Friday, April 4, 2014

Why Vegetarian?

So today I decided that I would address the elephant in the room... why I chose to eat a vegetarian diet. I really frequently get the questions like Does it hurt your athletic performance? and Don't you miss meat? I've been interested in vegetarianism since I was a child, but with two parents working, I was told that it was not an option. This was reasonable, since I grew up in Pennsylvania and meat was almost always central to our supper. It would have created a ton of work for my poor mother! As I got older, I offered to cook for myself, but my parents were hesitant to trust me in the kitchen. I was too "creative" and "expansive." So I grew up liking vegetarian food when I could get it, but I didn't have my first committed vegetarian experience until college. I gave up meat for lent in 2004 and liked it, but it didn't stick. It wasn't until I moved to Cambridge where the vegetarian options are plentiful that creeping vegetarianism started to catch up with me. Trader Joe's was just around the corner and their soy nuggets became a staple for lunches on my grad student salary. (To be clear, these are not especially healthy but they are soooooooo good!)

I started to eat less meat because there were so many other options as I learned about "plant-based" nutrition. The idea of a plant based meal really appealed to me because I've always loved my veggies! However, the real tipping point came when my fiancé suggested that we watch Forks Over Knives. I remember that we had planned to make bacon-wrapped flounder that evening (sounds amazing, right?!!) but once the documentary was over, I informed him that we would instead be making black bean tacos. The documentary Forks Over Knives is based on The China Study, which finds that increased consumption of animal based products (this includes eggs and dairy, but not fish) can be tied to an increased incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and many types of cancer to name a few. The documentary also mentioned the reduced environmental impact of a plant-based diet, which is huge. Further studies show that eating a plant-based diet is actually more beneficial for the environment than driving a Prius! Plus, there's still the part of me that wanted to become vegetarian at 8 because of my small furry friends.

To answer the question about athletic performance, further research into plant-based nutrition showed that there are a ton of elite endurance athletes who credit veganism for their success. Perhaps the most notable among these are Brendan Brasier and Scott Jurlek. To investigate, I bought Brendan's book "Thrive," but while it was clear he carefully thought out his decisions, the book was not backed by enough hard science for my liking. Also, his recipes were pretty high in fat and low in carbs, which is the opposite of everything I want to eat in my life. (Although as I've been thinking about this more, there probably is something behind that. More exploration of those ideas to come!) Despite this, I decided to try a totally vegan diet for a month. It was great! I really loved the creative food options I was trying and my performance on the bike started to pick up. Then, shortly after reincorporating cheese and eggs, I got really lethargic and sick and finally learned that I had iron deficiency anemia. To be clear, I had been exhibiting these symptoms every few months for a few years, but the label of "vegetarian" caused my doctor to finally run the test. I definitely do not think vegetarianism was the cause for my anemia, in fact I credit it as part of the solution.

Not wanting to accept the dogma that eating red red meat would cure my anemia, I did my research. I learned about heme versus non-heme based iron and that many shellfish were in fact higher in iron than red meat by several times and had many beneficial nutrients. Shellfish have the vitamin B12 that is not available in vegan sources and are also a potent source of omega-3 fatty acids that are not available in plants. Fish are also not tied to many of the terrible diseases that land based animal products are tied to in the China Study. Thus I made the decision that I would incorporate fish into my diet occasionally when I feel depleted. Now, I am convinced that a totally plant based diet is the best option for a lot of people. However, right now I'm pretty sure it's not for me. I'm also pretty convinced that there are fewer notable female vegan athletes because of women's increased need for iron.

So did switching to vegetarianism improve my athletic performance? The facts are: I had an awesome cycling season in 2013 and my workouts this winter suggest that an even better season is on it's way! In addition to great performances, I also managed to avoid a new overuse injuries for the first time since 2009. However, the pinnacle of my athletic performance was definitely in 2009 when I made the US Rowing national team and was an omnivore. So in the end, I think time will tell! I definitely don't think vegetarianism hurts athletic performance, as long as you pay attention to all of your essential amino acids, as well as your iron and vitamin B levels.

Anyways, to address the question Do I miss meat? Mostly no; to be honest, I really prefer soy to chicken. However, I still get my usual biannual craving for a burger with mushrooms and swiss cheese. Even when I was eating meat, this was a fairly infrequent craving that was easily satiated by going to Friendly's and getting that burger. Now I try to tell myself that it's really the mushrooms and cheese that I want. This is a blatant lie, and it resulted in a few weeks last summer where I was making portabello mushrooms almost every day. I tried to eat my mushrooms on a veggie burger, but that just did not cut it, but I did find that balsamic marinated portabello mushrooms will do the trick. I can't wait to start making this again once the weather turns warmer!

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