So there you are, going through the line at Pop’s or perusing the menu at your favorite restaurant, and you spot it: the tell-tale “vegetarian option.” Maybe you’re tempted to try it, or perhaps a vegetarian dish is the furthest thing from your mind. Either way you’ve probably been curious at one time or another.

I’m here to tell you – go for it! You don’t need to become a full fledged vegan, but following a well-rounded and more plant-based diet can have numerous benefits to your health.

In 2006 there were 4.9 million vegetarians in the United States and this number is only expected to grow in the coming decades. People can be motivated to follow a vegetarian diet by a variety of reasons, but whatever the rationale the benefits are the same: A wholesome vegetarian diet may help you maintain a healthy body weight and may decrease your risk of heart disease and cancer.

As published by the American Dietetic Association, vegetarians tend to have a lower Body Mass Index, a measurement of healthy weight. This means that fewer vegetarians are obese, a condition linked to many other types of chronic disease and diabetes.

Many people argue that vegetarianism produces false correlations because of its relationship to healthy weight management. They believe that the decreased disease risks are not due to the vegetarian diet, but rather to maintaining a healthy weight. This has been shown not to be the case, however, because several studies with adjustments made for factors like BMI, smoking and social status, and found that vegetarians still tend to have lower rates of ischemic heart disease.

According to the ADA this decreased risk of heart disease may be caused by lower levels of LDL cholesterol (a.k.a. “bad” cholesterol).

But the benefits don’t just stop at a lower risk of obesity or heart disease. The ADA and the World Cancer Research Fund say that studies show a higher consumption of fruits and vegetables can help prevent cancer of the lung, mouth, esophagus and stomach.

Like I said before, you don’t need to swear off meat entirely to positively impact your health. The benefits of vegetarianism lie in your diet’s composition – fruits, vegetables and whole grains! These foods are packed with vitamins, minerals and other stuff that is just plain good for you. The more you make those foods the stars of your diet, the better, whether you are an herbivore or an omnivore.

So how can you start going veggie during your daily routine? Here are some tips:

Alter dishes that you already enjoy. For example, choose meatless sauce on your spaghetti or try the Union’s vegetarian chili instead of the meat variety.
When you’re out to eat, read the menu carefully – vegetarian options are usually starred or emboldened in some way.
Remember what is really healthy – choosing French fries in nacho cheese sauce may be meatless, but it is not the way to go! The goal is to choose the options with higher nutrient to calorie ratios!

So, the next time you see that vegetarian option don’t hesitate! A plant-based diet rich in fruits and vegetables is great for your health. 

Rachel Werts is a senior in the dietetics program. If you have any more questions, check out the ADA’s website at eatright.org or write to the column at [email protected].

Recipe of the Week:

This week’s recipe is a great vegetarian twist on a classic pasta dish.

Vegetarian Bean Bolognese (Serves 4)

Ingredients

1 14 oz. can cannellini beans, rinsed, divided 

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion, chopped 

1/2 cup chopped carrot

1/4 cup chopped celery 

1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cloves garlic, chopped 

1 bay leaf 

1/2 cup white wine 

1 can diced tomatoes 

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley, divided 

8 ounces whole-wheat fettuccine 

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions 

Put a large pot of water on to boil. Mash 1/2 cup beans in a small bowl with a fork.
Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, celery and salt; cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and bay leaf; cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add wine; increase heat to high and boil until most of the liquid evaporates, 3 to 4 minutes.

Add tomatoes (with juices from can), 2 tablespoons parsley and the mashed beans. Bring to a lively simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 6 minutes. Add the remaining whole beans; cook, stirring occasionally, until heated through, 1 to 2 minutes more.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in the boiling water until just tender, according to package directions. Drain.

Remove the bay leaf from the sauce. Divide the pasta among 4 bowls. Top with the sauce, sprinkle with Parmesan and the remaining parsley.
Enjoy!