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Taking Stock in Your Food: forget the media myths--the truly important issues facing today's meatless eater are ones like: why the hell can't i get a truly vegetarian soup?

Meatless Myths

A recent 'San Jose Mercury News' article shows that disinformation about vegetarianism dies hard

By Elisa Camahort

I read a piece in the San Jose Merc recently that got me all riled up. The topic was "Going Vegetarian," and the focus was on teenagers. I knew it was a little unrealistic to expect the article to come down wholeheartedly in favor of the practice, but I thought at the very least they'd mention the standard long-term health benefits associated with such a diet. I thought wrong.

A Stanford dietician was heavily quoted in the article, and, although a dietician by trade, apparently she was also an ethicist by vocation. One of her comments was that she was OK with patients who cited religion or health as a reason to go vegetarian, but if they cited ethics, she asked them questions, like if they wore leather. After all, "if you're going to walk the walk you have to talk the talk," says she.

I wonder if she asks patients who cite religious reasons if they adhere to every tenet of their religion too? Or maybe I'm all addled when I think religion has something to do with ethics?

You gotta like the fact that she wants to promote that "all or nothing" thinking in teens right from the start. I mean, I think it's just great to tell teens that if they can't be perfect they shouldn't bother with making ethics-based decisions at all, don't you?

Now, I happen to agree that shunning leather and being a pure vegan is desirable. I'm constantly struggling to be a stricter adherent to my personal beliefs. But I'm human, and I fail. Better that I try, though. Better that I take every possible step down the path toward that unattainable perfection, than take no steps at all.

Ah, but there's more. That wasn't all that got me aggravated.

The dietician also said that: "Being vegetarian takes effort and hard work, and you have to know what you're doing."

To which I say: "BS."

Nutrition experts used to think that vegetarians had to do fancy "food-combining" at every meal to ensure they got proper nutrition. That theory has been discredited, and the current prevailing wisdom is that you only need to get the proper combination of foods throughout the course of a day, not a meal.

But everyone should care about eating a balanced diet. It's not easy to eat properly just because you're a vegetarian, but it's no harder either. If it were so easy for nonvegetarians, we wouldn't have rampant problems in this country with obesity and other diet-related ailments ... in adults and in our youth.

With reports showing that Americans don't eat enough fiber or vegetables and eat too much sugar and fat, I hardly think vegetarians are the ones at greatest risk. Maybe if that Merc dietician had pointed out the healthful benefits of a vegetarian diet to balance her warnings, I would have gotten less cranky about it. But not one word about that. Just the discouraging thought that going veg is "hard work."

I'll tell you what can be hard: getting restaurants to have a bit of consideration for vegetarians when creating their menus. Sometimes you have to be a food sleuth just to make sure you're not violating your principles to have a good meal out.

For example, why can't restaurants make vegetable soups and pastas with vegetable broth? It's amazing how often I can't order a mushroom soup, or a vegetable risotto, because they used chicken stock.

And if you're going to put bacon on a salad or a vegetable side dish, why don't you mention it on the menu?

Then there are less obvious things to look out for. You may or may not know that gelatin is not vegetarian. I think it's ground-up hooves and horns. Nasty, right? And gelatin pops up in strange places. Say goodbye to marshmallows, to Altoids, to Yoplait Lite and, duh, Jello.

You may know to ask for your Caesar salad without anchovies, but did you know the recipe for most Caesar salad dressings includes ground-up anchovies? And speaking of anchovies ... can you believe they're in Worcestershire sauce?

So, there are annoyances exclusive to being a vegetarian. Making sure you have a well-balanced, healthful diet isn't one of them.

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From the January 12-19, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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