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Buffalo real estate broker Cristen Gregory learned early that vegetables could become the focal point of a tasty meal. That's what happens when your parents favor a European diet.

“The main emphasis of the meal was never meat,” said Gregory, a Toronto native and vegetarian whose business card, unsurprisingly, is green.

For lifetime veggie lovers like her, it's easier to eat green, one of the healthiest nutrition decisions we can make.

For the rest of us in deep-fried, slow-roasted, charbroiled Buffalo, going meatless might not be so simple. But this pre-Easter season of Lent, when even some of the most carnivorous among us reduce their meat consumption from seven days to six, might be a good time to consider going all in by giving a vegetarian diet a whirl.

“The most compelling reason points to personal health,” says Courtney Moskal, a health coach and registered dietitian with BlueCross BlueShield of WNY. “Research continuously supports that those following a vegetarian diet have a lower risk of developing a chronic disease.”

Before you make that face you made as a kid when you realized you were having lima beans for dinner, take the advice of people who know firsthand that no meat is not the same thing as no taste.

“There's a lot more flavor in fruits and vegetables than all the other foods combined,” said Chris Connolly, who offers two of Western New York's top restaurant choices for those who want to add more color and nutritional character to their diet: Cafe 59 and Madonna's, both on Allen Street.

“It's not all about eating salad,” he added.

Connolly, Gregory and other healthy eaters say a vegetarian lifestyle has good lessons for everyone. If you follow their advice, you will learn to:

• Check the labels – Everyone should pay more attention to them but vegetarians have an extra incentive: making sure a product doesn't contain meat. Some yogurts use pork jelly; some curries or MSG contain shrimp; even some pain medications contain animal flesh. Those who check labels also can assure they're not getting too much sugar, salt, fat or processed food ingredients.

• Find new places – Many of the region's grocery stores have large produce sections. Specialty stores that include PriceRite and the Lexington Co-Operative Market offer an even greater variety of plant foods. Connolly says the co-op has an awesome bulk section and lots of vegan baking options.

• Go with alternatives – “Without meat stock, it's harder to make food taste full,” Connolly says, but it's not impossible. Vinegar, wine, sherry, garlic, mushrooms, tomatoes and cheese all add plenty of richness. “Different oils can really make a difference, too,” he said. A healthy red sauce can be made with tomatoes, light olive oil, extra garlic, extra onions and wine. Then there are healthy juices that can include kale, cucumber, ginger, pear, watermelon, carrot and celery.

• Get roasted – Roasting adds more taste to vegetables “and really changes the flavors,” Connolly says. “At the cafe, we do all of our vegetables the same way. We toss them in olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic powder and we throw them in a really hot oven until they're starting to brown up around the edges a little bit.”

• Enjoy the savings – Gregory often hears complaints that vegetarianism can get expensive, but fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables, when compared to unhealthy foods, are generally reasonably priced ounce per ounce, especially for those who grow them in their own gardens.

Eliminating meat does have its consequences. That's why veggie lovers need to:

• Make sure they have an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals they otherwise might get from animal sources, including protein. For example, a woman who weighs 120 pounds can satisfy half her daily need for protein with one cup of vegetarian chili. Other good sources include soy, tofu, tempeh, nuts, beans and peas. Calcium and iron also are key, and can be found in leafy greens and whole grains.

• Consider taking B12 and D12 supplements to replace what they're missing in meat.

One more thing to remember: hydrate. Water is key, and a far better choice than sugary drinks. “You want no empty calories,” said Katie Manis, a dietitian at Buffalo General Medical Center.



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