This post is dedicated to my parents, who reminded me this weekend of my dislike of vegetables as a teenager. I know you guys are reading this 🙂
Now, it wasn’t so much that I disliked vegetables as a teenager – it was more that I disliked the vegetables from my parent’s allotment that came with extra protein in the form of slugs, snails, caterpillars etc. I’ve had a phobia of slugs and snails since I was young, and will go to great lengths to avoid touching them – I’ve even been known to cross a road if there are too many on the pavement! And when you have a phobia like that, it can be pretty difficult to still eat that pile of broccoli and cabbage that may or may not have been nibbled before reaching your plate!
But moving on…
In my early 20’s I went through a spate of health issues and, having consulted the “health” pages in several glossy magazines, I decided I would cut out meat and fish and follow a vegetarian lifestyle. But after just six months my health issues had worsened. I felt dreadful, and my skin looked terrible. I’d gained weight and had no energy. I was “clinically infertile” according to my GP. And I had no idea why – surely being vegetarian should have made me healthier?
Years later, while training as a nutritionist (and no longer a vegetarian) I slowly realised the mistakes I’d made, and why they had caused me so many issues.
1. Too many refined carbohydrates
A typical day for me would have involved a bowl of cereal or a sachet of porridge for breakfast, a white bread sandwich for lunch, and pasta or pizza in the evening. It was all refined carbohydrates, and they were giving me blood sugar imbalances on a daily basis. I had mood swings, acne, and afternoon slumps in energy. Not only that, but the gluten found in wheat, oats, rye and barley is known to increase inflammation – did I mention I was trying to improve my health? I was really not helping myself at all. I should have stuck to complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, brown rice pasta, quinoa, rye bread, and oat cakes which would have regulated my blood sugar levels.
2. High dairy intake
Cheese. I ate so much cheese while I was playing at being a vegetarian. Brie, stilton, cheddar, parmesan… I certainly wasn’t fussy about which type of cheese. I had milk with my cereal, and got into drinking milky teas and coffees too. Somehow I ignored the nausea in the pit of my stomach, the acne, the sinus congestion and the headaches, and the weight gain.
Avoid making the same mistake I did and keep high fat dairy products such as cheese to a minimum. If you want to move away from cows milk, then choose almond, coconut, or other dairy free milk alternatives.
3. Inappropriate protein choices
I can’t digest eggs, which are one the of the better protein sources for vegetarians, so I didn’t eat them at all whilst vegetarian. I also didn’t eat many legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, or beans. Instead, I ate soya products – tofu, tempeh, soya mince, soya sausages/burgers, soya cheese and so on, on a daily basis. Soya products are often cited as the cause of hormonal imbalances, and while I can’t prove it, I suspect this was the source of my fertility issues.
I also discovered quinoa – we all know that is marketed as a high protein vegetarian food right? I didn’t like the taste but believed the hype surrounding it and ate it daily – what I didn’t realise is that quinoa is actually not that rich in protein. Yes, it’s true – look here! Quinoa is really just a carbohydrate with a little bit of protein (21g carbs and 4g protein, per 100g quinoa!) and my high intake wasn’t doing me any favours.
Better protein choices would have been nuts, seeds, eggs, protein powders (I personally like Pulsin Hemp protein powder), lentils and other legumes. And don’t believe the quinoa propaganda.
4. Too many raw vegetables
Whilst vegetarian, I ate a disturbingly low number of cooked vegetables. Plenty of fruit and salad leaves, maybe a few raw peppers, but very few cooked vegetables. In those six months, I probably cooked and ate one courgette, one head of broccoli, a few carrots, and my entire body weight in jacket potatoes!! Aside from the mental “extra protein” scarring from those allotment vegetables, my main issue was that I just didn’t know how to cook many vegetables so I stuck to salad leaves as they were easy (open bag, rinse, place on plate). Salad leaves, and raw vegetables in general are of course incredibly good for us, but research shows that cooking vegetables releases nutrients locked away in the cell walls, such as lycopene from tomatoes – known for it’s anti-cancer properties. And there I was missing out on these for the majority of my meals.
These days, a three tier vegetable steamer saucepan is my most used kitchen gadget. It’s an absolute essential as you can steam just about any vegetable and retain most of it’s nutrients in just a few minutes (and with minimal cooking skills!)
5. No omega 3
You’ve probably heard of omega 3 supplements, and you may know it’s found in oily fish – I think that is well drummed into our heads these days. Nuts and seeds are another source of omega 3, particularly walnuts, linseeds/flaxseeds, and chia seeds. I don’t recall whether chia seeds existed in the UK 15 years ago, but I was terrified of eating nuts and seeds in case they made me gain weight, so I probably wouldn’t have eaten them anyway. And I definitely wasn’t eating fish, so omega 3 was not something I was getting through my diet.
Omega 3 is vital to our health – it reduces inflammation, reduces the risk of chronic inflammation related diseases, and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. If you want to supplement with a non-fish oil based supplement, you could try Viridian Organic Golden Flax Seed Oil (1 teaspoon per day) – try adding it to smoothies or drizzled over salad.