on when I finish this article?
As George Bernard Shaw so well remarked, “the only thing we have to lose in becoming vegetarian is our cruelty”; similarly, the only thing I give up when I eat a wide variety of plant foods is sickness, colds, and a nutritionally deficient body. I would add the many things that we have to gain from such a diet are a much greater diversity of food choices, easier to clean up dishes, better peace of mind when we go to bed, and a better appreciation of world cultures and foods. Among the things that most of world cultures share are a love of music, folk dance, food and sports. Getting to know another culture can be fun when exploring the realms of ethnic vegetarian foods.
If you find yourself bored with the usual foodstuffs, or dining a little too often on lettuce, apples, tofu, or oranges, I have a few suggestions to make:
1. Don’t walk to the local Asian grocery store, run! Ethnic food markets and stores offer an excellent resource in finding new fruits and vegetables. They also give us food grown in different places on the planet, with different soil compositions and different mineral and vitamin contents.
2. Discover the lesser used grains, like quinoa from Peru, teff from Ethiopia, or amaranth from Mexico. These grains are also gluten-free and can be eaten by those allergic to wheat.
3. Durian. The favorite food of the orangutan is packed with a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals. It smells really different, and is quite an experience learning how to cut open.
4. Check out local farmers markets and get to know the hard working people who supply us with our food. Most of them tend to be characters better than fiction.
5. Try a new vegetable once a week. Add it to your salad. I never knew I had a penchant for okra and now enjoy it steamed lightly with some oregano.
6. Jicama. Rich in potassium and bursting with juicy flavor, it goes well with citrus in salads.
7. Don’t wait for it to come to you. Host a vegetarian potluck once a week. Trade new fruit and veggie recipe ideas with your friends afterwards.
8. Make a game out of who can discover the most new fruits, vegetables, sprouts, nuts and seeds in a week. The winner gets a free rambutan.
9. Be an example for all the world to see. Eat colorfully. Get curious and adventurous at the bounty that is yours to uncover. Packing different foods to school or work is a great conversation piece for vegetarian foods. Share your food with co-workers. Great tasting food works better than a list of reasons to be vegetarian.
10. If it is possible, visit a different ethnic restaurant once a month. Get new recipes for your home cooking, and learn about other people and places through the food you get to try. If it is available, there are many exotic places that can be visited through foods, like Iran, Mongolia, Equador, Ethiopia, Ghana, Vietnam, or the Ukraine. Every country has vegetarian options when they are researched and uncovered.
Should being a vegetarian be hard work? Absolutely not. No one is really inspired by a self-flagellating martyr or gloomy person. Make today the day you say: “I had figs for breakfast, a mango for brunch, a cucumber for lunch, and for dinner a banana, date, almond butter, bee pollen sundae that put Dairy Queen to shame.” Your body will feel the benefits of an increased variety of plant foods, and your mind will open up to new food choices and possibilities. In many ways, choosing a vegetarian diet also means that you are representing this diet, and so your own level of health says a lot about the diet itself. I became more convinced that I could get enough protein from vegetarian foods when I came into contact with many high-level athletes who were vegetarian or vegan. Their glowing health, among other reasons, helped convince me to switch over.
To finish I would like to share a personal story of the triumph of an avocado, the success of the tastiest of fruits. This past Christmas I went to our annual family affair. The whole clan knows of my strange ways, of being “one of them,” a vegetarian. This year I took it a step further. I brought my own stash of avocados. Big ones. Avocados rich in essential fatty acids, and glutathione, a super anti-oxidant that cleans the arterial walls of built up, deadly trans fatty acids. This year I boldly sat at the table with the flesh-eaters, the semi-hostile, and proceeded to peel and devour these aforementioned avocados, just as the turkey was being served. Well, everyone began to get silent. My Aunt Judy stopped eating, and started to laugh: “The kid has brought his own avocados!” Everyone started to laugh. We all were laughing. After we calmed down, everyone looked a little closer at their plates and what they were putting into their mouths. People started swapping stories about what heart medication who was on, for what ailment, and possible natural alternatives. The laughter had opened up the table to health conversations and the vegetarian diet. No need for antagonism or long-winded speeches about vegetarianism. No need to be defensive. No need to not show up. I just kept on eating my avocados for Christmas dinner, and answered as many questions as I could about what would possess me to do so. Once again, the bounty and variety that the plant world has in store for us ensures a healthy diet, a colorful table, and a very, very tasty way of eating and living.
Should being a vegetarian be hard work? Absolutely not. No one is really inspired by a self-flagellating martyr or gloomy person.