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My Take On Vegetarianism – Part Two (What To Eat)

May 17th, 2010

Today’s post is the second in my series on vegetarianism. Click here to check out part one, in which I share my following reasons for being a carnivore:

  1. Essential carbohydrate
  2. Complete proteins
  3. Healthy civilisations
  4. Factor farmed and processed meat
  5. Cholesterol, saturated fat, and general health concerns
  6. Meat-eating and the planet

So. Today I’d like to talk about healthy vegetarianism. True, I’m not a fan of vegetarianism as a way of life for myself and my family, and although my nutrition recommendations for clients are always individualised I’ve never suggested anyone completely eliminate animal protein. So why am I bothering to write about something I don’t recommend? Well, for starters I accept that you or someone you know may have strong and valid reasons for choosing not to eat meat. And I’m trying not to be the kind of gal who insists that my way is the only way. If there’s one thing I’m finding to be more and more true about nutrition, it’s that change is the only constant worth following. Secondly, without being too assumptive, it’s been my experience that many people who eliminate meat do so without fully understanding their nutritional needs. A healthy vegetarian understands the importance of amino acids, smart fats, and how to regularly include those nutrients in their diet. After all, proteins and fats are essential to human health, but there’s no such thing as an essential carbohydrate.

Of course you could keep things simple and focus on tofu/soy variants, along with some legumes, seeds and nuts, and perhaps the occasional egg or piece of fish, but my feeling is that this is a sure-fire recipe for ill health and gradual weight gain. Here’s why.

1. Soy is the mainstay of many vegetarian diets. Organic or not, I’m absolutely not a fan. I’ve written about this previously and it seems that nearly every week I come across a new piece of research implicating soy as a major offender in everything from low-level hormonal imbalance, to fertility issues, to breast and other types of cancers, to digestive function, polycystic ovary syndrome, general lethargy and poor health, and most certainly to thyroid dysfunction leading to a slower metabolism. A fantastic resource on soy is the book The Whole Soy Story by Kaayla Daniels. It’s been on my bookshelf for years, and is a great eye-opener; particularly on the issue of eastern culture approaches to soy intake versus western.

2. Excessive grain intake. First things first. Grains in the form in which we know them are not a wholefood. Processed foods are always a poorer choice than foods in their natural state – and good luck trying to eat a grain in its natural state. I believe there’s a very good reason why grains have an indigestible shell – to warn humans away from eating them. Secondly, you need to know that foods typically labeled ‘wholegrain’ are in fact (often) nothing of the sort. Legally the product only has to contain 51% wholegrain to be labeled as such. And here’s something else to consider – grains have been farmed for approximately 10,000 years. In this period of time the human genome has changed approximately 0.02%. What does this mean? Well, just off the top of my head now – poor digestion, frequently bloating and stomach cramping, leaky gut or irritable bowel syndrome, inability to lose body fat due to food intolerance. Any of that sound familiar? It’s true that some people do better on grains than others, but in general I’ve never met somebody whose health maladies don’t improve by eliminating grains for a period of time. If you do choose to eat grains from time to time, it’s worth making the effort to sprout them yourself, but my feeling is why not just focus on real food and enjoy processed grains as the occasional treat meal rather than a mainstay.

3. Poor energy, general feeling of lowered health. Over the years I’ve worked with many clients who choose a vegetarian lifestyle. Without exception they’ve struggled for energy, battled excess weight regardless of their exercise choices, and complain of a host of health dysfunctions. And of course I realise that this doesn’t apply to all vegetarians, and of course I realise that meat-eaters can and do face the same battles. The point is that if you are going to go without meat and animal fat, you do need to address the issue of replacing those lost nutrients. So let’s talk about that.

Healthy Vegetarianism: What To Eat

Regardless of which foods you choose, true health depends on at least the following nutrients:

  • Amino acids
  • Essential fats
  • Vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and enzymes
  • Fiber

For the purposes of today’s post I’m going to focus primarily on amino acids, or non-animal protein sources, as I believe this is the main area in which vegetarians lose out.

Amino Acids

To explain amino acids, the Coach Poliquin quote I used in part one of this series remains the most useful –

“protein is broken down into organic compounds called amino acids. There are 13 amino acids that are considered essential, in that they cannot be produced from other substances including other amino acids, and 12 that are considered nonessential. A protein is considered complete when it has the appropriate quantities of amino acids for optimal absorption. Meat and fish are considered complete proteins; foods such as beans or rice are considered incomplete proteins because they are lacking in certain amino acids. As such, vegetarians need to pay special attention to combining their food groups so that their amino acid profiles complement each other – a good food combo, for example, is rice combined with either beans or chickpeas.”

The take-away point here is that healthy vegetarianism (indeed, healthy eating in general) relies not necessarily on proteins, but on amino acids. A reader recently drove this point home to me with the following comment –

“Our body actually doesn’t need protein, it needs amino acids. Surprising to many is that these are contained in abundance. Have a look at the nutritional profile of Kale for instance. Vegetarians traditionally have replaced meat with dairy, or in the case of vegans, with nuts, seeds and fruit.

The whole concept of separating food into protein, fat and carbohydrate is a misleading one, in that every whole food is a combination of them, unless you take processed products like olive oil, whey protein, and glucose. When you investigate organic wild meat for instance, you find an attractive nutrient mix, which is low on saturated fat, high in essential omega 3’s. But I don’t agree that organic beef is the way to go. Cows are bred, not naturally occurring. They’re bred to be high in saturated fat, but are relatively low in omega 3’s.”

Aside: you no doubt know that I’m a proud advocate of grass-fed organic beef, or indeed grass-fed meat in general. You should also know that I absolutely agree that wild organic meat is preferable to farmed; the issue is accessing it. In which case organic, ideally truly free-range (shop at farmers markets so you can get to know and trust your butcher) meat is a good choice.

So. If following a vegetarian diet, how do you best choose plant foods that contain not just a combination of carbohydrate, protein and fat but also complement each other in order to ensure a full amino acid profile? The way I see it, you have three options.

1. Superfoods. Bee Pollen is a superfood that naturally contains a complete amino acid profile. According to Amer Kudi of Tonic Superfoods, “bee pollen is alkaline in nature and is considered by nutritionists to be one of the most complete foods. Like Maca (another superfood) it is high in absorbable protein making it an ideal fuel source. Rich in stress adapting B vitamins it helps us through our hectic lives. Its high enzyme function means that it is readily absorbed by the body for speed, strength and endurance.” Meat-eater or not, I’m still a huge fan of bee pollen and often use it in my smoothies. Other superfoods containing amino acids include maca, goji berries (with an impressive 18 aminos), camu camu (a potent form of vitamin C) and chia seeds (which are also a great source of fiber). Visit the Tonic Superfoods blog for more information on these amazing foods!

2. Combining plant proteins.

I must admit that food combining for the purpose of complete amino acid profiles is something I don’t know much about. If you’ve researched this area and in particular if you yourself are a vegetarian who combines different plant proteins I’d love it if you’d add your experience in the comments section of this post.

Coach Poliquin recommends a good plant-protein food combo as being rice combined with either beans or chickpeas, and I know that Sun Warrior as well as Poliquin make great rice and pea protein supplements for those who’d rather avoid whey.  

3. Supplementation. Personally I believe we all need supplements of some kind. In a perfect world we’d all eat 100% organic food from completely nutrient-rich soil, and would never face nutrient-depletion through ongoing stress. I use a range of supplements, including several amino acids, and that’s despite sometimes consuming 5 servings of animal protein in one day. If you choose not to eat meat, I’d suggest at least some basic amino acid supplementation.

As a good all rounder Amino Acid Supreme provides a mixture of the 10 essential aminos. Carnitine is great for mental focus and for increasing aerobic capacity as well as burning fat. Glutamine boosts your immune system and aids in insulin management. Branch Chain Amino Acids are a must if intense weight training or sport is your thing. And on a slight aside, a great B-complex is essential for anyone on a lower protein diet.

Of course it goes without saying that any truly healthy diet must also include smart fats such as those from coconut oil, nuts and seeds, avocado, omega-3 and so on. Certain dairy products (raw ideally) can also be a great source of both protein and fat, and should be sourced from both sheep and goat as well as cow.

The bottom line is that a well-researched and organised vegetarian can certainly be as healthy as, if not healthier than many a carnivore. It’s not a choice I see myself ever reverting to as a lifestyle, but I respect those who do choose to be vegetarian – the right way.

In Part Three of this series there’s a bit of a twist – I’ll let you in on my recent 3-day stint as a vegetarian, and explain why I think all meat-eaters should take the occasional break. Confused? Well you’ll just have to stay tuned then. I promise it will make sense!

How ’bout you? Are you currently, or have you previously, eaten as a vegetarian or vegan? What are your thoughts on ideal eating as a non-carnivore? Please comment!

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18 people have commented
  1. Terrance says:

    I’m a casual reader of your newsletter. You came to my attention through Tim Ferriss. I have no groups I support. I’m a life long student of my body and life through study and experimentation. Probably the same goals as you, just less practice as I’m in construction and not the health field. I’m not a vegetarian. I probably eat a lot like you do. I’m 63 yo. and work in construction virtually every day.
    That said, I just want to offer an observation on your article, My take on vegetarianism part 2. You noted the book: The Whole Soy Story. It sounded interesting so I scanned the Table of Contents and read excerpts at Amazon. I also looked at reviews. Of course many reviews are by “friends” of the author, but I also look at low # or poor reviews as they often contain good insights. I noted a couple (first two) that had info that was hard to refute. It made me discount the value of the book (a lot). I’m not trying to enlighten you, only suggesting you take a look and perhaps give me your take on it if you have time and interest to do so. You have a great site. Thank you much for your effort. Terrance

  2. Sue says:

    Perhaps the bad reviews on the Whole Soy Story are by vegetarians or vegans or not?

  3. Sue says:

    Kat, just by some of their comments kind of guessed they don’t eat meat. Could by wrong. There was only a handful or so negative comments rest mostly 5 star.

  4. Aster says:

    I was raised as a vegetarian (my mother was a vegetarian) however i have to say as a child i looked forward to big family BBQ’s as i got to eat meat! then i became a vegetarian by choice at 12 however the lure of meat was too strong, and was back to meat at 15. Since then, i definitely have found that my body really likes my carnivorous compared to my vegetarian diet, i used to get chronic stomach cramps and i found by cutting out grains i no longer get these. at the end of the day, listening to our bodies and the messages about what it likes and dislikes, is something that i find invaluable.

  5. Kat says:

    Great comment Aster, especially the last sentence. I definitely agree!

  6. Dan says:

    I am a sucker for coconut oil and almond butter. I just love the stuff. Especially in a blender drink.

    I thought this was interesting, “Our body actually doesn’t need protein…” I was reading “Protein Power” and it was talking about how our body does not need carbs.

    Dan

    • Kat says:

      I think the take-home point is we need the aminos … whether it be protein or just aminos! Although I certainly wouldn’t suggest relying solely on supplements. We def do NOT need carbs! Coconut oil and almond butter – yummy!

  7. Kat says:

    Hi Terrance-
    Sorry for the failure to reply until now! Unfortunately my computer didn’t accept my reply when you commented, and (as you know) I’ve only just realised this.
    I did go and look through all the reviews, and my feeling was that I guess there’s always going to be ‘for’ and ‘against’ to any concept or way of thinking. I’m not sure if the good reviews can be stated as being friends of the author though!
    At the end of the day we all have to decide to put our trust in different things as we learn about health and our bodies. The reality is that there’s always multiple studies/evidence to support any way of thinking if you look hard enough. I enjoyed Kaayla’s book, found it well researched and referenced, and based on my other studies on the topic thought very highly of it. But that’s just my opinion 🙂
    I appreciate your feedback!
    Kat

  8. Carla says:

    I am so glad the dangers of soy is getting more out in the open. I learned a long time ago that soy just doesn’t work for me. I have had PCOS since I was in my teens and soy just exacerbate it.

  9. Kat Eden says:

    Definitely 🙂 thanks for commenting, always good to get that sort of validation!

  10. Debbie says:

    Hi, I am a Vegetarian, have been for over 4 years. The choice to become one at 20 was for environmental and world poverty based issues. I am a personal trainer, circus instructor and performer.

    Becoming vegetarian saw my energy levels improve dramatically, my feeling of well being for the first few months just kept rising, but then after six months this plateaued, but still way above my meat eating lifestyle. Now I am not here to say we should all become vego but just say how things have gone. So starting as your everyday meat eater, my diet wasn’t that great, but becoming vegetarian made me look into what I was eating, how to eat well and for good health, and in turn taught me a lot about how to eat properly.

    I am fit and strong, stronger then most. Stronger then I have ever been, due to healthy eating and learning how to train properly. I eat a great variety, cycling through foods, I am a fan of local and organic, so this can force some cycles. I eat mainly raw, so NO tofu for me, getting my protein from a variety of sources, such as legumes and eggs. Carbs are veges, raw to lightly steamed. I am a fan of fats, butter is a big one, avocado, I used to do flax seed oil, but had a really bad experience when it went rancid and I was ill for over a week. So I have just started on fish oil caps (I know not vego), but important to my health when I can’t do the flax, and my health is what is truly important.

    So I guess you want to know about body fat, well remember I am fit and strong and can easily compete with any meat eater in training. I think I cycle, from lean to not so lean. Before I started weight training seriously I was an elite junior (14-17 years old) athlete training 6 hours a day in multiple sports at 62kg eating a poor diet including meat. I peaked after injury at 76kg at 18 years old, not muscle at this point, just a lack of exercise and poor diet. So eating healthy made me lose weight, down to 60kg, had also returned to reasonable strength starting my circus career. So serious strength training got me from 60kg in six months to 68kg, this is a big jump for a female, mainly because of body fat increase to keep up with demands. At the moment I am 168cm and 66kg (18% BF), body fat is something I feel a lack of control over. I can easily stand to lose another 2-3kg to hit that 14% body fat.

    I am wondering if my diet is lacking in protein to a point where I just can’t reduce my body fat and stay strong for a long period, I need to eat a lot, and often, and can feel sharp fast hunger if I miss a beat. But giving it another go over the next 4 weeks with the boost of fish oil to see how that helps.

    • Kat says:

      Hi Debbie … thanks so much for commenting; it’s interesting to hear from someone who is clearly on the healthier side of vegetarianism. It sounds like you’re making a really good effort to include all your essential nutrients, but – as you say – you may not get enough protein. It’s really really tough for vegetarians to get enough protein, particularly if you have a very active life. I’m not sure why you say you had to put on body fat to keep up with demands. I think it’s a myth that strength or muscle gain needs to be accompanied by fat gain. There is no reason why a healthy person should gain fat at any time in their life, even during pregnancy (assuming the mother is not too lean to begin with) there is no NEED for fat gain. It will be interesting to see what happens as you increase your protein and omega 3. Keep us posted – and good luck!

      • Debbie says:

        “I think it’s a myth that strength or muscle gain needs to be accompanied by fat gain.”

        Agreed, putting on body fat was not my intention but the result of getting enough protein from vegetarian sources.

        I feel the increase in body fat to keep up with demands is
        from being vegetarian, to get enough nutrients and protein
        with the increase demands I feel I need to eat a lot of things
        that cause body fat gain. Such as to get enough protein from
        legumes, I may be consuming to much carbs.

        • Kat says:

          That’s a tough one I guess … have you tried vegetarian protein powders as an addition to whole food?

          • Debbie says:

            Not yet… not a fan of soy based powders, and dairy often does not do well with me. Are there other forms on the market you would recommend..?

  11. adrian says:

    Thanks for all of your wonderful posts. Definitely very interesting. I will say that I became a vegetarian a year ago for moral, environmental, political and health reasons. I was a healthy vegetarian – not a lot of grains, and no fake meats/soy and lots of whole foods and good fats (eggs, greek yogurt, butter, oils, avocados, etc.). Initially my health improved and continued to improve for 7-8 months. But, this entire time I was still battling my weight and had to do a mix of cardio, strength and yoga to not gain weight. And then my energy levels began to struggle. So, after a couple of months of research and coming back around to the idea of eating meat, I stumbled across your site. I heard you – what does it hurt to try it out? So for the next 3 months, I’m cutting out all grain and have reintroduced grass-fed meat into my diet within the past 2 weeks. Nothing dramatic yet, but I will say that my hunger is actually satiated with the increase in protein. So thanks for letting me know that it’s okay to eat meat and how important it is to listen to my body and be open to what that means.

    • Kat says:

      Hi Adrian, that’s a very big turnaround 🙂 thanks for your kind comment, and please let me (all of us!) know how you go!