Here in Skepticville I am trying to help people make the best choices that they can while hopefully improving the knowledge about how our body works. Unfortunately, most of us know that our food choices are not merely guided by biology and physical hunger, they are also guided by our culture, our desire to socialize, memories that we associate with certain foods, and even our desire to influence the world around us. In the post before last I talked about how my desire to exercise good stewardship with the Earth's resources, and I guess you could also say the culture I grew up in, influenced me to become a vegetarian. And even though I decided to make the choice to start eating meat again, I know that other people will still want to remain vegetarian for a variety of different social reasons. I have at least one friend who gets nauseated whenever she is near meat in the grocery store related to her memories of being stationed near several slaughter houses when she was in the Air Force and other friends who are trying to undermine the facilities that treat animals cruelly. Many of the people who choose to be vegetarian may be perfectly aware that humans evolved through the consumption of meat, and many others are aware of the problems associated with over consumption of carbohydrate, but they still want to hold true to their ideals. At the same time, they don't want to completely sacrifice their health, so they want to find the next best way to improve their nutrition, and that's the subject of today's post.
**One more plea though, if you have celiac disease, any type of inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or an autoimmune disorder I would still strongly encourage you to rethink your vegetarianism as your digestive system may not handle a lot of "alternate" protein sources. It's your body, your life, your ideals, but do think it over.
OK, first of all, get to know a variety of different vegetables and ways to prepare them. Yes, I know that sounds strange that I would be telling vegetarian's to eat vegetables, but in a world of processed food one can be vegetarian and not eat a lot of vegetables. By making vegetables take up the majority of your plate you know you can be filling up on things that add volume and a lot of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants without giving you a huge carbohydrate load. One of the reasons I still retain most of my vegetarian cookbooks (including the raw food ones!) is because it gives me ideas for different seasonings to add, different combinations, and different ways to prepare them besides steaming. If you have access to purchase local produce or can sign up for a CSA or a delivery service like Greenling.com, you will likely get to try vegetables you haven't even heard of (and a lot of times the local farmers can provide you with new recipes). Besides getting nutrition advantages, you will likely reduce the boredom factor and be more likely to stay on target. I also find that washing and chopping (and sometimes freezing!) the vegetables soon after purchase makes me more likely to eat them as well.
Second, now that you're filling up on vegetables, try not to overdo the fruit and try to stick with what's in season. Fruit does contain a lot more carbohydrate per cup, etc than most vegetables and it can be very easy to overdo it. To help control your portions, try to stick with berries (only 10-15 gram carb per cup), or eat fruits that you have to work for/chew on like apples, oranges, etc. If you limit yourself to seasonal fruit you will find that it has a better taste so you can enjoy your smaller portions more. Avoid fruit juices as much as you can because it's very easy to get a carbohydrate and calorie overload!
Limit your grains to small amounts of rice (which do not have as many anti-nutrients as other grains) or grains like quinoa that actually have some protein. You can pack a lot of calories and carbohydrate into what seems like a small amount of pasta, cereal, or bread and pretty soon you are way over your limit. (I personally have never been successful with portion control when it comes to pasta!) Once again, keep in mind that animals evolved to avoid predators by running away, plant evolved to avoid predators by creating anti-nutrients. In other words, that grain might actually have some B-vitamins in it, but the lectins and phytic acid in the grains are going to keep you from absorbing the nutrition properly. If you don't appear to have any issues digesting gluten, you may want to consider sprouting and/or fermenting grains which can help get rid of some of the anti-nutrients. Keep in mind about what I said in previous posts about some of the research pointing to the "addictive" qualities of grains; if you find yourself wanting to overeat or certain things you may not want to eat those foods very often.
Make sure your meals include plenty of healthy fats. Eating healthy fats will make it easier for you to absorb vitamins, decrease your risk of depression, possibly decrease your risk of certain cancers, and fill you up so that you're less likely to overeat on carb-laden foods. And it sure is tasty too! Keep in mind that our bodies do not make two types of fat--omega-3 and omega-6, so we need to get them from food sources. Healthy fats include olive oil, avocado and avocado oil, coconut and palm oil, macadamia oil, and grass-fed butter if you tolerate dairy. Saturated fats like coconut oil, palm oil, and butter have a higher smoke point making them the best for cooking and they also tend to last longer without going rancid. Flax oil can be used to get your omega-3--it's not as efficiently converted as animal sources of omega-3 but at least you are consuming it. Don't use flax oil for cooking, however, unless you want a quickly burned icky-tasting mess. (1,2) You also want to avoid eating refined or vegetable oils such as peanut oil, corn oil, grape seed oil, soybean oil, and/or canola oil. Why? Even though we need to have omega-6 fats in our diet, most of us get more omega-6 than we do omega-3 and that could actually be pro-inflammatory and increase your heart disease risk. (Link). If you are a vegetarian who also happens to be an endurance athlete who rips through a lot of calories, adding healthy fats is another way to meet your calorie quota as well.
And finally, we will complete the meal with protein. I deliberately left this for last since I used to hate the smarmy comments about me not getting enough protein when I was a vegetarian, and vegetarians aren't necessarily in danger of immediate protein deficiency. You will have to work a little harder, however, to get all of the 22 amino acids your body needs, particularly the nine essential that your body cannot manufacture. (Link). You will also likely wind up having to consume more carbohydrate to get at these protein sources, so if you have type 2 diabetes or a history of insulin resistance you are going to have very little wiggle room when it comes to consuming grains or fruit. All that said, one of the ways to ensure that you get enough protein is to make use of whey protein powder if you tolerate dairy and are willing to include dairy in your diet. Whey protein is more easily absorbed than some other protein powders and does contain the essential amino acid leucine which seems to play an important role in building muscle (Link). You can also get this same high quality protein from Greek yogurt. If you are willing to include eggs, eggs are also an easily absorbed form of protein and if they are omega-3 enriched and pasture raised that is an extra bonus. One of the types of legumes that has the least amount of anti-nutrients is lentils; to get the most out of other legumes you can once again try sprouting (and watch the carb count). Nuts and nut butters will also help you get protein, but before you down that whole bag of almonds (you know who you are!) you will need to remember that if you do more than 1-2 oz per day you risk getting an overload of omega-6! Nuts also contain anti-nutrients that can bother those of us with sensitive digestive systems, so one again you might want to learn how to soak and sprout the nuts as well!
Still willing to do the work? If so, happy cooking!
Reading back over what I wrote it looks like I could come across as stating that no-one should ever eat grains or legumes. Human beings are amazing in the way we adapt, and that includes adapting our food choices to our situation. Even if it's nailed down, we will find a way to eat it if it means our survival! And quite simply, if we removed all of things that we a recent part of our history, people would starve. People asked me how they could optimize their nutritional intake, and I have given my answer based on the best evidence we have available. If your body has adapted where you tolerate grains in certain amounts and you have no digestive issues with properly prepared legumes, as long as you keep doing your homework you should be fine.