Simple Recipes & Techniques for Health and Vitality
by Diksha McCord (Blanche Agassy McCord)
Chapter 1: An Introduction to Vegetarianism
Why Become a Vegetarian?
Perhaps once considered a strange lifestyle in Western culture, vegetarianism is now quite common in our society. Though each persons decision to adopt a vegetarian diet is usually based on a combination of reasons uniquely his or hers, there are three primary concerns that vegetarians may have considered. These are improved health, ethical and environmental concerns, and spiritual convictions.
As awareness of the role of saturated fats and cholesterol in obesity, heart disease, and cancer has grown, many Americans have adopted a vegetarian diet as a type of preventive medicine. Others say that there is more to be concerned about than just fat and cholesterol, that, in fact, human beings are simply not designed to property digest and thrive on meat. This view is based on the observation that the teeth and digestive tract in the human body are more like those of non-meat eating animals than that of carnivores.
Some question the safety of meat as a food, at least in the way that it is currently produced and marketed. Aside from the recent real problems of animal plagues that can infect humans also (such as Mad Cow Disease), there is a growing concern over the widespread use of antibiotics and hormones in the production of meat, and how human health may be affected by ingestion of drug-saturated meat.
Ethical and Environmental Concerns
It has been stated that if all the land currently used for animal grazing were put into grain, legume, and vegetable production, there would be no hunger and starvation in the world, as there would be ample supply to feed every man, woman and child a nutritious diet. Other concerns include: the rapid destruction of particular environments, such as the rainforest, in order to support the beef industry; mistreatment of factory-farmed animals; over-fishing of rivers and oceans, and the destruction of other species in the process (for example, dolphins that get caught in tuna fishing nets).
A number of spiritual teachings, including those of yoga, Hinduism, Jainism, and many Native American and other aboriginal peoples, believe that all living beings are expressions of God. Therefore, all animals are equally precious embodiments of Spirit, and should be respected as such. The practice of killing animals for food is thus abhorrent to adherents of these religions and to be avoided except as necessary to sustain life (for example, in environments where there are few plant foods available).
What Do Vegetarians Eat?
As the name suggests, vegetarians do eat vegetables. But that is certainly not all we eat! I recall one particularly disappointing experience with what seems to be a common American concept of a vegetarian meal.
In 1994, while I was visiting friends in Los Angeles, we planned to have lunch at a highly regarded restaurant in one of the major downtown hotels. We made our reservations, specifically requesting a vegetarian entrée. I was really looking forward to the experience, because the restaurant had a reputation for exceptionally delicious food. To my dismay, our lunch consisted of ordinary pasta with red sauce, and plain boiled vegetables. Bland and unappetizing, it was essentially a meal from which the meat had been removed, but nothing at all interesting had been added!
A vegetarian diet can actually provide us with much more variety in tastes and textures than the typical meat-based fare. While the average American home-cooked meal generally consists of a piece of meat (or fish, perhaps), a starch (such as potatoes, rice, pasta or bread), and a cooked vegetable and/or salad, a vegetarian repast may be composed of a number of dishes combining legumes, grains, vegetables, nuts, fruits and seasonings.
And, not all vegetarians eat alike. Because of varying concerns about the quality and means of obtaining non-flesh animal products, there are differences in diet within vegetarianism. The three main approaches are:
- Ovo-lacto vegetarianism, which includes the products of animals obtainable without slaughter, such as milk products, eggs, and honey.
- Lacto-vegetarianism, which includes dairy products and honey but avoids eggs (as the embryos of potentially living beings).
- Veganism, which avoids all products of animal origin, including honey and other bee products (usually based on a desire to avoid consumption of any food that involves the exploitation of animals).
In general, a balanced vegetarian diet is based on natural foods, including whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
The Ideal Diet
Even fresh, natural foods have varying influences on our consciousness, which affects our health and happiness. The teachings of yoga recommend following a diet that promotes harmony rather than stimulation one that keeps the nervous system calm and peaceful, and fills the body with energy, vitality and strength. According to these beliefs, all creation and therefore our food is composed of three subtle qualities, those that are elevating, activating or darkening. When we eat, or surround ourselves with, one of these qualities, our consciousness is drawn in that direction. By our awareness of these tendencies, and by choosing carefully how we feed our bodies, we can influence and shape our minds and lives. Here are some guidelines:
Natural, calming and cleansing foods are elevating, as are foods that increase life, vitality, strength, health and joy. They draw us toward goodness, truth, purity and spirituality, and foster within us such qualities as expansiveness, intelligence, creativity, love, sympathy, calmness, patience, and devotion.
Elevating foods include raw fruits and vegetables, fresh raw milk and cream, butter and ghee, nuts and seeds, and dried fruit, as well as pure water, clean air, and sunlight.
Cooked, spicy and stimulating foods are activating, as are foods that are excessively hot, bitter, sour, or salty. They give us physical energy, and support such movement-oriented qualities as curiosity, initiative, creativity, liveliness, ambition, restlessness, impulsiveness, over-seriousness, and aggression.
Naturally activating foods include whole grains, lightly cooked vegetables and fruits, onions, garlic, eggs, cheeses, fats and oils, salt, refined sugar, soft drinks and coffee. Lamb, poultry and fish are also activating.
Overcooked, spoiled or unwholesome foods are darkening. They lead us toward dullness, laziness, inertia, negativity, anger, covetousness, deceit, lust, and body consciousness.
Darkening foods include moldy cheeses, deep-fried food, very hot spicy foods, overcooked food, and foods that are canned, frozen, over-processed, chemically preserved, or fermented. Alcoholic beverages, beef, pork and all dried meats are darkening.
One might think that to achieve perfect health and lift our consciousness, we would want to eat only elevating foods. But Paramhansa Yogananda, the great master of yoga, recommended a diet that includes foods with both elevating and activating vibrations. Why? For one thing, many people are unable to successfully digest (and therefore draw the life force from) raw foods. Also, most of us have active lives, with many duties and responsibilities that require physical energy and initiative. As Yogananda pointed out, we need to balance our need to fulfill these outer demands with the desire to seek a higher consciousness. Therefore, his recommended diet included whole grains (cooked), vegetables and fruits (raw and lightly cooked), low-fat yogurt, cottage cheese, milk, butter, nuts and seeds.
As you think about what kind of balance youd like to achieve in your life and diet, remember that there are other factors at work also. Even though each food has its own innate vibrations, our consciousness and intention in cooking and eating that food can help us to infuse it with uplifting, more spiritually supportive vibrations.
The Role of Dairy Products and Eggs
Whole milk is rich in protein, calcium, and vitamins. Eggs are a wonderful source of high-quality protein, abundant B vitamins, and minerals. They can both be part of a healthy vegetarian diet. However, mass-production farming methods, long-term storage, and long-range shipping requirements have greatly compromised the quality of most dairy products and eggs available in the markets today.
Many people, both vegetarians and non-vegetarians, have found that dairy products can contribute to health problems such as allergies, asthma, arthritis, and heart disease. Whole milk is high in fat and contains cholesterol, making it a poor choice for those who need or wish to limit their fat intake. In addition, some individuals lack the enzyme needed for digesting lactose, which is the natural sugar found in milk. The variety of reduced-fat and non-fat varieties of milk, cheeses, and yogurt now available has provided a partial solution, as has the advent of lactose-free milk products, but these are all highly-processed foods.
In the yogic tradition milk is believed to have uplifting, calming and healing propertiesbut only when the milk is produced by healthy home bred cows that are raised on natural feed, and not treated with hormones and antibiotics. In addition, the milk should be consumed shortly after milking the cow, and not be homogenized or refrigerated beforehand. Likewise, butter, yogurt and cheeses should be made with fresh milk, and not adulterated with artificial color and flavor. Fresh cheeses, such as cottage cheese or farmer style cheeses, are preferred. Finally, milk is considered to be a food in itself, and not as a beverage to be drunk along with a meal.
For the most part, the American dairy industry produces milk, butter, yogurt and cheeses that do not meet these standards. If you want to include dairy foods in your diet, look for a local, organic source.
In recent years, eggs have been banned from the diets of many Americans because of their natural cholesterol content. Actually, the fat and cholesterol are contained entirely in the egg yolk, along with B vitamins and minerals; the egg white is almost pure protein.
Eggs are generally produced by hens kept in artificial indoor environments, and raised on feed laced with antibiotics and hormones to increase production. But there are sources of eggs produced by range-fed chickens that are not kept confined and are given natural feed without hormones or antibiotics. Some of these free-range chickens are fed only organically-grown grains, but not all, so it is important to read the egg carton carefully. Even so, these eggs may have lost some of their nutritional value through the time of transit and storage before retail sale.
For people who suffer from allergies to dairy products and eggs, or who simply do not want to eat them, there are many alternatives available in the market today. There are several commercially available brands of almond, rice and soymilk, and cheeses made from these same non-dairy sources. Egg substitutes, in both liquid and powder form, are also available, often in mainstream supermarkets. For recipes that call for eggs, you can also use ground flaxseed, silken tofu, or pureed fruit as substitutes.
It is also possible to create delicious and fully nutritious meals without use of dairy, eggs, or any substitute products, which is what I have done in my recipes.
What about Protein?
In the not too distant past, it was considered essential for good health to eat meat or fish for the complete protein that they provide. Attempting to compensate for this perceived lack in the vegetarian diet, early enthusiasts advocated food combining techniques that would allow the body to extract the elements of complete proteins from each plant-based meal. This was predicated on the understanding of the human bodys ability to synthesize proteins from the building blocks of the eight essential amino acids present in foods. But because it was thought that all the necessary amino acids had to be present in the stomach at the same time, this was a cumbersome method, involving eating certain combinations of foods in exact proportions at each meal.
Fortunately, continuing scientific research has shown that, not only do most foods contain proteins, but also that the human body can synthesize proteins from amino acids ingested over a period of time. In other words, by eating an adequate, balanced plant-based diet that meets our energy needs, we will be providing our bodies with plenty of protein.
However, it is true that certain groups of people the elderly, children, and pregnant women have higher nutritional needs. For them, and for others with higher nutritional requirements or difficulties in assimilating nutrients from their food, it may be advisable to supplement a plant-based diet with small amounts of dairy products and eggs. If you have any question about the advisability of a vegetarian diet for yourself, be sure to consult with your physician.
A Word about Organic Foods
Organic foods are those grown or produced without the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. In addition, true organic farming involves the use of organic matter (manure and compost) to enrich the soil, so that its nutrients are replenished constantly. Organically grown foods are usually more nutritious and more flavorful than commercially grown products. Not only is it better for our health to eat organic foods, but it helps to create a sustainable agricultural system.
To ensure that you are getting good quality organic foods, it helps to know the source the farmer or company, and your grocer. Buying organic foods locally, with the seasons, will help reduce your cost.