The Vegetarian Food Pyramid(s) and You!

29 09 2009

The USDA has, over the years, tried to come up with ways to educate the public about nutrition. It’s been a process, and the earliest guidelines, in the early 1900’s were in response to the common problem of malnutrition. The USRDA’s of nutrients didn’t come out until the 40’s, which were a time of wartime shortages, so the government issued guides were educating the public about very new ideas. In the ensuing years, we became a society where people die from overeating, not undereating, and the problems that need to be addressed have changed. So, the food pyramid was designed in 1992 to give us a visual aid for balancing our diets. That, too has become more complicated, with a new version coming out every few years, to much discussion and debate.

Vegetarians have never really had a great relationship with the omnivorous USDA  food pyramid, where we are supposed to plug in dairy and eggs in the meat slots and call it good. So, a few versions of the vegetarian and vegan food pyramid have been put together, by different groups, and guess what? They are all a little different. Some give a bigger place to whole grains, and some are more liberal with olive oil, but they all have something to add.

One of the first was designed by Oldways, an organization dedicated to educating the public about tried and true, ancient diet-styles, like the Mediterranean Diet. The Med diet continues to stand the test of time, with new studies backing it up.

Taking a look at the base, which is divided in thirds, with fruits and veggies, beans, and whole grains each taking a spot. That layer is “eat at every meal.” I’m betting that eating beans at every meal might be a challenge, unless you put soymilk on your cereal or eat tempeh bacon for breakfast. Beans actually means legumes in general, so peanut butter and soy can easily fill that slot.

Next level up, in the “eat daily” category are nuts and seeds, egg whites, soymilk and dairy, and plant oils. This differs from some of the other pyramids because the Med diet emphasizes eating olive oil every day. At the top point are eggs and sweets, to eat only occasionally. Then, off to the side, in Med fashion, is a glass of wine, and a recommendation to drink plenty of water. Yes!

Contrast that with the American Dietetic Association’s Vegetarian Food Pyramid. It’s a little more specific, and designed to break out calcium rich foods, even if they might fit into other categories.

In this pyramid, the base is grains, at 6 servings a day, but up the side of the triangle are calcium rich foods, with 8 servings a day, in which the foods also belong to the group they are next to-like grains, vegetables, etc. The second level is protein rich legumes and nuts, at 5 servings, then Third level is vegetables at 4 servings, and fruits, with 2, and the tip is fat, with 2 servings.

Of course, these kinds of visual representations have to simplify things and are really more about the overall impression. You can take the broad strokes of “did I eat some at every meal?” of the Oldways pyramid, or you might find adding up your servings over the day to be more informative.

If you are eating a vegetarian diet and wonder if you are doing it right, try keeping a food diary for a week, or longer. Then add up your servings each day and compare it to the recommendations. This is a great way to get a feel for how you tend to eat. If you see a need to strive for more leafy greens or whole grains, you will be more aware after the week.

When you hear that the veg diet is really good for you, it is always with the caveat “properly planned” thrown in somewhere. It’s not just veg diets, everyone needs to plan for a balanced diet, so as not to be at the mercy of random food choices. It’s not hard, and easy enough to get into good habits.

And the Pyramids can be a good tool for visualizing your plans.


Peanut Butter, the Vegetarian’s Pal

21 09 2009

How Fun is That?


How Fun is That?

Adding coconut milk to the pan

Meet my new friend, the peanut butter maker at my Coop.

He, let’s call him grind-ey, makes extra special peanut butter, because it contains the peanut skins (more about that later) doesn’t have any added trans fats or sugars, and is much less likely to contain aflatoxins. It also can’t be from that nasty factory where the salmonella peanut butter was made.

Peanut butter is that lovable old friend, you took it to school in your lunch, you keep a jar for emergency snacks, and as you’ve gotten more sophisticated, you’ve learned to use it in spicy sauces and creamy soups. It’s everybody’s friend, but vegetarians have a special place for it in their kitchens.

Yep, good old peanut butter is portable, spreadable, cookable and an easy way to get a quick protein fix. And if a little voice in your head is whispering about the high fat content, shush it. The fats in PB are mostly monounsaturated, with some polys thrown in, and are associated with lowering bad cholesterol and boosting the good HDL kind. Beyond that, PB is actually a great weight-loss tool-a study at the U of Perdue showed that folks who snacked on a couple of Tbs stayed full for 2 1/2 hours, and the same amount of calories from a carb-based snack didn’t satisfy nearly as well.

In one study published on the journal Obesity, the subjects who ate nuts at least twice a week were 31% less likely to gain weight. So even though your fave spread gets 71% of its calories from fat, it gets 15 % from protein, giving a 2 Tbs serving 8 grams of protein. It’s also got a filling, healthy 2 grams of fiber, 3 mgs Vitamin E, 49 mg magnesium, 208 ,g potassium, and .17 mg B6.

Oh, and that peanut skin I like ground into my peanut butter? It’s a potent source of resveratrol, the same compound that gives grapes and wine their stellar reputation. It seems that both peanuts and grapes have developed the same chemical to fight fungal infection, and when we consume it, it helps prevent cancer. The skins also bring higher amounts of all the minerals, and that slight bitterness adds a nice complexity to the sweet, rich flavor of the butter.

A unique antioxidant in peanut butter is the polyphenol p-coumaric acid, so it even protects your cells from oxidative damage. It’s also got a few more antioxidants hiding in that creamy spoonful, making it a very protective food-even before you slather on the raspberry jam. In fact, peanuts beat carrots and apples in antioxidant levels, and have you noticed how good peanut butter is on a slice of apple?

Peanut butter is also associated with lower risks of gallstones, colon cancer, and alzheimers, so keep on spreading it on thick.

Decadent Thai Peanut Sauce

The rich flavor of the freshly ground peanut butter demanded a serious treatment, so I concocted a slightly spicy, coconut and red curry sauce. Thai Kitchen curry pastes are fish-free, so look for them to avoid non-vegetarian ingredients. This sauce keeps for a couple of weeks in the fridge, and is great for dipping, stir fries, or even slathering on sandwiches.

1 teaspoon canola oil

3  shallots, sliced

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons red curry paste (to taste)

1 cup coconut milk (reduced fat is fine)

1/2 cup peanut butter, pure and natural

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons sugar or other sweetener

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 pinch salt

In a small saucepan, heat the oil and saute the shallots until browned. It’s not alot of oil but the sauce will be really oily if you add more. Add the garlic and saute for a minute, then add the curry paste and work it all together, cooking until fragrant. Stir in the coconut milk, then work in the peanut butter. Simmer for a minute, then stir in the soy sauce, sweetener and lime. Simmer over low heat until thick, the oil will start to separate when it is done.

Happy National Mushroom Month!

14 09 2009
The untamed morel is only found in the wild

The untamed morel is only found in the wild

Time to pop the cork, I know you have all been waiting for the big September party that is Mushroom Month. I know, we already missed a couple of weeks, so we have to make up for it.

Vegetarians would do well to learn how to harness the magic of mushrooms. The peculiar chemistry of the fungus makes it both deliciously meaty tasting, and in many cases, potently medicinal. The mushroom is blessed with a number of free amino acids, including the glutamic acid used to make MSG. Shiitake mushrooms also contain guanosine monophosphate, another meaty-tasting chemical. These chemicals work to give the mushroom “umami,” a flavor or sensation of meaty, satisfying fullness that is prized by the Japanese. Drying mushrooms concentrates this umami even more.

For medicinal use, you may have seen Maitake or Shiitake mushrooms in pill or extract form. These and a few other mushrooms have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, and studied for their immune-boosting and cancer preventing abilities.

Nutritionally, the mushroom is fat-free and high in protein and B12, making it a great food for vegetarians. That, combined with the meaty texture and health benefits, make a big roasted portobello a common vegetarian entrée ingredient.

In the great recycling scheme of the natural world, mushrooms occupy a fascinating niche. Existing invisibly as a fine network of fibers underground or symbiotically on a host, the organisms whose fruits we know as mushrooms live off the living and the dead. While that might sound creepy, these natural wonders produce some of the tastiest things in the produce aisle.

The mushrooms we buy are actually the fruiting bodies of much larger networks of microscopic fibers, called hyphae. Each specific mushroom grows this network next to the food it is capable of digesting, so a matsutake will only be found near a wild red pine, and a straw mushroom will only grow on rotting rice straw. Some other varieties are less picky, living on decomposing leaves or animal dung. The “mycorrhizal” symbionts, like truffles and chanterelles, live in happy balance with their host tree, synthesizing sugars from the environment and sharing them even as they borrow other nutrients. A few parasitic mushrooms eventually kill their host plants.

The “saphrophytic” mushrooms that eat decomposing matter have proven to be the easiest for humans to grow. Most of the mushrooms we buy are cultivated, using decaying matter as a growing medium. Yes, those black crumbs at the base of your button mushroom are manure, but it’s heat-sterilized manure, if that makes you feel better. Shiitake mushrooms thrive on decaying oak, and were cultivated by the Chinese as early as the 13th century. The happy confluence of harvesting rice and the predilection of the straw mushroom to grow on the leftover stalks made the straw mushroom as ubiquitous in rice growing countries as the button is here.

Symbiotic mushrooms are the hardest to tame, and are still stalked in the wild. Morels, chanterelles, porcinis, hedgehogs, and the famously expensive truffle are among this elusive group. That is why you only see them once a year in their fresh forms, if even then. Mushroom hunting is a dangerous but rewarding activity, best left to well-trained hunters who can tell a delicacy from a fast-acting poison.

The unique biology of the mushroom makes it a joy to cook with. Mostly water, but with no fat, your mushroom will yield completely different textures depending on how you handle it. Raw, most mushrooms are soft and springy. Seared, they can develop a snappy crust that holds the concentrated juices inside. Chopped and cooked over lower heat, the mushroom pours out its liquids and becomes meltingly tender-but if you keep cooking, it will reduce down to an intensely flavorful essence and become firmer as you go.

The mushroom is your “umami” resource, and if you play around with it, you can really amp up your vegetarian cuisine!

Is Cheese Addictive, or Just Really Tasty?

6 09 2009

Oh the things we have to worry about.

The September issue of Vegetarian Times has an article entitled:”Confessions of a Cheeseaholic” by Hillari Dowdle. Full disclosure, I have written many times for VT and love the magazine. I totally appreciate the challenges of keeping the magazine appealing to everyone who doesn’t eat meat, from the flexis and post-heart attack newbies to the lifelong whole fooders to the committed vegans. Just cutting out meat doesn’t make us a homogenous group, at all. Our ragtag coalition come to their meatless lifestyles for reasons ranging from animal rights, religion, the environment, and personal health, or a mix of all of the above.

So when I saw the headline, I thought, uh-oh, this is going to really take a dig at the ovo-lactos.

Luckily, I was wrong. In a careful reading, the piece is a balanced and informative rumination on what really goes on in industrial cheesemaking, and suggests that the overly cheese-dependent vegetarian needs to take a look at her diet. It’s not a diatribe against eating cheese, and even ends with Anna Lappe making a reasonable suggestion that those who eat too much cut back, and seek out high-quality, sustainable cheese.

That said, as someone who lives in Minnesota, affectionately known as the “Land of 10,000 Treatment Centers,” I think that using the term addiction might be a little strong. This is where people come who have hit rock bottom with addictions to hard drugs and alcohol, and rock bottom is usually a place where you have lost jobs, family, homes and self-respect because of the addiction. There are also treatment centers for eating disorders, which should be taken just as seriously.

The case made in the article, backed up by Dr Neal Barnard of the PCRM is that cheese is a very concentrated source of “casomorphins,” which affect the brains opiate receptors just like heroin. He calls cheese “dairy crack.” I suppose that a person eating cheese three times a day might be having a dysfunctional relationship to it. But crack is something that has no redeeming value at all. None. And dairy, provided you are not hitting the casomorph pipe too hard, can be a healthy part of your diet.

We can get hooked on chocolate, whose theobromines activate the same receptors in the brain as marijuana and love. We can abuse caffeine, sugar, alcohol and even fat to make ourselves feel better. Heck, recent research even finds that salt is a mood elevator of a sort, which may account to the crack-like addiction our entire culture seems to have with it, which is actually killing people every day by sending their blood pressure through the roof.

It’s all about balance.

So if you are an ovo-lacto and you are eating alot of cheese, take a look at that. In my experience, when folks first give up meat, they tend to switch to cheese as a protein source because it is familiar and easy. And don’t forget, delicious. But no one food, not tofu, not almonds, not brown rice, should be eaten at every meal.Make an effort to have a day or two a week where cheese is minimal-just opt for Chinese or Thai for a change, and see how that goes. If a luscious red curry tofu leaves you shaky with your jones for the white stuff, maybe you are a little hooked on the cow.

Hopefully if you are a cheese abuser, you can make an effort to opt for beans, nuts and creamy peanut butter some of the time. If it really has a hold on you, you may want to follow the advice of Isa Chandra Moskowitz and give it up completely. The vegan lifestyle may be your sobriety when it comes to dairy. Only you can decide.

For the rest of us, we should not worry needlessly about casomorphins. All sorts of mood changing chemicals are in foods and most people can handle it. Eat good, grass-fed, farmstead cheeses in small amounts, appreciate them, and eat a balanced diet of plants. Go vegan if that works for you, it can be a great way to live.

Just remember that eating is a celebration, and happiness and pleasure are as valuable as any vitamins.