I left meat at the curb like road kill a month ago, declaring publicly that I would change my diet in the month of October and observe a no-corner-cutting vegetarian lifestyle. No animal flesh of any kind went down my gullet during those 31 days, and I can honestly say my body is thanking me.
Mind you, a couple of months ago at the height of summer grilling season, you could find me regularly bellied up to the grill, charring juicy, marinated chicken breasts and seasoned salmon filets on cedar planks. I rarely consumed red meat, and never pork. I joked that I could consume entire flocks of chickens on my own and became a connoisseur of wild-caught fish.
Why a Vegetarian Lifestyle?
You see I have been a meat-eater all my life. And in the last three years, I changed up my nutrition fairly dramatically. A once carb-heavy, starchy diet morphed to meals rich in lean protein, veggies, complex carbs and healthy fats. I supplemented with grass-fed whey protein and worked to build muscle to counter age-related muscle loss. Throw in a glass of wine and a dessert here and there, and life is good.
As I mentioned previously, I was diagnosed about three years ago with an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s Disease. Simply put, my immune system has declared war on my thyroid.
In that time, my radar around gut health has been pinging incessantly. I now know the immune system-gut connection is powerful and that stress and poor dietary choices lead to systemic inflammation. And all of this can lead to chronic disease.
So I asked myself, what else can I do to improve my long-term health? I ate a clean diet, mostly organic, grass-fed, vegetarian-fed, free-range sources of protein. This was never about feeling guilty about eating animals. It is about a quest for ultimate health.
The Protein Challenge
I will say, the biggest adjustment over the last month has been sourcing high-protein meals. I said this when I started, and I’ll say it again. I eat about 1.0-1.25 grams of protein per pound of body weight. I also eat that same ratio of carbohydrates daily. Healthy fats round out my macros.
I’m a huge advocate for balanced eating. Our bodies and brains run best on the fuels they were designed for – protein, carbs and healthy fats.
So with a vegetarian diet, I had to retrain my brain on protein. No longer could I gobble down 4 ounces of grilled chicken and get 30ish grams of protein into my body. The organic tofu/tempeh/seitan I prepare as a meat alternative delivers about half that much protein in a serving. I also get protein from eggs, yogurt, beans, seeds, nuts and lots of dark, green, leafy vegetables.
But that still wasn’t enough. So I supplement with protein shakes, which I love and have become a staple over the last three years anyway. I do grass-fed whey and plant-based shakes, once or twice a day to bump up the protein profile and keep my muscles well-fed.
This seems to be doing the trick nutritionally, although in my first week as a vegetarian, I stumbled around a bit on this piece of the puzzle. It was frustrating at first, and I can see why would be very easy to default to carb-heavy eating for new vegetarians.
I have found that by following a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet for now, I get the best of both worlds. I don’t eat animal flesh; but I do eat free-range, vegetarian-fed eggs and an occasional container of Greek yogurt. I believe I will evolve to ovo-vegetarian, meaning I’ll drop dairy altogether. I’m in the process of searching for a local farmer – whose chickens I can meet – to source my eggs.
There are vegetarians and vegans out there who will argue that we can get ample protein from whole foods. That may be true. However, my need for an efficient, convenient source of fast, healthy protein simply trumps hours in the kitchen mapping out every macronutrient in whole-food scenarios.
Awareness is Key
The biggest takeaway for me during this month has been the realization that my body doesn’t really need or crave meat. I really thought at first this was going to be very difficult. Like I said, I’ve been an omnivore my entire life and was darned proud of it.
After a month of doing this, I feel leaner. Yes, I’ve lost a couple of pounds. But more importantly, there is less bloating, my digestion is smooth, no more constipation (I know, TMI), energy levels are up, I’m sleeping better and my grocery bill is down significantly.
I’m even enjoying vegetarian sushi – words I never thought would come out of my mouth. For the first time, I am seeing and appreciating the vivid, rich colors of the plants I’m eating. Purple-hewn red cabbage is becoming a favorite. I may try fermenting that cabbage and making a probiotic-rich salad base with it.
I will say, however, being vegetarian is still more work right now. By that I mean meal-planning, being conscious of choosing the right combinations, creating new habits in the kitchen, and learning how to cook with plant-based proteins. Awareness is key.
The first time I made tempeh, I thought I would puke looking at the stuff. Out of the package, uncooked organic tempeh – or fermented soy — looks pasty white and unappealing. But once I got the hang of marinating, searing and grilling the stuff, things began to look up.
Vegetarian Lifestyle for the Win
I’m still deep into the learning phase of this experience and track my food intake on the MyFitnessPal app to make sure I’m not missing something.
Will I relapse? Today, I say probably not. But there are never guarantees, and there are plenty of stories of vegetarians who do.
The vegetarian lifestyle is still not second nature to me. I struggle some days trying to figure out the right combination of foods. But I feel that saying no to animal flesh is good for my body and smart for my long-term health.
It’s official. I am a vegetarian.