Good evening, dear readers, and welcome to another one of my food posts! My last post was about my fairly recent conversion to vegetarianism and I felt that I needed to elaborate some more about my journey to being *almost* meat free.
So far this year I have only had meat a handful of times due to limitations in restaurants or easiness of cooking for my family when I have visited them. I really am going off the taste and feel of most meats, which is surprising as my diet is practically all vegetarian now. I am however still partial to a bit of fish but always buy from a fish counter and try to go for ethically farmed and sustainable fishes. I did have a Coquilles St Jacques from Morrison’s recently which was delicious, but I did feel a bit conflicted eating it.
Regular pangs of guilt were common in the first few months of not eating meat as I often felt I was betraying my partner by eating meat when he was around and also felt bad for the animal I was eating, which is part and parcel of living an environmentally sustainable lifestyle. But the main side effect that I didn’t plan for was anaemia.
Having been a meat eater – nay, a meat lover – my whole life, giving up meat was hard for a variety of reasons. Would I get enough protein? Would my diet be varied enough? Would I get sick? Overall, I’d say my diet is the most varied it has ever been and I grow ever experimental with my cooking. I did become anaemic and slightly unwell for the first few months, however, as there was such a drastic shift in my eating habits. I thought my body would celebrate at the sudden increase of fresh fruit and vegetables, never being much of a vegetable fan. Instead I became lethargic, irritable and there was a change in my blood pressure as well as an iron deficiency. In the first few months I ate a lot more Quorn than I do now as I felt something was often missing in a dish; I couldn’t just accept that a stir fry or curry didn’t need meat.
I would say to anyone who wishes to become a vegetarian or indeed a vegan to do so with the help of a dietician or nutritionist if you have the means; if not, I would recommend cutting out things gradually, rather than just waking up one day and cutting out absolutely everything. This is especially true for vegans, particularly if you are going it alone, as the journey to discover and prepare fulfilling and enjoyable meals can be tough when you realise that your pantry and fridge basically become off limits. Even a regular dietary staple such as pasta may become a problem for vegans as many types of pasta contain dairy products. Do your research into what you can and can’t have, particularly with things like cheese. Most cheeses are suitable for vegetarians but some hard cheeses like Parmesan contain Calf Rennet, which is an enzyme extracted from a calves stomach, so that’s obviously out of bounds. Green leafy vegetables are obviously an excellent source of iron and you might want to stock up on different types of beans for the first while as well as they are an excellent source of protein.
Don’t really on supplements alone because they are exactly that: supplements. Eat Quorn if you are determined to have no meat or fish at all, or wean yourself off a few days and weeks at a time. Alternatively, if you simply want to cut down on your meat intake and want to help the environment and reduce our dependency for meat, you should try to buy your cuts from butchers and fish mongers, as they are more likely to be able to tell you what happens to each part of the animal, where it came from and it’s standards of farming.
Women have to be particularly careful when switching to a veggie/vegan lifestyle as it can have an effect on our menstrual cycle; I often found myself more unwell at that time of the month, so usually ate some meat on the week leading up to/ week of my period, as well as a Popeye amount of spinach. I also found that I initially gained half a stone when I turned vegetarian as I had to rely on my protein coming from more carb-heavy sources such as beans and pulses, as well as having a side like rice or pasta with each meal. My digestive pattern also shifted quite dramatically; it is far more active and more healthy now that I have a tonne of fibre going in every day which has reduced bloating and my arch-nemesis, indigestion. Teenage girls and pregnant women need to be especially careful as they require more protein and calcium in their diets (amongst other important vitamins and other nutritional compounds) so do very careful research and speak with a medical professional if possible before embarking on a new diet. It is perfectly healthy to have a veggie/vegan pregnancy and to rear your child this way but do consult respectable medical journals/ research papers/ guides before doing so to ensure that you and your baby are healthy. It is also extremely important to recognise that while you may live a vegan lifestyle, if you should choose not to start your baby immediately on a vegan diet that it is TOTALLY OK! Do not feel pressured to do so if you think that your baby is not receiving enough protein, fat, etc. Whilst breast feeding eliminates most of this worry, you also have to make sure you’re eating enough of the right things and avoiding certain foods during pregnancy/ breastfeeding to ensure your baby receives all the nutrients it needs. I am certainly not an expert in this field, but I feel that it is not spoken about enough in veggie/vegan circles, so I just wanted to draw your attention to the matter.
If you train hard at the gym you’ll always want to make sure you are getting enough protein and iron in your diet to aid recovery and promote muscle growth. Veggie and vegan diets aren’t all about “clean living” and eating lettuce all day; there is no reason why you can’t cut our meat/dairy/fish products and gain muscle. Evidently, this is more difficult on a vegan diet, but with the right research and resources it is absolutely achievable.
Again, I am not the biggest Quorn fan – I will eat it if it’s there, but I now prefer my dishes to be loaded with veg. Quorn and meat-free soya alternatives are an excellent addition for added nutrients, however, as is tofu. I do enjoy the mince and meatballs as the texture isn’t much different from real mince and I don’t exactly eat bland spag bol when I make it (think about 3 bird’s eye chillies in there!). Nuts are also a great snack and a fantastic addition to any meal! Though they are high in carbs, they are also a great protein source, particularly pistachio nuts.
I think the most important aspect of any lifestyle change is not to rush it, because you want a major part of your life – your eating habits – to change for good. As I’ve said before, vegetarianism has been absolutely instrumental in losing two stone in weight for me; but so has cutting down portion sizes and cutting out full fat fizzy juices, crisps and sweets. You want these new habits to become as ingrained as your old ones and you run the risk of burning out fast with this new style of eating as well as making yourself unwell. Start simple: Reduce your meat and fish intake to four time a week, then gradually reduce until you are once a week, once a fortnight and so on. As you reduce your meat/fish intake, start to cut out or switch to other things such as swapping meat sauces and gravy to vegetable ones; using veggie-friendly cheese; replace meat products with more veg, meat-free alternatives or tofu… The list could go on.
If you feel that you are prepared enough to cut it out all in one go then go for it! But also do not punish yourself if you feel that you are making yourself ill and want to up your meat product intake again and then reduce it when you feel ready. The fact that you are even considering living healthier lifestyle for yourself and the planet is a great first step, so don’t lose hope if you have meat an extra day that week. Also, if you decide you want to do it for your health and aren’t as focused on the ethical side, don’t beat yourself up if you cook a meal or go out with friends and suddenly find yourself halfway through a daube of beef like “How the hell did I get here?”. Even reducing your meat/fish intake to only a few days awake can have a substantial positive effect on the environment and the over-farming of land, and most importantly it is benefitting you.
Be kind to yourself and be sensible if and when you decide to change your lifestyle and I guarantee you will fell as good as I do!