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When your spouse goes vegetarian or vegan

wis_redcabbage.jpgAs a lifelong vegetarian, it has fascinated me to watch the meat vs. no-meat debate ping-pong from the nutritional (can a vegetarian get enough protein?) to the ethical (should we eat meat raised in feedlots?) and the environmental (what's the impact of raising animals for food?). There are food thinkers who side with ethically raised local meats ( Pollan) and those who largely oppose eating animals ( Safran Foer), those who have strayed from the vegetarian diet and those who have gone from merely vegetarian to vegan. And then there are the many many "flexitarians" that fall somewhere in between. Most nutrition experts agree that a diet rich in a variety of whole plant foods, with lesser amounts of dairy and meat, can significantly lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. A few days ago, I got this email from a friend.

After 44 years of eating meat, my husband (thanks to Jonathan Safran-Foer and others) has decided to become a vegetarian (vegan, no less). I actually grew up vegetarian but have not been one since I was in my 20s and really have no idea how to cook that way, especially for a family. Can you recommend a good vegetarian cookbook or two? I'd love some basic (non pasta; I can make that) recipes that aren't casseroles or just large pots of beans.

Have you and/or your spouse recently switched to a meat-free, dairy-free, or reduced-meat-and-dairy diet? Read on, and then share your thoughts in the comment section below.

The fact is that it's a huge challenge to shift how you shop and to rethink what you put on the dinner table, especially when kids are involved. (Read more about raising vegetarian kids.) On the other hand, it has never been easier to be an inspired vegan or vegetarian (Google "vegetarian" and no less than 29 million pages come up). Tons of free ideas and recipes can be found on websites, blogs, Twitter, and social media pages. One of my favorites is Heidi Swanson who sends out weekly recipes (delicious, creative, seasonal) and blogs at On Delicious Living's recipe page, we collect yummy meat-free recipes under vegetarian and vegan categories.

There are scores of new vegetarian cookbooks; most cater to a sophisticated palate, not your brown-is-best veggie cuisine of yore. I still love my Moosewood cookbooks for practical and delicious weeknight dinners. But the most well-loved cookbook I own is hands down Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (Deborah Madison), broken out by ingredient so if you have a lot of a particular thing (say, beets) then you have five creative ways to use them. For family cooking, I like Feeding the Whole Family (Cynthia Lair), which contains lots of kid-friendly suggestions and doable recipes for weeknights. Cynthia also has a cooking blog. For colder months, I also like Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker (Robin Robertson).

My friend also brought up another important point: Is processed soy bad? Well, maybe and maybe not. But first I'd like to say that a vegetarian diet does not necessarily equal a high-soy diet, whether in the form of whole or processed soy-foods. Soy is a great source of complete protein, but protein is also plentiful in other beans, whole grains, and plant foods; getting a variety of these throughout the day is enough.

To date, I haven’t seen convincing evidence that processed soy is truly harmful, but I tend to agree with many of the experts that Delicious Living has spoken with that processed ANYTHING isn’t a good idea. There’s plenty of evidence that, when eaten regularly but in moderation, whole soy is healthy. About the controversy about soy and hormonal interference, our medical editor Robert Rountree, MD, has explained that “phytoestrogens” (plant estrogens, which are similar but not the same as human estrogen) are not only found in soy. In fact, beans, grapes, and other plant foods contain just as many (sometimes more) of these compounds. That said, soy is one of the most common genetically engineered crops (GMOs) which can be heavily sprayed with pesticides. And GMOs have not been studied for their long-term effects on human health. So I always opt for organic tofu, tempeh, edamame, etc.

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