I have spent the majority of my practice with clients who complain of not being able to lose weight, who don't sleep well, who are always tired, who have blood sugar disorders, who have hypothyroidism, who who have major adrenal imbalances, and a lot of over trained athletes. As a result my research and practice has been largely centered around the importance of animal proteins when it comes to balancing the endocrine system and giving the body what it needs to recover from long bouts of intense exercise. Understanding our physiology and how our bodies break down and function less optimally without animal protein has been the epicenter of my research. The literature is quite clear, but I'm not here to debate. I want to provide those of you who are vegetarian with healthy advise and tips on how to be the best vegetarian in town! There are countless athletes and doctors who believe in plant based diets for numerous reasons, and it is my advise always to TRY whatever you want with regards to your diet and see if it works for YOU. There is never a one size fits all way of eating, and you will likely not follow whatever diet you choose exclusively 100% for the rest of your life.
Let it be known here and now, I have nothing against vegetarians (or vegans). If done "right" it can be an extremely advantageous lifestyle for some people. My sister and her family are a perfect example; vegetarians, and thriving, all 8 of them! There are factors and variables to consider, and each individual will respond differently. No matter what your reason for going vegetarian, I want to give you my top 10 ways to maximize your experience and your health as a vegetarian. (Adapted from Ben Greenfields Beyond Training)
#1. Eat Real Foods!
Cutting out animal protein opens the door to a world of processed, fake foods. Replacements foods like fake meats, textured vegetable proteins, and processed soy products may be "vegetarian" but they are a far cry from healthy. Besides typically being genetically modified foods, soy contains digestive irritants, and enzyme inhibitors. This can cause major digestive distress, much more likely than the raw broccoli that tends to take the blame. Soy also contains thyroid inhibiting compounds which are a nightmare for those who have hypothyroidism, or for those who are genetically predisposed to it. Lastly, soy contains plant based soy estrogens, which can raise estrogen levels and lower testosterone- not good for males or females! The best way to eat soy is fermented; thus tempeh and miso fall in that category.
#2. Avoid Omega-6 Vegetable Oils
As we discussed in the last two weeks about healthy fats, vegetables oils like corn oil, soy oil, cottonseed oil, or peanut oil are severely detrimental to your health. Vegetarians can lean towards more packaged foods that fit their dietary restrictions, yet they are consequently over consuming these harmful oils as a result. Instead opt for coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, or even macadamia nut oil.
#3. Vitamin K2
Vitamin K2 is crucial for a healthy heart and skeletal system. It is also severely lacking in plant-based diets. The easiest way to get it is supplement form.
#4. Vitamin D
First of all, everyone I've ever seen in my office, vegetarian or not, is low in vitamin D. How much you take is individualized based on factors like sun exposure, health history, and current activity level. You are looking for vitamin D3, NOT D2. Unfortunately, most supplements out there for D3 are derived from wool (lanolin) and packed in cod liver oil. So if you're a strict vegetarian you would not likely agree to this supplement. Garden of Life D3 is a vegan vitamin D3, and I believe the only one out there.
#5. Vitamin A
I know what you're thinking..."vitamin A is super high in plants, why do vegetarians need it?" Plants contain beta-carotene, but it's your bodies job to convert it to vitamin A; and it doesn't do that very efficiently. Vegetarians need to focus on enhancing absorption but pairing beta-carotene with fat (like avocado or olive oi). Getting adequate zinc and iron will also help increase the conversion rate in the body. The best sources of beta-carotene can be found in:
#6. Prepare your grains, legumes, nuts & seeds properly
Vegetarians need grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds for adequate intake of all amino acids. But all of these foods contain phytic acid which is extremely hard to digest. We want everything you put into your body to go to use, thus making it more digestibly friendly is key! Soaking your grains, legumes, nuts & seeds for at least 8 hours is baseline. This means you have to be making these foods from scratch; no cans!
#7. Maximize iron
Nonheme iron is the form found in plant based foods, and it's much less bio-available than heme found in meat. However, consuming vitamin C will greatly increase your iron absorption rates. If you are already a healthy vegetarian, you likely already do this without even thinking. But combining spinach with tomatoes, or lentils with peppers, or quinoa with strawberries would all be great ways to maximize your iron absorption.
#8. Variety & Color
This advise goes for every diet, not just vegetarians. However, vegetarians need to eat plants! So grilled cheese, quesadillas, cheese pizza, and pasta alfredo might be classified as vegetarian dishes but they are also unhealthy options no matter what diet you follow! Your plate should be full of life, full of color, and we do that with produce-- fruits and vegetables! Every time you sit down to a meal, visually experience it. If you're looking at the same color palate (browns, whites, tans), you're missing ingredients!
#9. The right balance
Rice and beans are a typical suggestion for a balanced protein vegetarian meal. While this is true, you can get all essential amino acids from this combination; remember that these are both extremely high in carbohydrates. As we discussed a few weeks ago in my post about sugar, carbohydrates in excess can wreck havoc on your body, with all kinds of unpleasant side effects and can compromise your health. Balance rice and beans with nuts & seeds, increasing healthy fats, and eating lots and lots of vegetables.
#10. Vegetarian or Vegan?
If you are a vegetarian, you technically eat eggs and dairy products as well (maybe even fish). This can be extremely useful in balancing your protein intake. Bringing in eggs for breakfasts or snacks can help maintain your blood sugar levels, keep you satiated throughout the day, and help with low energy and brain fog. Sourcing your egg and dairy products from local farmers who are organic, practice humane farming, and raise antibiotic free animals is your best bet. Check out The Cornicopia Institute's Egg Scorecard on organic eggs in your grocery store and see how they measure up. This is a great resource if you do not have local farms to choose from.
If you are a vegan, anything made from animals is out of your diet and thus #9 would apply to you.