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Writer helps `grow' vegetarians

As more people put lentils and tofu on their dinner plate instead of meat, Debra Wasserman can take some credit.

With a half-dozen cookbooks, a bimonthly magazine and endless speeches, the co-director of the Vegetarian Resource Group has been reminding people for more than 15 years to eat their vegetables - and only their vegetables."I can't even imagine eating meat any more," Wasserman said.

Vegetarian Resource Group grew out of a local organization Wasserman founded with her husband, Charles Stahler, in 1982. They had both been members of a vegetarian group in Washington and were trying to replicate the service.

At the time Wasserman, 40, was relatively new to vegetarianism. She had never even considered it until a few years earlier while in graduate school. She was known as the token pacifist and a classmate asked why she ate food that required killing animals.

"I said, `Well, that's different.' But right away I thought, `Good point,' " Wasserman said. Now she is a "vegan," someone who eats no animal products including dairy, eggs, poultry and fish.

To make it easier for her Jewish relatives and others to eat without meat, she spent years creating "No Cholesterol Passover Recipes" and "The Lowfat Jewish Vegetarian Cookbook."

The string of categories in the second title struck her family as hilarious and landed Wasserman a spot on ABC's "Good Morning America." She just thinks of it as logical marketing, like her first book, "Meatless Meals for Working People."

"It's geared to someone who's living on McDonald's and wants to eat healthier," she said of "Meatless Meals." All of the meals can be made quickly, unlike the gourmet vegetarian books that were being published in the early 1980s when it first came out, she said.

The book includes information on which fast food qualifies as vegetarian. For instance, Burger King french fries qualify, but McDonald's french fries, flavored with a "beef product," don't.

That kind of research, much of it carried out by registered dietitians who donate their time, has been a hallmark of the group.

The resource group, with 17,000 dues-paying members and a budget of $600,000, is the largest organization in the country devoted primarily to vegetarianism, said Lige Weill, president of the Vegetarian Awareness Network in Washington.

With the resource group, Was-serman's influence is growing into areas where vegetarians have never gone before. Last year, she helped the National Meals on Wheels Foundation put together a vegetarian meal option. Now, the seniors-oriented plan is being requested by hospitals and nursing homes throughout the country, Wasserman said.