I recently returned from the National Medical Association’s annual convention in Philadelphia, a gathering of some of the sharpest minds in medicine. Surrounded by some of the brightest in their respective specialities, I was faced multiple times with the discussion of the recently popularized concept of the “plant-based diet”. These engaging debates sparked interesting dialogue around men’s health and the impact of the plant-based diet on chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
This debate was like déjà vu, tracing back 6 months ago when I first learned of the controversial 2011 documentary “Forks Over Knives”. This film championed the idea that various diseases could be avoided or reversed by switching to a whole food, plant-based diet.
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A close friend of mine had just completed the companion New York Times bestseller book of the same title and was in the process of transitioning her family to vegetarianism. Being the skeptic that I am, I had essentially dismissed the idea (as I had numerous times in the past) because I am a proud Ghanaian-American woman who enjoys her chicken, goat meat, and the other various meats present in staple Ghanaian dishes.
As someone who generally maintained a healthy lifestyle, it seemed like unnecessary torture. Several months after this encounter, I found myself in the midst of an intense debate at my hair salon as women in my neighborhood reacted to another provocative pro-vegan documentary entitled “What the Health.” Although these documentaries sensationalize things a bit, the core issues they address really speak to how we can identify pathways to leading a healthy lifestyle.
It is estimated that just under 3% of Americans are vegetarian, with approximately 10% of the world’s population classified as the same. Only about 0.5% of people in the US identify as vegans. In recent years, between social media and the increased access to fruits, vegetables, and vegetarian-friendly dining options, there has been a growing population of vegans and vegetarian subtypes. There is compelling evidence that meat-free diets and even alternative diets that use meat sparingly (e.g. Mediterranean diet) have significant health benefits such as decreased incidence of cardiac events, lower risk of cancer, and a lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
Although these benefits are well noted, as an adult, it can be difficult to incorporate a vegetarian diet and plant-based diet into your daily routine when you’re accustomed to enjoying many dishes that rely on meat content as the very essence of the meal.
Before providing specific tips on how to successfully make your vegetarian transition or to decrease your meat intake, it is important to know that there are many flavors of vegetarians (Resource: www.vrg.org):
Vegans: Do not eat meat, poultry, fish, or any products derived from animals, including eggs, dairy products, and honey. They commonly also avoid using products that are derived from animals.
Lacto-ovo vegetarians: Do not eat meat, poultry, or fish. Do eat eggs and dairy products.
Lacto vegetarians: Do not meat, poultry, fish, or eggs. Do eat dairy products.
Ovo vegetarians: Do not eat meat, poultry, fish, or dairy products. Do eat eggs.
Pollo vegetarians: Do not eat meat. Do eat poultry. May or may not eat fish, dairy products, and egg.
Pesco vegetarian: Do not eat meat or poultry. Do eat fish. May or may not eat dairy products and eggs.
So how do you still embrace your African culture AND be a successful vegetarian? Here are some easy and specific changes you can make in some main dishes that can eliminate or decrease the meat content:
Soups: Instead of meat, you can incorporate fish (red snapper, tilapia, stockfish, etc) and crabs for a tasty finish. Vegetable based soups like okra soup can also be prepared without meat or by substituting meat for fish. Certain broths can help you to mimic the taste of some meats if you desire. These can then be paired with your favorite rice, fufu, or pounded yam.
Rice-based foods: Some popular dishes, like jollof and waakye (a Ghanaian rice and bean dish), do not require meat at all! Plain white rice and brown rice (cooked and fried) are also options. These can be paired with a tomato-based stew that can also be prepared without meat and adjusting your spices to achieve the desired flavor. Beans and other vegetables can be good additives for these stews as well.
Stews: The options are endless for vegetable-based stews. Green, leafy vegetables like spinach and kale can be prepared with ease and are readily attainable in most open markets and supermarkets. Black-eyed peas (used for the popular“red-red” stew in Ghana), garden eggs, and egusi are popular ingredients for stews. Fish and seafood can also serve as good bases for your stew.
Flours/grains: Foods such as garri, amala (cassava flour), and pounded yam can all be prepared and eaten with non-meat based stews.
Vegetables: Yams and plantains remain a staple in most African dishes and are easy to prepare vegetarian options. As stated previously, leafy vegetables like spinach and kales are also options. Salads can also be prepared from various vegetables and served as a stand-alone meal.
Some concerns about vegetarianism focus on nutritional deficiencies, but in fact, most vegetarians do not have major issues obtaining their nutritional requirements for protein, iron, and zinc. Calcium and Vitamin B12 are a bit trickier and may require some additional supplementation for maintenance, but rest assured you are not depriving yourself of the essential vitamins and nutrients you need for a balanced diet.
Above all else, it is important to recognize that simply eating fruits and vegetables does not make you healthy. There are a number of fruits and vegetables that come with some health disadvantages and additives like salt and sugar can influence your risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, so research is key!
If becoming a vegetarian or one of the varieties interests you, continue to dig deep and figure out what version works best for you. Always keep your doctor informed so they can assist you with your journey. Transitioning to vegetarianism can be an onerous task, but with the right attitude, resources, and support you can successfully be well on your way to a meat-sparing diet!
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