Reader Asks: Are you vegetarian?

5 09 2009

Hey there Fit Friends!

Hope your Saturday is a blast so far!

So this post isn’t one showing my food or exercise for the day – that’ll go up in the morning.  But I got a fantastic note in the comments section today from a reader named Alexandra and I wanted to respond to the questions she posed about my eating style.  It’s something I’d been wanting to write and knew it would be L-O-N-G so I figured this would be a great way to get some of it started.

Here is her part of her original comment:

By the looks of your meals, and your post above about your chili without beef, it looks like you’re a vegetarian. Yes? I read through your older posts and didn’t see anything on being a vegetarian or how/when you transitioned.

I’ve been trying for a while to transition to a plant based diet but haven’t been able to do so. A bit afraid of gaining weight/fat due to the drop in animal protein and increase in carbs/fat (although good carbs and fat) usually associated with vegetarian eating. It would be great if you could write about when you transitioned and how you did it. Were you worried about losing muscle and gaining fat? Did your body composition change for better or worse. How about energy levels? What about satiety? Sometimes when I eat plant based meals, I’m not satisfied and end up having to eat some animal protein.

Sorry for all the questions but I would really like to eliminate meat from my diet and need to be convinced that I won’t lose the little muscle I have and replace with fat.

All great questions and valid concerns (ones I had myself as well!).  Here are the answers, broken down by question:

Regarding whether I’m a vegetarian and when I transitioned:

I suppose if I labeled how I eat right now it would be pescatarian because I do occasionally eat seafood/shellfish, but no beef/poultry/pork.  I still eat eggs, but not nearly as often and I do try to use free range organic when I have a choice.  I don’t drink milk anymore and try to avoid cow’s milk dairy products in general but am not 100% strict with it because dairy is in a LOT of stuff that I like to eat for ‘cheat meals’ (like cookies or cake!).  I do still love wine with cheese pairings on occasion, so now I just look for cheese made from raw goat/sheep milk.  But I’ll eat good ol’ parmesan or mozzarella if that’s what’s being offered.  I don’t want to stress about it too much because eating does have to be fun sometimes.  I do have serious respect for people who are 100% vegan because it really seems like a BIG commitment.  I’m not at that level.  As to your question of when, the dairy change happened after my first meeting with Chinese herbalist & acupuncturist in April and at that time I really started reducing my meat intake.  I then gave up meat earlier this summer, so it’s a pretty recent change.  (That was after seeing the movie “Food, Inc.” but that’s a whole other discussion!)

Was I worried about losing muscle and gaining fat?

Honestly yes I was, a little bit.  Since 1995 when I first read “The Zone Diet” by Dr. Barry Sears, I’ve been a huge proponent of building my meals around protein.  Then I moved on to ”Body for Life” by Bill Phillips in 2000, “Leanness Lifestyle” in 2003.  I have read about and tried so many nutrition plans/diets it would be hard to count them.  But through it all I still held true to keeping my protein and carbs in certain ratios depending on what plan I was following.  Until I transitioned to my current style of eating.

(NOTE: I would like to point out here that the 3 diets I mention above I still find to be very effective and healthful for those looking to lose weight.  I just happened to make a different choice personally. I learned so much from each one of those authors and still find their teachings useful for many clients wanting to improve their nutrition & fitness habits.)

I still aim to add protein to my day here and there (a scoop of rice protein powder in my green smoothies sometimes, an egg or tuna fish with my salad at lunch) but nowhere near the level I consumed before.  At one point when I was getting ready for an NPC Figure Show in 2004, during the last week of prep I was taking in about 70% of my calories in protein (about 200g per day).  And I was SO HUNGRY and CRANKY!

Fast forward a few months into 2005 and I ended up with quite a dentist bill:  5 cavities, 2 root canals and 2 crowns during the course of that year.   Now I’m not saying that I’m making a clear connection between the high protein and dental issues.  (Maybe it was that I took in a massive amount of sugar following the highly restrictive competition prep phase, and NOT calcium being leeched from my teeth and bones from too much protein.  I can’t say for sure.)  But it did give me something to consider and maybe planted that first seed of change.  I could fast forward through the next couple of years detailing a list of other health issues I experienced (that I feel were GREATLY helped by nutrition changes) but I’ll save that for another time to keep this post on point with the questions at hand.

Did my body composition change for better or worse?

Initially, I didn’t see much difference by just cutting out meat because I was still relying on starchier carbs (not to mention a lot of corn based things like polenta, corn tortillas, etc.) and not as many greens.  I was eating a lot of veggie sandwiches (I did chose a better bread, but still starchy carbs nonetheless.) I think that a lot of vegetarians may go for the common “rice & beans” format, especially those of us with concerns for where to get our protein.  That will add a lot of calories fairly quickly and overall I do still believe that if you eat more than your body is burning, you will begin to gain fat.  I didn’t gain because I was kind of keeping a running tally in my head of approximately how many calories I was consuming at each meal to make sure I didn’t go too crazy.

When I did notice a big change was when I switched my lunches to be built around a huge salad with tons of nutrient-dense ingredients, one meal aiming to be a green smoothie, and the rest of my meals/snacks as natural as possible.  I’m still in the early days of eating this way, but I can tell you that I am dropping bodyfat at a pretty good pace, while still maintaining my lean mass. (I do also lift weights at least three times a week to help in muscle retention.  If I stopped doing that, I would most likely drop some muscle quickly too.)  In the past, if I wanted to weigh less than 115, I would have had to count calories to do it, keeping my protein/carb/fat ratio balance in check, and because I’m already fairly small I had to keep my calories LOW.  (I’m under 115 now by a couple of pounds without having intentionally tried to lose.)  I certainly would NOT have been eating almond butter, toast and honey in the same meal.  An avocado or a full tablespoon of olive oil on my salad would have been out of the question because that would have taken up too many of my calories in one sitting.  And a Larabar full of coconut oil and dates?  …. Gasp…. I would never have touched something with that high of a sugar content AND fat content in the same bar.

Now I find that I don’t need to worry about focusing on calories or ratios.  I choose what I eat based first on health, on nutrients, on acid/alkaline balance and things that nuture my body and help me to recover from my exercise.  I build a majority of my meals around veggies and greens and treat everything else as condiments.  I’ll still have a good ‘cheat’ now and then when I am in the mood for it.  Like tomorrow morning we are planning to go get jumbo muffins at our favorite muffin place (incidentally the name of the shop is “My Favorite Muffin”!!) and it will be high calorie, refined sugar, refined flour, and butter, with chocolate frosting.  It’s something MSP (My Sweetie Pie) and I like to do on occasion together.  I do still like yummy junk food! Just not nearly as often.

How about energy levels?

My energy has been GREAT overall.  I’m not needing as much sleep (not falling asleep on the couch right after dinner like I used to), and have more even energy throughout the day (not to mention a more even MOOD!)  My strength for weight training hasn’t suffered in any way.  I’m still tweaking my energy levels with cardio a bit.  I have great cardio energy most days but I typically do my cardio first thing in the morning after my coffee (sometimes eating a partial Larabar – Coconut Cream Pie flavor for the medium chain tricgylerides.)  It just seems to depend on the day, which isn’t a change from before.  Some days I’m feeling the run, and other days not so much.  If it’s hot and humid, I feel like I’m wearing concrete blocks for shoes.

What about satiety?

This is actually something that has been a pleasant surprise.  I do feel satisfied without meat in my meals – and can TELL when I am full now.  For example, if I have a huge salad and I’m still hungry, I’ll go make another salad.  If I’m ¾ of the way done with my salad and I feel full, I stop eating.  This is something I struggled with in the past a LOT.  I used to always NEED something sweet after I finished eating, even if I was stuffed!  So I can’t even tell you how nice it’s been to say, “hey I’m still hungry” and know that it’s because I’m really still hungry and not just CRAVING more food.  I am convinced that most of this ‘phenomenon’ is a direct result of eliminating/minimizing so much of the ‘garbage food’ from my diet that was jacking with my hunger signals (such as artificial sweeteners, carbonated sodas, high-fructose corn syrup, refined sugars/flours, and trans-fatty acids.)  I think another reason I feel sated is because I’m taking in a fair amount of good fats with my meals.

OK, I’ve written a LOT and probably put a few of you to sleep with my rambling!  And all this typing has made me hungry, so I need a snack! Again a BIG Thank You to Alexandra for visiting my blog and for the excellent questions!  I hope you find the answers helpful.  I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Have a great night everyone!

–Shari B. =)

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2 responses

5 09 2009
Joan

Hi Shari,
Interesting blog today. The way you describe your diet in the “vegetarian transition” paragraph is how we have been eating for about 15 years now…even down to sheep/goat cheese over cow dairy. we made the change for allergy and nasal concerns…all of which have nearly disappeared. my neighbor tagged me a flexitarian as if vegetarian options (like at potlucks or restaruants) aren’t available i will choose chicken. Rarely though (but I still do love bacon, the worst I know). We do eat all kinds of fish and shellfish tho. That may be our difference. Fun to see some similarities. Though I think you’re better at it than I and I definately don’t do any calorie counting. You go girl! Joan (what’s pescatarian?)

6 09 2009
Shari B. (FitFeat)

Hi Joan! Wow that’s great that the allergy issues went away! Now if only I could convince my stubborn husband it would help his nasal issues! 😉 His doc has had him on Flonase, Nasonex, you name it and I keep asking him to just TRY giving up cow’s milk for a while to see if it helps, but he’s pretty set in his food ways.

Bacon? Tell me that you at least get the kind without the sodium nitrates/nitrites! 🙂

My understanding of a pescatarian is one who abstains from all meat with the exception of fish.

Have a great Sunday!

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