Pass the tofu burgers, please

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Pass the tofu burgers, please

"We now eat meat only on the first and third Saturdays of the month when we go out to dinner," said a housewife, Choi Hyo-sun, in describing her family's new diet. No, her family has not joined a religious cult.

The dietary change came after Ms. Choi, 31, watched "Good Eating, Good Living," a three-part documentary aired last month by the local TV network SBS. The program hailed vegetarianism as an ethical and healthy path to good living. "I eliminated all meat from the table," said Ms. Choi. "It was a drastic change for the family because we used to have meat with every meal." Such extreme changes usually fail - after a few weeks of chomping on greens, she and her husband, who missed the sound of sizzling bacon, reached a compromise: indulge in their meat habit twice a month.

Ms. Choi is not alone in attempting to eat less meat and more vegetables. A local produce retailer reported a 30 percent decline in meat sales just after the documentary aired. By contrast, sales of organic vegetables and grains went up. An online mall specializing in organic vegetables said its sales more than doubled.

At an online vegetarian community's weekly meeting at a restaurant in Seodaemun last Saturday, most of the 20 people were newcomers. As they ordered dishes such as ground soy broth (kongbijijjige), spicy "beef" soup (yukgyejang) made with soy, and vegetarian bibimbap, the converts and oldtimers exchanged anecdotes on why they decided to forsake meat and how vegetarianism has improved their health.

The group's leader, Lee Won-bok, has been a vegetarian for 15 years. He gave up meat on ethical grounds, believing in the rights of animals, as did a few other members. Most, though, are motivated by health matters. Kim Yu-shik, who was overweight and at high risk for diabetes, went vegetarian last April. Since then he has lost 14 kilograms; his blood sugar level, near borderline before, has since normalized, he said. Another man said his new diet cleared his chronic rhinitis.

The claims are unsurprising because a vegetarian diet, being low in fat, cholesterol and calories, can lower the risk of heart disease. It also reduces the odds of developing diabetes and high blood pressure. Some of the compounds found in vegetables are thought to protect against some forms of cancer, while diets rich in vegetables and fruits have also been linked with alleviating arthritis.

While confirmed vegetarians are confident that their gastronomic path is the healthiest, new converts question whether they can get all the necessary nutrients the body needs without eating meat.

Yes you can, according to vegetarians, if properly planned, but a salad-only meal won't cut it. A balanced mix of grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, seaweed, nuts and tofu is key to nutritionally sound vegetarian meals, according to Park Ki-hwan, a dietician at the Seoul Adventist Hospital.

A main dish of mixed grains, brown rice and beans in a 7:1:2 ratio is a good start to a square vegetarian meal, Mr. Park said. He recommends about 100 grams of tofu, about the size of a bar of soap, with each meal to meet daily protein needs. Generous servings of raw dark green vegetables and vegetables containing carotene are also important. Walnuts, peanuts, pine nuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and gingko are good sources of fat. Plenty of fruits should be eaten to supply ample calories.

But other dieticians are loath to give their stamp of approval to vegetarianism. "For most people, getting enough high-quality protein is absolutely necessary," said Bae Mi-young, an official at the Korean Dietetic Association, an organization of practicing dieticians.

It is dangerous to reduce meat consumption, Ms. Bae claimed. "The overconsumption of meat is really limited to urban areas," she said. "If you go to the countryside, you will notice that most people do not eat that much meat." She also said that "there is no denying" that the increased consumption of meat in recent years has resulted in stronger bodies and longer life expectancy for Koreans.

Another registered dietician, Lee Mi-sook, said that young children, adolescents and pregnant women need the more complete proteins found in meat to stay healthy, making vegetarian diets inadvisable for those groups. A meatless diet can also lack vitamin B-12 and iron, she said, putting vegetarians at risk of anemia.

"I recommend vegetarian-oriented diets for certain patients, such as people with high blood cholesterol," Ms. Lee said. "But even with these patients, I do not suggest a complete vegetarian diet; I recommend that they eat fish and lean cuts of meat." She explained that most foods with known cancer-fighting properties are vegetables, so when making up a diet for cancer patients, it is vegetable-intense along with the inclusion of fatty fish.

The medical establishment also has its reservations about strictly vegetarian diets. "Koreans need to bring up their fat intake to 20 percent of the daily calorie requirement," said Yoo Tae-woo, a professor of family medicine at Seoul National University Hospital, in a press statement rebutting the SBS documentary. Dr. Yoo noted that Koreans' fat intake remains at 19 percent of daily calorie consumption. For those aged 50 and above, fat intake is down at 14 percent. "Most people considering a vegetarian diet after seeing the documentary are the middle-aged and elderly, who already don't get enough fat; cutting back further will result in an unbalanced diet."

For people who want to give vegetarianism a try, a number of restaurants specialize in vegetarian fare. SM Vegetarian Buffet (02-576-9637) in Poi-dong features more than 30 dishes and sells the ingredients it uses in its creations. Pulhyanggi, which specializes in vegetarian dishes inspired by Buddhist temple food, has a number of restaurants, including branches in Yeonhui-dong (02-325-3075) and Hannam-dong (02-794-8007). Sanchon, (02-735-0312) in Insa-dong, is a well-known Buddhist restaurant. Idame (02-392-5051) near Ewha Womans University, serves vegetarian versions of hamburger patties, pork cutlets, bulgogi and sweet and sour pork, all made using soy products.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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