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Vegetarianism: An Easy Guide to Meat-Free Eating

By Stephanie S. Saunders

Remember the first time you came home for a holiday from college? Your mom had a good home-cooked meal of tofu, kale, asparagus, and quinoa waiting for you on the table, right? Maybe not. Odds are it was a giant meaty-meat fest with a side of meat. We're Americans, so eating meat is what we do, right?

Woman Holding Bell Peppers

Again, maybe not. According to a Vegetarian Times study, as of 2008 there were 7.3 million vegetarians in the United States, and 22.8 million more people who follow a "vegetable-inclined" diet, which raises the questions, "How the heck do they do it?" and, perhaps more importantly, "What do they do for holidays?"

That's what we're here to discuss today. What is a vegetarian diet? Does it mean you have to survive on sprouts and wheat grass? Why would anyone choose to give up bacon? And if you were to choose a "greener" diet, could you get the kind of body you're aiming for and still be healthy? Let's find out.

What exactly is a vegetarian?

Vegetarians follow a plant-based diet, including but not limited to fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds, and maybe dairy products and eggs. Generally, they do not eat meat. That includes red meat, game, poultry, fish, and shellfish. The simple way to look at it is that vegetarians don't consume anything that has an eyeball.

There are several degrees of vegetarians, ranging from the completely observant vegan, who eats no animal products, including eggs, dairy, honey, or gelatin (and in many cases doesn't wear leather, silk, or wool), to the far more liberal pescatarians, who include eggs, dairy, fish, and/or seafood in their diet, but no other meat. Somewhere in the middle is the ovo-lacto vegetarian, whose diet can include eggs, dairy, and honey, but no other animal products.

Why, why, why?

Why would anyone ever give up a "Royale with cheese" (as John Travolta called a Quarter Pounder® in Pulp Fiction)? Well, it might make you a heck of a lot healthier. Most vegetarians have lower cholesterol levels than their omnivorous counterparts do, because dietary cholesterol only comes from animal-related sources. Vegetarians with diabetes also tend to manage the disease, and studies have proven that a combination of a low-fat vegetarian diet and exercise can sometimes reverse type 2 diabetes.1 A study in England has shown that vegetarians are about 40 percent less likely to develop cancer than meat-eaters are,2 and Harvard studies that included tens of thousands of people have shown that regular meat consumption increases colon cancer risk by roughly 300 percent.3 And beyond the health benefits, there are social, ethical, economic, religious, and philanthropic issues to be considered.

And how do I pull this off?

As easy as it may seem to just exclude certain things from your diet, vegetarians should avoid trying to subsist on French fries and waffles. A lot of nutritional deficiencies are blamed on removing meat from the diet, but most of these can also be attributed to populations that consume a lot of processed foods. If you want to be a healthy vegetarian, here are some things to keep an eye on:

  • Protein. Believe it or not, protein intake in a vegetarian's diet is only slightly lower than it is in an omnivore's. Studies have confirmed that not only do most well-balanced vegetarian diets meet the protein needs of the average person, but they also have enough protein for bodybuilders and athletes. Lacto-ovo-pescatarians obviously have the most simple path to proper protein intake, as eggs, dairy, and fish gives them a lot of variety in the protein department.

    LegumesBut stricter herbivores also have a plethora of options. Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. Depending which text you refer to, there are 20 to 25 different amino acids, 10 of them considered essential or semiessential, which means your body can't make them, so you need to get them in your diet. Foods with all 10 essential amino acids are considered to have "complete amino acid profiles." Many folks assume that meat is the only way to get a complete amino acid profile, but you can get those magic 10 from soy, amaranth, seitan, hempseed, tempeh, buckwheat, Spirulina (blue-green algae), Chlorella (green algae), or quinoa. Or if you don't want to get fancy about it, any combination of legumes (beans, peas) and grains will do the trick. Even if you separate their consumption by several hours, you'll still get the benefits of a complete protein. Considering the added fiber and nutrients you'll get from the legumes, it's a win-win solution.

    However, don't fall into the common trap of always making soy your go-to protein source. While it's a fine complete protein, it can also have a lot of carbs and fat. To get the same protein that exists in, say, 4 ounces of roasted chicken breast, you'd need to eat more than four times as much tofu. So it's better to diversify. Four ounces of seitan, for example, has about three times as much protein as the same amount of tofu does. Shaking things up in the protein department will also give you a more diverse set of nutrients.
  • SpinachIron. Anyone who has ever suffered from anemia-related exhaustion would do just about anything to avoid it. And everyone knows that iron comes from red meat, right? Surprisingly, there's more iron in 1 cup of steamed soybeans than there is in 4 ounces of broiled sirloin steak. And if you consume shellfish, it's good to know that cooked clams have more iron than any other food—ounce for ounce, they have more than four times as much iron as braised beef liver, and more than 10 times as much as roasted beef round. If the thought of clams leaves you cold, most whole-grain cereals come in a close second, iron-wise. In addition to finding iron in other shellfish, like oysters, you'll also find it in pumpkin seeds, white beans, molasses, lentils, and spinach. The truth is, vegetarians with a balanced diet are no more likely to become anemic than meat-eaters are.
  • Calcium. We all know that calcium makes our bones strong and helps us avoid osteoporosis. If you're a lacto-vegetarian, calcium is pretty easy to come by. Milk, yogurt, and cheese all contain a pretty decent amount; a cup of milk tops the list, with almost a third of your daily requirement. But guess what has even more? One single cup of cooked spinach. Yes, again the leafy green takes the prize. (Keep in mind that's one cup measured after, not before, cooking.) Other amazing calcium-rich foods include broccoli, kale, turnip greens, mustard greens, açai berries, almonds, oranges, tofu, chickpeas, and sardines. The average person should take in 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day, which could be covered in one big green salad if you choose your ingredients well.
  • NoriB12. Often a deficiency of vitamin B12 has no symptoms, but when symptoms do appear, they can include tiredness, a decreased mental capacity (especially where work is concerned), weakened concentration and memory, irritability, depression, and sleep disturbances. Unfortunately for vegetarians and vegans, the most common foods that naturally contain vitamin B12 are meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products. There's been quite a bit of research done in an effort to discover a plant-based source of B12. As it stands, nutritional yeast, Indonesian tempeh, dulse (red algae), Chlorella, raw nori (edible seaweed), Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (blue-green algae), and coccolithophorid algae have the most promise of containing enough B12 to counteract a dietetic deficiency. But to date, that research isn't really conclusive. If you do consume eggs or dairy products, you should be just fine, B12-wise. If you don't, a vitamin supplement that contains B12 could really help you out here.
  • Vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for promoting calcium absorption, modulation of neuromuscular and immune function, and reduction of inflammation. And again, vitamin D is most readily available in fish, dairy, and egg products—unless you live in an area where the sun's rays penetrate the atmosphere at a high enough angle to let your skin cells manufacture vitamin D, in which case, you can just go outside, although keep in mind that strong sunscreen will counteract your vitamin D production efforts. Sunshine, or ultraviolet light, has all the vitamin D you need, and it's free, and no heavy sunbathing is required. All it takes is about 20 minutes per day on your face and arms. If you happen to live in Seattle or some other less-sunny climate, you can't just bask in the glow of an indoor tanning salon's ultraviolet light, because most of them only provide UVA, and we need UVB to make vitamin D. But take heart; if you get enough sun during the summer months, your body will store enough vitamin D in its adipose tissue to last you through the winter. There are also many vitamin-D-fortified cereals, juices, and milk alternatives, as well as vitamin D supplements.
  • OilOmega-3s. We hear a lot about omega-3s, and for good reason. Research shows the right kind can help prevent heart disease and maintain optimum blood pressure and cholesterol levels. For the pescatarian, omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish, including salmon, tuna, and halibut. But some plants and nut oils, like flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, chia seed, canola oil, soybeans, soybean oil, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin seed oil, purslane, perilla seed oil, walnuts, and walnut oil, contain omega-3s as well. Other sources of omega-3 fatty acids include sea plants like algae and cold-water invertebrates like krill.

But how do I prepare all these weird-sounding foods?

One of the great things about being a vegetarian in 2011 is that vegetarian foods are much more readily available than ever before. Most local health food stores carry some form of freshly made meals, or at least the ingredients to create your own. And should you want to spend time in your kitchen, there are hundreds of amazing cookbooks available. Here are a few of my favorites.

"Fancy" Cookbooks:

The Moosewood Restaurant—Cooking for Health: More Than 200 New Vegetarian and Vegan Recipes for Delicious and Nutrient-Rich Dishes, by the Moosewood Collective.

The Gate Vegetarian Cookbook: Where Asia Meets the Mediterranean, by Adrian and Michael Daniel.

The Real Food Daily Cookbook: Really Fresh, Really Good, Really Vegetarian, by Ann Gentry.

The Rancho La Puerta Cookbook: 175 Bold Vegetarian Recipes from America's Premier Fitness Spa, by Bill Wavrin.

"Quick and Easy" Cookbooks:

Quick Fix Vegetarian: Healthy Home-Cooked Meals in 30 Minutes or Less, by Robin Robertson.

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food, by Mark Bittman.

Student's Vegetarian Cookbook, Revised: Quick, Easy, Cheap, and Tasty Vegetarian Recipes, by Carole Raymond.

The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet: 250 Simple Recipes and Dozens of Healthy Menus for Eating Well Every Day, by Nava Atlas.

"Ultra Healthy" Cookbooks:

The Everything Vegetarian Cookbook: 300 Healthy Recipes Everyone Will Enjoy, by Jay Weinstein.

The Get Healthy, Go Vegan Cookbook: 125 Easy and Delicious Recipes to Jump-Start Weight Loss and Help You Feel Great, by Neal Barnard and Robyn Webb.

The Lowfat Jewish Vegetarian Cookbook: Healthy Traditions from Around the World, by Debra Wasserman.

To sum up

For many people, the idea of giving up a juicy steak for a lifetime of seitan seems strange. But as Robert Cheeke, the well-known vegan bodybuilder, once said, "The standard diet of a meat-eater is blood, flesh, veins, muscles, tendons, cow secretions, hen periods, and bee vomit. And once a year during a certain holiday in November, meat-eaters use a hollowed-out rectum of a dead bird as a pressure cooker for stuffing. And people think vegans are weird because we eat tofu?" While his choice of words is admittedly pretty gross, his point is clear: We often blindly follow trends instead of keeping our focus on healthy lifestyle options, especially food-related ones, that are perfectly natural. Deciding to eat in a way that's not only healthy but more sustainable for the planet shouldn't result in being labeled as a freak.

To help you attempt a greener diet, here's a colorful recipe that would look fantastic on anyone's table, for a holiday or any day.

Recipe: Spinach Salad with Quinoa, Garbanzo Beans, and Paprika Dressing

Spinach SaladQuinoa, a delicate grain with a texture similar to that of couscous, cooks up in just 15 minutes. It's a complete protein that's nutritious and tastes great.

  • 1-1/2 cups quinoa (9 to 10 ozs.), rinsed and drained
  • 4 cups (packed) baby spinach leaves, washed and dried
  • 2 15- to 16-oz. cans garbanzo beans (chickpeas), rinsed and drained
  • 1-3/4 cups diced cucumber, unpeeled, cut in 1/3-inch cubes
  • 2-1/2 cups small halved multicolored tomatoes 1 cup (packed) fresh mint leaves
  • 1 cup coarsely crumbled reduced-fat feta cheese
  • 1/4 cup sherry wine vinegar
  • 2-1/2 tsps. paprika
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)

Place quinoa in a large saucepan; add enough salted water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cover and simmer until quinoa is tender, 15 to 16 minutes. Drain. Chill until cool. Meanwhile, combine spinach, garbanzos, cucumber, tomatoes, mint leaves, and half of the feta cheese in an extra-large bowl. Add cooled quinoa and toss gently to blend. Whisk vinegar and paprika in small bowl. Gradually whisk in oil. Season dressing with salt and pepper. Pour dressing over salad; toss to coat. Season with more salt and pepper. Sprinkle remaining feta over salad and serve. Makes 8 servings.

Preparation Time: 40 minutes

Nutritional Information (per serving):

Calories Protein Fiber Carbs Fat Total Saturated Fat
394 15 g 10 g 52 g 15 g 3 g


  1. David JA Jenkins, Cyril WC Kendall, Augustine Marchie, Alexandra L Jenkins, Livia SA Augustin, David S Ludwig, Neal D Barnard, and James W Anderson, "Type 2 diabetes and the vegetarian diet," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 78, No. 3, 610s-616s, September 2003.
  2. TJ Key, PN Appleby, EA Spencer, RC Travis, NE Allen, M Thorogood, and JI Mann, "Cancer incidence in British vegetarians," British Journal of Cancer (2009) 101, 192-197. June 16, 2009.
  3. WC Willett , MJ Stampfer, GA Colditz, BA Rosner, FE Speizer, "Relation of meat, fat, and fiber intake to the risk of colon cancer in a prospective study among women," New England Journal of Medicine, 1990.

Related Articles
"10 Great Vegetarian Sources of Protein"
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Questions about your workout program, diet, the latest newsletter, or anything wellness related? Chat with Steve Edwards, the overseer of Beachbody's fitness and diet development (who also serves as your Fitness Advisor on the Message Boards), in the Beachbody Chat Room on Monday, April 11th, at 3:00 PM ET, 12:00 PM PT.

If you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, click here to add a comment in the newsletter review section or you can email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

Check out our Fitness Advisor's responses to your comments in Steve Edwards' Mailbag on the Message Boards. If you'd like to receive Steve Edwards' Mailbag by email, click here to subscribe to Steve's Health and Fitness Newsletter. And if you'd like to know more about Steve's views on fitness, nutrition, and outdoor sports, read his blog, The Straight Dope, recently named one of the Top 50 blogs covering the sports industry by the Masters in Sports Administration.

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Pros and Cons of Going Vegetarian

Missy Costello, Tony Horton's personal chef, talks about the ups and downs of cooking and eating a vegetarian diet, and shares how she makes sure vegetarian Tony gets the protein he needs. Click below for the video.

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For the Love of Garlic

By Jeanine Natale

Garlic has long been touted as a super-healthy food, and there are many groups, fan clubs, festivals, restaurants, and even the whole town of Gilroy, California, devoted to this beloved "stinking rose." It's also supposed to ward off vampires, but let's leave that for the Twilight set. We here at Beachbody® are just interested in the basic nutritional facts, ma'am, so I've delved into the spicy world of garlic to find out why, in addition to being a vital part of good cooking of all kinds, it's so good for you nutritionally. Here's what I learned.


What's in a clove?

Garlic ClovesNutritionally speaking, you'd need to eat several cloves of garlic before you started seeing a lot of vitamins and minerals. Three cloves give you 5 percent of your vitamin C and 6 percent of your vitamin B6 for the day, as well as some calcium and manganese. The big benefit, however, comes in the form of sulfur-containing compounds—this translates into antioxidants—which help scrub your system clean of various destructive agents, including those that may cause cancer. There have been a variety of large-scale studies conducted in the last few decades, examining between 20,000 and 40,000 patients over a span of several years, which have concluded that the regular consumption of garlic—whether in raw/natural form or the much more socially acceptable odorless capsule form—has been shown to reduce stomach and colon cancer, as well as other forms of cancer, by 35 to 40 percent.1

Allicin is the main player among these sulfur-containing compounds; it's what gives garlic not only its (in)famous odor, but also many of its beneficial, healing properties. Allicin and garlic have been studied extensively, and are shown to have definite antimicrobial, antifungal, and antibacterial properties. It's also had a history of being used as a vermifuge, or antiworm medication. Additionally, according to some studies, regular consumption of garlic (at least a few cloves a day) has been shown to reduce high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease. Although there are other studies showing no significant results, all agree that there's no harm in consuming all the garlic you want—until you breathe on someone who isn't a fan of the stuff.

Cold killer?

Woman SneezingIn addition to the scientific studies, volumes of anecdotal evidence point to garlic as one of nature's most effective healers. From eating it raw to using garlic poultices on everything from boils to poison ivy to acne, hundreds if not thousands of Web sites, published books, and advice columns are devoted to explaining all the ways garlic can be used to heal whatever ails you. However, it's almost universally agreed that cooked garlic won't have the same healing properties—it's gotta be raw and reeking in order to work its magic.

My own informal poll of several dozen people revealed that a good 90 percent firmly believe in the healing properties of garlic. At the first sign of a cold or flu, true believers chop up a few cloves of fresh raw garlic and hastily proceed to consume said healing remedy within a few minutes. (These same believers insist that the garlic must be chopped, sliced, or crushed to release the healing properties of allicin and other nutrients.)

And while your Western doctor may not advise you to take two cloves and call him in the morning, the East has embraced the healing properties of garlic for thousands of years. Traditional Chinese medicine recommends it as a cure for everything from dysentery to whooping cough.2

Easy ways to eat garlic.

Because raw garlic can be so overpowering in both taste and odor, there are a number of creative ways to consume it without experiencing the burning-tongue torture that can result from eating it straight. Mixing a fat dollop of crushed garlic into guacamole or salsa seems to be pretty popular; placing thin slices of the stinking rose between slices of an apple is a bit more innovative. (The sweetness of the apple tastes surprisingly good paired with the pungent garlic.) Mixing coarsely chopped garlic into peanut butter just sounds flat-out gross to me, but that's another popular option. The one thing most people do agree on is that once "treatment" has begun, it's best to try to stay away from other people, as massive garlic odor will be fuming out of not only your mouth, but every other orifice and pore of your body as well. As one garlic fan put it, "It's best to do a garlic treatment along with your partner, or whoever is going to be around you the most. Otherwise, it's like you have a garlic force field surrounding you—no one can get too close!"

Garlic PillsOf course, you could just go to any health food store, or even the health aisle of your local market, and buy the stuff in pill form. No muss, no fuss, and perhaps best of all, no impenetrable wall of stink! There are many popular garlic supplements on the market, with varying dosages—it's best to experiment and adjust your intake to whatever feels right. Generally speaking, a bottle of 60 capsules with 600 to 900 milligrams of allicin per capsule will typically set you back somewhere between $5.00 and $10.00.

Paul Pitchford, author of Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition, suggests taking the highest dosage recommended on the label of whatever brand you choose. Indeed, there's no danger of overdosing on garlic or garlic extracts, and if you're probably already aware if you have an allergy or sensitivity to garlic. Most sources suggest that you shouldn't consume a huge dose of garlic on an empty stomach, as it can sometimes cause a bit of irritation—it is quite spicy in all its raw loveliness. Most supplements have an enteric coating, which means that even if you do take them without food, your tummy will be safe.

So, again, see for yourself how garlic does or doesn't work in your life. For those with garlic allergies, most research tends to show that the allicin content in supplements and other garlic extracts doesn't have the same possibly negative effects that raw garlic would have. As always, consult your doctor or medical practitioner regarding any potential reaction you may have to garlic or allicin. And if you get the green light, give this fascinating and historically favored natural benefit to good health a shot.


  1. Evelyn Leigh, The Herb Research Foundation, 2001
  2. Henry C. Lu, Chinese System of Food Cures, Sterling Publishing, 1986

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"10 Reasons to Eat Organically—and Locally"
"9 Appetite-Suppressing Foods"
"6 Ways to Fire Up Your Metabolism"

Questions about your workout program, diet, the latest newsletter, or anything wellness related? Chat with Steve Edwards, the overseer of Beachbody's fitness and diet development (who also serves as your Fitness Advisor on the Message Boards), in the Beachbody Chat Room on Monday, April 11th, at 3:00 PM ET, 12:00 PM PT.

If you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, click here to add a comment in the newsletter review section or you can email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

Check out our Fitness Advisor's responses to your comments in Steve Edwards' Mailbag on the Message Boards. If you'd like to receive Steve Edwards' Mailbag by email, click here to subscribe to Steve's Health and Fitness Newsletter. And if you'd like to know more about Steve's views on fitness, nutrition, and outdoor sports, read his blog, The Straight Dope, recently named one of the Top 50 blogs covering the sports industry by the Masters in Sports Administration.

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Chalene Johnson Sets GMA on Fire!

If you weren't an early bird last week, you might have missed TurboFire® creator Chalene Johnson putting the HIIT (that's High Intensity Interval Training) on the hosts of ABC's Good Morning America. You can catch the fire here, though. Click below to learn more.

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Recipe: Brown Rice Italiano

Brown Rice ItalianoIt's rice! It's a salad! However you decide to classify it, it's a tasty vegetarian dish with a pleasing variety of ingredients—including the always-welcome zing of garlic.

  • 2 cups brown rice, prepared according to package directions and chilled until cool
  • 1 large yellow bell pepper, seeded, cored, and chopped
  • 3 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1 cup sliced sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
  • 1 14-oz. can artichoke hearts (canned in brine, not oil), drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 2 10-oz.bags mixed salad greens, washed and dried
  • 5 chopped small black olives (for garnish)
  • 1 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese

Place rice, pepper, garlic, tomatoes, basil, artichoke hearts, and pine nuts in a large mixing bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper; pour over rice mixture and toss. Arrange greens on a large platter; mound rice over greens. Garnish with olives and cheese. Mangia! Makes 8 servings.

Preparation Time: 20 minutes

Nutritional Information (per serving):

Calories Protein Fiber Carbs Fat Total Saturated Fat
233 6 g 6 g 25 g 14 g 2 g

If you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, click here to add a comment in the newsletter review section or you can email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

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