More Than Mondays: Vegetarian and Vegan Diets on the Rise

In the past few years, we've all become a little more aware of what we eat. A combination of many factors, including influencing books such as Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, in-your-face television programs like Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, and an abundance of health studies have led to a rise in "conscious" eating. For some, that means buying organic produce and grass-fed meats, for others, frequenting local farmers' markets and participating in a CSA program, and for an ever-rising lot, it means plunging into a completely meat-free diet.

This latter change is of note due to its stark contrast with what has, for a long time, been the American way. Readily available inexpensive meat and a predilection for burgers and bacon have made America a largely carnivorous nation, and now, it seems that the climate is changing. A quick Google search turns up countless studies citing the rise of vegetarian diets in the U.S., with converts listing health, environmental benefits, and fear of food-borne illnesses as some of the many reasons for this change. The most recent poll from The Vegetarian Resource Group indicates that 3% of Americans consider themselves vegetarian, up from 1% in 1997. As a reflection of this differential, when the USDA released their most recent dietary guidelines, they included vegetarian and vegan versions.

Intrigued by this growing statistic, and our own desire to lead a healthier lifestyle, we decided to dig a little deeper and find out how a meat-free diet might impact you and your loved ones. The benefits, it seems, are not only physical: Nutrition Journal claims that vegetarians have a lower occurrence of anxiety and depression. The subjects of their study enjoyed a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and oils containing omega-3 acids, and consumed remarkably fewer processed foods than their meat-eating counterparts.

An Australian study points out another added benefit of a vegetarian diet when it draws the connection between red meat and vision loss. Apparently consumption of red meat, and sausage in particular, increases the likelihood of developing age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss in those over 50. And for the many diabetes sufferers, instituting a vegetarian lifestyle can improve both blood sugar control and insulin response, meaning less reliance on medications and a smaller risk of the often accompanying complications, claims Dr. Maria Collazo-Clavell of the Mayo Clinic.

While all these studies might seem convincing enough for you to give a vegetarian or even vegan diet a go, instating such a drastic change is never easy—especially when eating out. But converts will be happy to find that many restaurants have jumped on this burgeoning trend, offering a plethora of options for those who choose to make their meals out of vegetables and plant-based proteins. By offering a variety of meatless options, restaurants enable diners with different preferences to enjoy meals together, Nation's Restaurant News points out, and save money all the while.

Indeed, vegetarian dishes are cheaper to prepare—a benefit you too can enjoy when ringing up items at the supermarket. If you're not sure exactly where to start when building your meat-free weekly menus, flip through this gallery of 50 Vegetarian Recipes, which features a broad range of flavors and cuisines. The longtime cook will also find it helpful to have on-hand a quick cheat sheet shared by Kathy Freston at The Huffington Post, including such tips as using vegetable broth in lieu of chicken broth, using tofu instead of chicken and using almond, soy and cashew cream in the place of milk.

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