I decided to become a vegetarian when I was 11. It was the first major health choice I ever made. In retrospect, the fact that my mother gave me the power to make that choice was extremely formative. Being a vegetarian informed a large part of my identity through my teens and into my twenties. Becoming vegetarian allowed me to assert my independence, feel in control and separate myself from my parents.
Two months ago I decided to eat meat again. Believe me: I did not make this decision lightly. Part of me felt like I was "giving up." The reason that I ultimately decided to make the switch was a belief that it was time to re-evaluate the decision of the 11-year-old version of me. After all, if I still lived by all of my 11-year-old choices I would only watch movies with actors like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, and only wear clothing that reminded me of Judy Garland.
Becoming a vegetarian was not a bad decision -- and in fact I am sure that it was the right choice for me at the time -- but re-evaluating my vegetarianism as an adult is the right choice for me now. The process of battling "post-vegetarian guilt" and discussing the change with my friends and family (whose reactions ranged from elation to disgust), led me to reflect on the relationship that people have with food.
Many people used to assume that as a vegetarian I was healthier. This assumption frustrates me as it is reflective of the types of issues that keep individuals from adopting lifelong, sustainable health habits.
Even though tofu is made from soybeans (which for the most part are healthy), tofu itself can be heavily processed, says nutritionist Shannon Kadlovski. "Processed soy such as tofu is high in estrogens, which can cause hormonal imbalances if consumed in excess." she says. Kadlovski recommends replacing your tofu with organic sprouted tofu or tempeh, which is easier on the digestive system.
For the most part, vegetarians turn to cheese as a source of protein. But too much cheese (especially processed slices) is not good for our bodies. "Cheese is very high in saturated fat and is also a common allergen. It can be difficult on the digestive system and can lead to inflammation if consumed in excess," Kadlovski says. If you are going to eat cheese, make sure you opt for unprocessed versions with no artificial ingredients.
Yes, vegetarian hot dogs exist (even burgers and bacon), but most of them aren't made from vegetables. "These hot dogs are made with artificial ingredients, including processed soy, sugar, and artificial flavours," Kadlovski says. She also notes they are not healthier than regular hot dogs, even if they don't contain any animal protein.
Some protein powders include unhealthy ingredients like sugar, artificial flavours and sweeteners. "Some contain forms of whey protein that are not easily digested and absorbed, leading to gas and bloating," Kadlovski says. If you are choosing protein powders, look for some made with 100 per cent New Zealand whey protein isolate, she says. The New Zealand government mandates that all dairy products must be free of antibiotics, chemical residues and hormones.
Pastas often become a staple food for vegetarians, but sticking to only white pasta can be harmful for your health. "These items are heavily processed, fibre deficient, and lead to spikes in blood sugar levels," she says. When it comes to pasta, opt for whole wheat choices, soba noodles or a similarly healthy alternative.
Just like white pasta, white rice is also heavily processed, fibre deficient and can cause bloating. Some alternatives include brown rice, wild rice and kasha, but don't forget, too much grain is not great for you in general.
Yes, we know bread keeps you happy and full, but white bread is usually processed and often has no vitamins. "A healthier option is to choose whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, steel cut oats and whole grain breads," Kadlovski says.
People fall into the trap of believing that cutting out one particular food group will make them successful in their quest to lose weight and/or get healthier. Whether you are cutting out meat, cheese, carbs, or something else, a belief that depriving yourself of that one thing will be a fitness and health panacea is completely misguided.
The presence (or lack) of meat in your diet is not the singular variable that determines whether your diet is "good" or "bad." You can be a healthy or an unhealthy vegetarian. You can be a healthy or unhealthy meat eater.
Just to be clear, and so that I don't get too much hate mail, I am not arguing that the moral and ethical reasons for becoming vegetarian are not valid. I leave that debate for another commentator. Rather, I am arguing that one should not believe that one stands on nutritious moral high ground simply because one does not eat meat.
I know many vegetarians who survive on carbs and cheese. I know meat-eaters who eat burgers and wings numerous times a week. Neither are healthy diets. I also know many vegetarians who are meticulous about eating tons of fruits and vegetables and getting the correct mixture of foods to insure they get adequate micro and macro nutrients. I know meat eaters who only eat free range, organic lean meats and tons of vegetables. Both of these diets are healthy.
The act of eliminating any one particular food does not automatically make you healthy or unhealthy.
For example, if you cut out sweets but then replace that sugar with others forms of sugar like alcohol, seemingly healthy treats like granola bars, white foods and packaged meals, the simple act of eliminating the sweets will not make you healthy. Or, if you cut out gluten, but replace eating 10 regular cookies with 10 gluten free cookies, your portion sizes still need to be evaluated. Ten gluten free cookies are not healthy simply because they are gluten free.
Eating healthy is about being aware of three things: what you are eating, why you are eating it (are you bored, angry, tired, thirsty, depressed?) and how much of it you are eating. Healthy eating is about awareness.
Currently I am on the fence about whether I will continue to eat meat. I suspect I will in some form, but that being said, I am still in the process of figuring out what the adult, health-conscious Kathleen should eat. What I do know is whenever possible I will be aware of what I put in my body, why I am choosing that particular food and how much I am consuming. This awareness is what I hope to instill in my clients and anyone who reads my work. There is no magic diet, or magic food. Lifelong healthy eating requires awareness, and an understanding of one's emotional relationship with food.
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