This is part two of a series in which I attempt to take on four different lifestyle diets in four weeks. For the past few years, I've dubbed myself a flexitarian -- I don't eliminate anything from my diet, and enjoy all types of food in moderation. However, I think it's time for me to assess what foods actually work well with my body -- and what foods don't. As always, talk with a doctor before undergoing any rapid change in diet.
There are always a ton of comments made at a vegetarian's expense: "Where do you get your protein?" or "You don't eat meat at ALL?!" and "Why are you doing this? You must be hungry a lot."
Well, here's a little secret: While I still eat meat on occasion, if I buy it, it comes with an organic and grass-fed label or from the farmers market up the street. (While meat labels unfortunately can be flawed due to a bureaucratic government/Big Ag system, it's always good to be aware of what you consume. Being informed is but a mere first step.) However, I wanted to take this a step further, and see if I could actively not eat meat, seafood, and some other animal-tinged products.
I became a lacto-ovo vegetarian for the entirety of last week, so I was able to enjoy dairy products and eggs. (What can I say -- I'm a cheese enthusiast, and after last week's paleo experience, I figured some dairy was in order.) However, like paleo, there is only one concrete rule for vegetarianism: no meat. Some people go lacto-vegetarian, where dairy products are consumed, or choose to be an ovo-vegetarian where eggs are acceptable sans diary. There's also pescatarianism where seafood is deemed acceptable. Since there seems to be some flexibility in what 'going vegetarian' actually means, I felt I had to answer some questions in the process.
What does it mean to really be vegetarian?
You likely consume a ton of fruits, vegetables, and grains, but still lack in that wonderful vitamin B12.
No, really, it's true.
Eggs and cheese are also up for grabs, should you choose to accept that mission. However, did you know most cheese contains an animal component known as rennet? In fact, most European cheese is far from being vegetarian-friendly. Depending how strict you are, a lot of cheese produced in the U.S. opts for 'vegetarian' rennet as opposed to regular rennet, which originates from milk in a calf's stomach. And speaking of weird animal inclusions in food, beer is also a product that might contains isinglass, or fish bladder, thanks to the brewing process. Who knew?
Needless to say, I avoided the Guinness and other beers.
If it's vegetarian-friendly, does that necessarily mean it's health-friendly?
Going from eating a lot of meat, vegetables, and fruit last week to shedding my carnivorous skin has been an interesting move. Reintroducing legumes, starches, and grains back into my diet proved to be an interesting and somewhat fulfilling choice. I immediately started gathering any and all vegetarian recipes I could find: black-bean burgers, different takes on pizza and salads, and grain-based dishes. Who knew that going vegetarian would result in some personal culinary innovation?
Black-bean and red pepper burgers with chipotle 'mayo', and a side summer salad with honey mustard dressing
And then came the 'meat substitutes'.
They never sound appetizing -- intriguing, sure, but have you ever met someone who has a sincere craving for tofu? (I'm not sure I have, but I'm certain there's someone out there.) While a lot of vegetarians consume soy byproducts (tempeh and tofu) and wheat gluten (seitan) for protein and other nutrients, this commodity comes at a slight price: They are usually super processed to create density and texture. (And don't get me started with avid eaters of the uber-famous brands that dish out soy dogs, burgers, etc.)
I will admit that I have a soft spot for seitan and its magic ability to mimic the feel of meat in a dish. However, is it any wonder that while giving up meat, vegetarians who choose to eat anything that resembles meat are stuck with ultra-processed choices?
Smoky tofu salad with carrot and broccoli slaw
Of course, comparing meat to processed soybeans and wheat gluten is like comparing apples to oranges (excuse the food pun). In giving up potentially factory-farmed meat in favor of going vegetarian, you might just be taking in factory-revised, ultra-processed soybean and wheat products. Of course, while the benefits of giving up meat run far and wide, the food processing issue still rears its ugly head. Take a look at the ingredients label on your next 'fake meat' or tofu container.
On a personal note, I was a bit lethargic, compared to last week. Compensating for hunger, I found myself snacking a lot more on nuts and fruits in the morning, and throughout the day -- but it didn't prevent the sluggishness. The one thought that jabbed at my brain was when I would eat next.
Still, this change in diet was a lot easier to manage in terms of cooking, going out to dinner, and exploring various options at the farmers market. Plus, I saved a ton of money on my weekly food bill when I replaced buying meat with buying vegetables, fruit, tofu, and seitan. Can't beat that.
My final thoughts on vegetarianism? Dance through the produce section of your supermarket and/or farmers market to buy up seasonal fruits and veggies... and if you choose to enjoy tofu and the like, read, read, read those labels.
Stay tuned for my take on what happens when I become a veggie-blooded vegan next week.