Vegetarian Diets for Life…& Fitness
I have been a vegetarian for most of my conscious lifetime. It was early in my childhood where for one reason or another, I decided to become a non-meat eater. I now can’t remember clearly if it was because the street cats around our house loved the meaty bits and pieces I would save them off my plate the most. Or was it the environment and my childhood dream to be an advocate for the preserving of nature?
Either way, I became a vegetarian and there was no going back.
Mind you, the times were such that I would assume not eating the meatballs from my soup meant I was a vegetarian. With time and age, my knowledge of what it takes to be a vegetarian progressed. I realised eating just the potatoes cooked with the meat was not sufficient in my veggie quest and that foods had to be cooked separate from the meats. My mum had a hard time educating herself on how to feed a family member, and one at a stage of growing up, nutritious meals packed with all the vitamins and minerals I would need for healthy development.
The times were such that in my culture vegetarianism was frowned upon and generally considered as a lifestyle lacking in nutrients. If I would get a cold, I would be told it’s because my immune system was low due to not eating all these valuable meat nutrients. You know, because youngsters who eat meat don’t ever get the cold or the flu. But those were the times and that was the mentality.
I remember once in PE class at school, my coach telling me off for being a vegetarian because I was slowing the team down. On that one day. No probing as to any other reason why. Maybe I could possibly be tired because I was up all night studying for my upcoming exams? Nope. I was slow because I didn’t eat meat. No non-meat-eating athlete could perform as good as an athlete who was a meat eater.
Fast forward to 20+ years later and boy, what a difference time and research have made! And how mentalities have changed. We now live in an age where not eating meat is encouraged in most Western cultures. Being a vegetarian or a vegan is the new trend.
How did this shift in mentality happen? Research! My guess is that some fellow vegetarian scientists had had enough of the constant criticism and delved deeper researching the benefits of following a plant-based diet. Much to their satisfaction, there were plenty.
Vegetarian plans are generally divided into:
- Lacto-ovo: all animal products are consumed apart from animal flesh
- Lacto: no animal flesh and eggs but all dairy is consumed
- Ovo: all animal flesh and meat and dairy products is avoided but eggs are consumed
- Vegan: all animal flesh and meat and all animal by-products are avoided
For most of my life I have always been a lacto-ovo vegetarian. In the very beginning, I was definitely struggling to educate myself on eating a balanced diet and what foods bring you that perfect balance. Back then, information on nutrition was not flowing as freely as now, not least because we had no instant libraries, like the worldwide web and Google nowadays. I had to get to the library, to the section of food and nutrition where I’d be lucky to find something more current in the nutrition world.
One thing that’s for certain: I made many mistakes as a first-time vegetarian. For one, I ate a boiled egg with every meal, you know, for protein. Luckily, I was way too young so that must have helped keeping my cholesterol levels in the norm. Pulses and nuts were only included twice a week at best. Vegetables were mostly found in soups which were cooked with butter (the protein, remember) and the occasional side salad.
Over the course of a couple of years and after reading a lot on my chosen new lifestyle, I found my happy nutritional balance. The most important thing about cutting a food group like meat or dairy is to be aware of what to replace it with for optimum nutrition levels.
I would be lying to say how easy the process of converting to not eating meat was. There were many challenges I had to overcome on my way to be a healthy vegetarian. Recently, I decided to try being vegan and even that wasn’t easy despite years of experience and more knowledge about plant-based diets. And especially when working out where one would assume you would need all the protein you can get from cheese and eggs, right?
Here are some general rules to help anyone considering turning a vegetarian:
Know your motive
This is very important. Know why you want to do this and remind yourself every single morning. Little encouraging post-its around the house and near or in the kitchen help. Especially on the fridge. You can thank me later.
Deciding on doing something is great but you need to sustain this goal with long-term motivation which only comes from reading and educating yourself. Knowledge about nutrition and good health will ensure you don’t give up easily. And bring a much-needed variety in your daily diet. No one can survive on boiled vegetables forever, right?
Be kind to yourself…& allow for slip ups
You’ve been a vegan for a month but couldn’t resist a regular birthday cake at a party? No problem. Eat it, enjoy it and move on. Tomorrow is another day. In the very beginning, I had a hard time to resist the smell of bacon. That went on for a few months and then one day, while on vacation, I had a little bit of it. Realised it’s not all that and spat it out. Food temptations are everywhere. It’s OK to slip up. It’s finding out why you wanted to give up and if it still rings true, give it another go the day after. And the day after that. Slowly, it will become a habit and you wouldn’t be craving bacon or buttery cakes or whatever else you are better off without. Persistence is the word when starting a new habit.
Plan your meals in advance
Especially in the very beginning. Buy great recipe books or get on the Internet and find recipes there. Your weekly meal plan should have a variety of meals with a vast array of ingredients. This is of utter importance when turning vegan. In my vegan experience, I pre-planned for a month and bought a variety of ingredients when doing my monthly shopping. Things like vegan sauces or dried fruits and nuts, legumes and seeds – all key factors in your vegan lifestyle quest.
Don’t focus on weight loss
There is a misconception that going vegetarian or vegan will help you lose weight. If you’re doing it for that very reason, please give up now. Most probably the easiest way to lose weight will be to eat lean meat, like chicken or fish with vegetables. Vegetarianism is a path to better health. Weight loss should happen as a result of eating healthy and working out. Being a vegetarian or a vegan is definitely no easy shortcut to losing weight. Now, don’t get me wrong. If you’ve been stuffing yourself with processed meat and junk foods laden with meat, even planning and cooking your meals at home will help you lose weight, let alone veggie meals.
Carbs are your new good friend
Remember how we just discussed that you are not to focus on weight loss? You need healthy carbs in your new vegetarian diet to create something known as the complete protein. As a rule of thumb: legumes + whole grains = perfect protein. Or legumes + seeds and nuts. A complete protein is a source of protein containing an adequate proportion of all nine of the essential amino acids necessary for the dietary needs of an organism. For example, my dinner tonight is lentils & basmati rice. Being a vegetarian is no time to cut carbs off your diet.
Beware the portion size
You can have too much of a good thing being a vegetarian or a vegan, too. Just ate a whole bag of nuts? But nuts are good for you, right? Erm, yes – in moderation! And don’t think you can have the whole pack of biscuits because it says vegan on them.
Spice & Herb is the Word
Stock up on a variety of spices and herbs. Cooking your meals with them is what would give your taste buds the pleasure they so desire. In many Asian cultures, eating vegan food is no bland experience mostly due to their knowledge of how to use spices and herbs. And cook tasty sauces and foods in general.
Watch your spending
Don’t go all crazy about the veggie craze. Being a vegetarian or a vegan should be focused on eating foods closer to Earth and not so much about these pre-packaged ones found in your local store, costing an arm and a leg. You shouldn’t be spending a lot more now you’ve cut animal products out of your diet. If you’re going vegan for environmental reasons, learn how to grow your own produce. You can even grow some plants in the comfort of your own kitchen.
Mind the gas
If you’ve shied away from raw fruits and vegetables before, expect to feel very gassy and uncomfortable in the beginning when you start eating more wholesome foods. It’s your organism’s way to adjust to the new eating pattern. A little soda bicarbonate dissolved in water should do the trick. Or I used to lie down on my back for a few minutes and put my feet up. That always worked. Or another funny fact: when you feel bloated, stand next to a wall and stretch your arms up. Stand like this for a few minutes, as long as you can. Bloating relieved.
Don’t shy away from social gatherings
Whether you’ve chosen to tell family, friends and colleagues about your new lifestyle is irrelevant. Most party buffets have always catered for a variety of tastes and preferences. It’s a good idea to enlist the support of your network who would cheer you on in the times you’d want to give up.
Stick to your guns
If you choose any change of lifestyle, there are bound to be naysayers. Some might be close family or friends. We humans don’t like change as much as we think. Whatever harmless mockery comes your way, stick to your guns. This is one decision you’ve decided to do for you and only you. Unless a doctor recommended this. In the latter case, people are bound to be a lot more supportive. But if you’re doing it for your own health upon your own will and feel you are surrounded by naysayers who would rather see you stick to your (and their) old habits, keep schtum. Give everyone time to get used to the new change and the new you.
If you’re a big meat lover and decide you want to try the vegetarian lifestyle, don’t go vegan at once. First cut the meat out and see how it goes each and every day.
Back then in my childhood days, I never really thought I was forever done with eating meat again. As any child would do, I took it one step, one meal and one snack at a time. And here we are many, many years later and many different reasons added as to why I would always be a vegetarian.
I do plan to become a vegan one day and never go back to eating any animal products. I’ve read a lot on being vegan and it’s one step closer to better health, fitness and longevity. Speaking of, Monday sounds great. I’ll be documenting my experiences on here as usual.
Now, pass on the butter cookies while you can. Only one, of course. It’s all about moderation.