Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Casual Vegetarian

I don't think I've ever talked about this before, mostly because it's one of those things people tend to get all up in arms about. I don't like dealing with arms. It stresses me out. But I do want to talk about this, since it's become something I feel is pretty important.

It all started when I was pregnant with Dino Boy. For the most part, I had an easy pregnancy, which I was grateful for since I still had a semester of college to finish. At around 28 weeks I went in for the glucose test everyone has to take. I'd read about gestational diabetes, but I never thought I'd end up having it. I didn't have any of the risk factors—I was young, I wasn't overweight, I didn't have a family history.

Well, my glucose levels were so high that they didn't even bother with the three-hour test. Something like 194, when you're not supposed to be higher than 130 after a meal.

It was...a shock.

I was upset. I felt like I'd done something wrong, and I was scared as all get out, thinking I had diabetes, even if it was only temporary. They make a point of telling you that GD increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by up to 50%. That is not a fun thing to think about, especially when you're 22 and figure the big bad diseases are far away in the future when you're old and gray.

The first thing they try when you have GD is to control your glucose through diet (if that doesn't work, they whip out the insulin shots), so they sent me to a nutritionist. Let's just say I was NOT excited to have someone tell me that I was eating the wrong things and too much of them. It's kind of a humiliating experience, to be honest, especially when you're pregnant. Because of course there's this idea that you can "eat for two."

I learned that my morning breakfast of raisin bran and orange juice was basically a triple shot of sugar. So many people think diabetics have to avoid "sweets," but it's not like that at all. For one, it's ALL carbs that have to be counted (Including lactose-based carbs like milk. Did you know milk was a carb? I sure didn't.). And it's not about eliminating carbs, but about balancing them so you get an even amount all day.

I also learned about portion size. I learned that one serving of carbs is a measly 15 grams, and that I should only be having 2-3 servings a meal. You start looking on packages, and you see that most processed foods have closer to 2-3 servings of carbs. I learned that a serving of protein is only 5 grams, and that I only needed 15 grams a day. I learned the importance of having both protein and carbs in every meal, and how it kept blood sugar levels even.

In the end, I was eating more than double the carbs I needed, and more than double the protein I needed. And I had no idea. I thought I was eating healthy. I wasn't eating donuts all day or anything. But it was the portion size. I followed my diet, tested my sugar, and I was NEVER hungry like I thought I'd be.

Honestly, gestational diabetes saved my life. Nutritional education saved my life. Learning what my body needs and how much opened my eyes to how distorted food has become in America.

Because I will always have a higher risk at developing diabetes, I have continued to learn about nutrition. Having diabetes for even a short period sucked, and I'm determined to take care of my body. It's so much easier than having to deal with blood testing and medications and disease.

So I've turned into what I like to call "The Casual Vegetarian." I think a lot of people are intimidated by vegetarianism, and it can almost sound like a religion when you talk to some of the more zealous. If you eat meat, it can feel like a vegetarian or vegan is looking down on you for your horrible choice to destroy the planet.

This, well, creates some friction, though I think we could all agree that Americans could stand to see a little more green on the dinner plate and a little less meat/starch.

I probably eat a fourth of the meat I used to, and my reasons aren't the stereotypical "Don't kill animals!" kind. As I've explained, I think it's better for my health. Also, it turns out Dino Boy has never liked, and will not eat, meat. My family has sensitive digestive tracts, and meat often doesn't go over well. Sometimes we go several days without eating meat, sometimes a couple weeks. While at first it was hard to envision a meal without that piece of meat, I've gotten to the point that I don't really notice one way or the other.

And you don't have to start eating quinoa and wheatgrass, either. There are so many meals we make that don't actually need the meat. I grew up putting meat in pasta sauce—I don't anymore. Lasagna is fabulous with spinach ricotta instead of meat sauce, and there is plenty of protein in the cheese. Loaded nachos taste just as good with black beans instead of meat, as do burritos, etc. Stir-frys and curries don't need chicken to fill you up—the rice does that (Did you know rice and wheat both have protein? [I'm sure I'll get people saying they aren't complete proteins. I know, which is why I'm not anti-meat entirely]).

This is longer than I planned it to be, so I better finish up. I guess all I'm saying is that we have so much more control over our health than we think, as long as we're willing to go out there and get the knowledge. Eating better, no matter how you decide to do that, always improves quality of life. You have more energy, your brain works better, you feel better.


  1. I swear we have to be related somewhere down the line. As the owner of a sensitive digestive tract myself, I know exactly what you mean.

    I come from a state where restaurants offer free meals, if you can down 64 oz. of meat, a shrimp cocktail, loaded baked potato, sides (and salad) in under an hour. Gorging on pork products (and, eww... by-products) is almost as big a deal down here as football. And, to be honest, I find it disgusting. Restaurant portions, even the "healthy" ones are insane, and people are so used to it that they think smaller portions mean they aren't getting their money's worth.

    Two things I absolutely love are Amy's vegetarian meals, and Odwalla "superfood". (It looks like green sludge and tastes like cling peaches.) You could live off the stuff, seriously. And, if I don't have any for a few days, I can definitely feel the difference because my body complains about the shift in nutrition.

    btw - add beans to the rice, and you deal with a good bit of the "incomplete" protein problem ;-)

  2. Natalie: this is another reason why we were meant to be friends. A few months ago I started getting sick every time I ate meat for a meal. Just a general not-well feeling. I decided to cut out all meat for a month, and it did WONDERS. I felt like I had more energy, and I just felt good. Now I eat no more than one thing with meat per day. If that. I am also a casual vegetarian.

  3. Josin, yes! The beans. And I love beans:) And the Odwalla superfood sounds intriguing.

    Emily, same here! I probably have the strongest stomach in my little family, but even I have felt MUCH better.

    Casual Vegetarians unite!

  4. As an athlete who tries to stick to the primal diet ( (basically meat, fruit, veggies, nuts, seeds), the thought of going without meat is terrifying. But I admire and understand your reasoning, even if I couldn't do it. Honestly, vegetarians leave me scratching my head--and my sister's one! But I don't think it's something to get "up in arms" about.

  5. Good for you for taking control of your eating habits! Kevin and I are also "part-time vegetarians". We never eat more than a serving of meat a day, most often less. I find that my energy levels, skin and overall health is much better when we eat more fish and "whole foods" in general.

    My favorite grocery shopping rule is to only buy food with 5 ingredients or fewer, all of which I can pronounce/understand.

    I love Michael Pollan's books on the subject, especially IN DEFENSE OF FOOD and FOOD RULES. If you haven't already checked them out, I highly recommend them.

  6. Taryn, I could never imagine going without grains! How interesting. But I can see the logic there too. Really, veggies are ALWAYS good, right? :)

    Ina, I haven't read those, but they look like something I should check out!

  7. Yes! So true.

    I found out that I'm hypoglycemic when I was in my mid-30s. I changed my diet by using the glycemic index and taking note of what worked for me and what didn't. It changed my life in ways I can't express. It also ended (mostly) a nearly lifelong struggle with depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue and ADHD.

    Diet is incredibly important to a person's well-being.

    Great post!

  8. I actually have to eat similarly to Taryn and follow the Paleo Diet---I have polycystic ovarian syndrome and am also at risk for diabetes. Basically my life changed when I went off grains, and I was able to control PCOS through diet alone for the first time ever. (Grains digest as sugar and spike insulin.) If I follow a meat and veggies diet, my blood sugar and insulin levels are fine. But I think the point is that yes, everyone has to find what's right for them, and sometimes health scares are the best catalysts. Especially us writers who tend to live in our heads and sometimes neglect our poor bodies!

  9. It's scary about gestational diabetes. I am 21 weeks pregnant, and I was shocked when I went to the doctor and found out I actually lost three pounds since my last visit. I've been eating soooo healthy. I usually eat well, but since I got pregnant I've made sure to eat plenty of greens and whole grains. Protein was never an issue for me, but now they want me to increase the amount in my diet to make sure I am gaining weight like I should.

    So now I am eating more cheese, meat, beans and rice, and nuts. I do eat meat, but never in excess.

    You're completely right about portion control. We're raised to think a normal portion is way too little food. Plus, people tend to overeat until they are stuffed instead of until they are full.

    Great post!

  10. I use my self-control to keep me from attacking processed sugar shelves in the grocery store. Meat, I can't help myself. I've probably destroyed herds of cows single-handedly. I've got plenty of vegetarian friends though, and I admire them for having that kind of self-control.

  11. My husband and I are the same ... we don't eat much meat, maybe one meal a day (if that).

    If we do eat meat, it's fish, turkey, or chicken instead of beef or pork. I originally did this because it was much cheaper and we had a very tight food budget, but now we eat less meat because we've found we don't need it.

    (And I too grew up putting meat in my pasta sauce, but now I put it fresh tomatoes and basil instead, and it tastes just fine!)

  12. I went almost ten YEARS without eating any hamburger...then my father-in-law offered me one fresh off the grill and I was too nervous to turn him down.

    Then I got pregnant and couldn't cook meat without throwing up. Even thought it's been four whole months since baby no. 3 was born, I cook VERY little meat. The part of my brain that processes scent still relates the smell of cooking meat with vomit. Not good.

  13. As you know, I'm vegetarian. I grew up eating meat, but I was never a die-hard fan. I gave it up because I could no longer get past the fact that I was eating a dead animal. So I stopped. (Also, I should mention, I'm not one of those judgemental vegetarians. It's a personal choice and I'd never "preach" at someone about it.)

    Here's the thing: I avoided becoming a vego for a few years because I thought it would be hard. It wasn't. Australia has embraced (in most places) the vego lifestyle, so eating out is never a problem.

    The other thing I noticed, was that once I became a vego, I began to eat better by default. I couldn't have KFC or hotdogs or meat pies. It immediately cuts a lot of crap from your diet. I found it also encouraged me to improved my diet in other areas. I wanted to be healthy.

    Since I'm not American, I had an outsider's view on food when I came over. I was actually surprised at how hard it was to eat as a vego in some places (especially when on the road). Often, the only option was Waffle House! But we vegos are resourceful if nothing else!

    Great post!

  14. Try having a nursing nutrition class! It'll REALLY open your eyes.

    There's a technical term for what you (and I) are: flexitarian.

    And don't give quinoa a bad rap--it's one of mine and hubby's favorite foods, and he clings to his meat with all he's got. :)

    This website is an excellent nutrional education tool, going so far as to break down what veggies fall into the "color" groups that you hear being talked about (trying to eat all the colors every day). It also has some great resources for specific groups, like pregnant women, preschool children, etc:

  15. I've been a vegetarian for about five years now and I love it. I was brought up in the country by crazy parents who kept goats, chickens, pigs, ducks etc. as pets and treated them almost like family, so after a while I couldn't justify to myself eating chicken from the supermarket when I had pet chickens in my yard that I wouldn't dream of eating. I just love animals and now I can't imagine eating them, although I don't judge people who do. I know it's natural to eat meat, it's just not for me.

    I thought it would be hard but it was actually easy once I got used to it as here in England there are loads of vegetarian options available. I mostly eat Quorn products and some of them taste almost like the real thing-chicken style nuggets, steak and mushroom style pies, chicken style escallopes, hotdogs, sausages, burgers, mince, pasta dishes etc. They even do quorn fish fingers here now. If they didn't have so much choice I would probably miss the taste of meat and the protein in my diet though.

    My partner is a die hard carnivore though and we don't mind each other's diets. I always have my 'special' version of whatever he's eating.

  16. So nice to see our new plant-based diet is the norm more than the fast-food industry would have society believe! Ditto on the fresh veggies, rice and beans, very little meat. Much healthier, and once you clear your system of fats and processing chemicals, tastier, too.


  17. My mom had gestational diabetes as well, when she had me. And she was 22 at the time, too! Weird.

    I just don't LIKE meat very much. I can only eat a very, very small amount of red meat before I start feeling sick. I do eat quite a bit of chicken, because my tummy likes that. But I wouldn't miss red meat at all if I cut it out of my diet completely.

  18. I've been considering going vegetarian for awhile now, because several of my friends are and they seem to be much healthier than I am. However, since I'm 15 and I'm not really in charge of meals, I'm not sure that will happen anytime soon. My mom thinks vegetarianism is kind of pointless and hard, no matter how much I try to convince her that it's not.

  19. I'm a casual vegetarian too and honestly, when I stop eating meat for a long period of time I feel so much better! I somehow feel like I have a whole lot more energy and my body feels better too!

    I love substituting meat for lentils whenever we make Mexican food in our house. It's so yummy!

  20. I so agree. I've been a vegetarian since I was 19 and then when we adopted my daughter we added to fish to our diet. But she's otherwise been a vegetarian all her life (okay she could eat more fruit and vegetables). My husband has really serious lung problems and our healthy diet has really helped control the progression of his disease. So I totally agree with you.

  21. I am SO with you here. I've been vegetarian since I was 12 and vegan for the last 5 or 6 years. I've never been the zealous type--I think everyone has to do what's right for them and my diet isn't necessarily the diet for everyone--though I don't think less meat on anyone's plate will do any harm--only help. A lot. I just wanted to throw out there that the proteins in meat, the structure of the amino acids, aren't recognized by the human body as protein. A whole lot of breaking down and reassembling has to occur before we can absorb any protein. If eating a little meat works for you, then stick with it--but you don't have to hold onto it--all the protein we actually need can be found (and in a form recognized by our digestive system) in plants. But yes, I'm all for moderation and taking care of yourself with diet--you do have a lot of control over your health and I wish more people would take their control back. You might find the documentary Forks Over Knives really interesting.

  22. I went to Seattle for school (from western Colorado) and it was a revelation. Who knew you could eat a meal without a ton of meat in it?! I still eat meat but significantly less than I used to and in proportion to everything else. I love it!

  23. I went vegan in 1998--on a Wednesday (still remember)--and I only reintroduced eggs and dairy when I became pregnant with my first child. My mom was diagnosed with diabetes at 47, and I was around 240 at the time, gaining around 10-15 lbs. a year because of my horrific diet.

    I'm now a pescatarian--the family and I eat fish, though only around 3 times a week--and I didn't get gestational diabetes with either kid (though they tested me over and over because of my family history). I hope to at least put off diabetes for most of my life, and since I'm now approaching the age my mother was when she was diagnosed, I check my blood sugar with my yearly exams to make sure I'm showing no signs of the condition.

    Diet is VERY important. I tried cutting out bread once, and lasted two weeks, but was so very sick, so I don't think I'll be doing that again any time soon. Moderation is everything. I prefer fresh fruits and veggies to anything because they are so filling. Love beans and nuts, too, and that's where I get most of my protein.

    Most people I know are not mean about my food choices, even here in the deep South.

  24. I'm glad you watch your health. That's something I know I could do better with. I'm not a vegetable fan at all so it's hard for me to force them down. I like some and salad is OK but I have to admit I dread eating them most of the time :P

    I'm sure nutritionists would be appalled by my diet...sometimes I skip meals which I know is bad but it happens more often than I like. My husband is setting a good example by eating healthier and exercising and I am hoping I can follow it, at least with the eating part, especially now that I have a son and I'd like for him to eat better than I do. We generally just eat meat for dinner too.

    Anyway, glad you watch your diet and are setting a good example for your kids!

  25. I signed up for our local CSA farm(community sustained agriculture) and get a box of fruits and veggies delivered every other week. It's fun to find what's in there -- like Christmas! -- and I've found cooking has become interesting again.