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Improved health and diet new long term family goal

Mar. 28, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

As I write this, we are three months into our experiment with what our family calls, "flexitariganism."

Basically, in an attempt to promote our family's health, we are eating very little meat and only small amounts of dairy, and consuming large quantities of vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains. We were inspired by an acquaintance who had slimmed down, lowered his cholesterol and blood pressure, reduced his BMI and was able to stop taking several medications by eating a vegan diet. He recommended we watch a compelling documentary, "Forks over Knives."

After watching the film, I began to scour numerous books and websites to gain more understanding of not only why we should try to eat more like vegans, but also how to do it in a healthy manner. Vegans and vegetarians both shun meat from their diets. The difference is that vegans do not eat anyanimal products, including milk, eggs, cheese, fish, yogurt and so forth, and they consume very little added fats and oils, including very little plant fats, seeds, and nuts.

Once learning these differences, we made a decision that our family would try to eat "flexibly," meaning when possible, our meals would be more in line with vegans, however, if that was not possible (or desirable) we would eat vegetarian and save meat for special occasions.

We prepare most of our meals at home, including packing our lunches daily, eating breakfast prepared at home and sit-down family dinners are a priority. We dine out for some special occasions. Therefore, controlling what we eat has been fairly easy. That said, we have quite of few family favorite recipes and meals that we have enjoyed through the years that we found challenging to prepare and adapt in order to be completely vegan. Therefore, I find that most of the meals we now prepare would be considered vegetarian.

Initially, I wrestled with this decision, feeling like our family had "failed" the vegan test. I had to keep reminding myself of the overall goal: improved health and diet for the long term. Are we eating less fatty meat? Yes. Are we eating larger quantities and a wide variety of vegetables and fruits? Yes. Are we consuming less dairy products? Yes. Are we consuming more legumes? Certainly. Are we able to navigate in the "real world" on the special times we do dine out or eat at friends' home? Yes.

It was during this mental wrestling match, I remembered a book I read several years ago by Dean Ornish while simultaneously discovering an entire movement called "flexitarians."

Let me explain. I was completing online search regarding health benefits of eating vegetarian when I ran across a web site sponsored by Dean Ornish, known for his research for reversing heart disease (and numerous other diseases and chronic illnesses) through diet, called the "Spectrum." Additionally, on the same web page were several listings for those choosing to eat a "flexitarian" diet. Skimming and scanning, I soon verified that our family was on to something that many others, unknown to us, had discovered. That is, even going meatless one night per week was beneficial to your health. We were going meatless, depending upon the week, a minimum of four nights per week, some weeks even more.

Since my husband, daughter or I do not have diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, or blood pressure issues, we do not need, according to Dr. Ornish, to follow an aggressive disease-reversing diet. Rather, we want to prevent these diseases from ever becoming present. Likewise, those who believe in the "flexitarian" movement, know and desire the benefits that eating a vegetarian and even vegan diet offer, but want some wiggle-room. Compromise is acceptable and even desirable in our case.

Therefore, what our family has discovered is as old as, well these southern Ohio hills, "everything in moderation."

My point is this, Dear Reader, you have to find what works for you. Dieting cannot be viewed as a short-term answer to what is, in reality, a long-term issue -- your personal health. How you choose to eat (and, hopefully, exercise) needs to be a in a manner to which you can commit for the long run.

I've included one of our all-time favorite recipes, Black Bean Casserole, and modified it to a vegetarian version that is high on vegetables, legumes, whole grains and most of all taste, but is low on fat, dairy and processed ingredients.

Be flexible and try it. You might find you actually like it!

From my home to yours, I wish you healthy, happy, homemade meals.

Vegetarian Black Bean Casserole

1/2 cup veggie stock

1 medium onion, chopped

1 bell pepper, chopped

1 small, yellow summer squash, chopped

1 small, green zucchini, chopped

1 jalapeno chili, seeded and chopped

3 cloves minced garlic

1 package veggie ground crumbles

1 cup frozen (or fresh) corn

1-tablespoon chili powder

1-teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon red pepper

1/2 cup water or stock

1 (15 ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed

1 can chopped green chilies

1/3-cup fat-free sour cream

1 (10 ounce) can enchilada sauce (red or green-both work well)

8 whole grain tortillas

1 cup sharp cheddar cheese (We use a veggie variation that has no lactose.)

1-2 cups shredded lettuce (optional)

Diced green onions, sour cream and salsa for garnish-all optional

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In large skillet, heat veggie stock over medium heat.

Begin chopping veggies and add all to stock as each is chopped. Toss in garlic, stir and cover vegetables, simmering well for 7-10 minutes, until onions are translucent and all veggies tender.

Stir in crumbles, corn and spices. Stir well and add 1/2 cup water or veggie stock if mixture seems dry or is sticking to pan.

Cook 5-7 more minutes.

Meanwhile, drain black beans and rinse well.

In medium mixing bowl, stir together black beans, green chilies, sour cream and enchilada sauce.

Coat a 12x8 or 13x9 casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray.

Spoon veggie mixture into center of each tortilla. Roll up and place seam side down in casserole dish. Spoon bean and sauce mixture over tortillas, evenly coating.

If using shredded lettuce, sprinkle lettuce on top of tortillas.

Sprinkle cheese or veggie cheese on top of casserole. If using veggie cheese, lightly coat top of cheese with nonstick cooking spray to facilitate melting.

Bake casserole for 8 to 12 minutes, until cheese melts and lightly browns.

Allow to cool 5-10 minutes before cutting into four servings.

Garnish with salsa, sour cream and/or green onion if desired.

Stephanie Hill is a freelance writer and an eighth-grade reading and writing teacher at South Point Middle School. She is also a lifelong resident of Lawrence County. She can be reached at hill992@zoominternet.net.