What Happened When I Became a Vegetarian
Six years ago, becoming a vegetarian was the last wrung on my quest-for-healthy-eating-ladder. I had given up junk food, processed and packaged food, fried food, most dairy and anything artificial such as colas, sweeteners, and additives. And of course, I had gone through the laundry lists of diets: calorie-counting, Atkins, South Beach, blood type, 17 Day Diet, etc. It made perfect sense to me to become a vegetarian since my diet already consisted of very little lean protein (chicken, egg, fish) and a lot of vegetables and fruits.
So, could I go one step further and eliminate animal protein altogether? Especially since all the evidence pointed towards better health if I did? Eliminating animal protein lowers the risk of lung and colorectal cancer and diabetes. Vegetarians have more energy and healthy skin; enjoy hormone-free eating; have better digestion, better cholesterol levels and increased life spans. More importantly, vegetarianism is not a “fad” diet. It really is a lifestyle of eating natural foods.
There were several obstacles: And my willpower wasn’t one of them. Coming from a culture that values meat as highly as ours does, means you are likely to face a decent amount of skepticism and criticism for your decision. It’s not one that goes down lightly. To this day, I don’t quite understand why. If you can eat McDonald’s and Doritos, then tell me again, WHY can’t I stop eating meat?
Next, and more importantly, I had to figure out WHAT to eat. Now, when you eliminate animal-based protein from your diet, you must replace it with plant-based protein. So I began incorporating beans, chickpeas, and lentils, foods I never really ate before, but were becoming an obvious necessity. I also had to add bread, something else I had kept to a minimum before. So gradually, my food plan evolved into meals of multi-grain bread, grilled/roasted/steamed veggies, hummus, lentil soup and all sorts of salads made with beans.
In theory, this was an incredibly healthy eating plan. In theory I should have been full of energy and vitality. I should have lost weight and had great looking skin and shiny hair. But the reality was very different.
My energy diminished day by day. I slept badly despite my fatigue. And when I DID sleep, no matter how long, it was never enough. I developed horrible pain in my right shoulder. My face broke out. I became irritated, moody, and finally, depressed.
On top of that, instead of losing weight, I gained kilos that wouldn’t budge despite daily workouts that were becoming more and more difficult to maintain. But I ignored all this. I persevered with my plan. I was following expert advice. It couldn’t be wrong. I convinced myself that my body was just taking time to adjust and soon the weight would fall off and I would feel great.
Only it never happened. One and a half years later I had to admit something was wrong. I couldn’t imagine what. What could be wrong with eating an exclusively plant-based diet? Apparently, a lot.
I found a nutritionist who listened extensively to my experience. He told me my body was experiencing ‘inflammation.’ I was familiar with the term inflammation of course, we all are. Inflammation as we know it occurs on the OUTSIDE of our bodies when we hurt ourselves. The injured area hurts a bit, or alot, swells up and usually turns red before healing. So how does the body become inflamed on the inside? In pretty much the same way.
Inflammation on the inside of your body is caused when your immune system is compromised, when it becomes imbalanced. There are many causes for this, including lifestyle and stress, but the biggest contributing factor is hidden food sensitivities. Hidden food sensitivities make you sick, tired and overweight.
So my nutritionist put me on a fruit cleanse for 10 days. I know it sounds extreme. But apparently so was the state of my health. We had to figure out why my body had developed what he termed “metabolic resistance”, basically why did it just decide to “stop” as a result of being inflamed. And the only way to do that is to go on an elimination diet, to cleanse the body and reset it to zero.
After 10 days of eating only fruits, juicing fruits and eating more fruits (I added some veggies like spinach and celery during the last 3 days), I lost 5kg. You will say, “Well of course, if you eat nothing but fruits, anyone will lose weight.”
True, but there is a difference: Inflammation leads to swelling and fluid rentention so when I lost 5kg, that was my inflammation disappearing. It was the beginning of the process for my body to heal and the first step towards permanent weight loss.
Also, and this was an incredible surprise to me, my shoulder pain disappeared. Gone. As in I woke up and I could function normally whereas 10 days earlier the pain kept me up at night.
And when I slept, it was deeply and soundly. I woke up FEELING like I slept deeply and soundly. I wasn’t grumpy. I wasn’t edgy or irritable. My energy was back. I actually DID things throughout my day. My to-do list got checked off. I felt incredible to say the least. And I don’t exaggerate.
I got rid of the toxins that had built up in my body as a result of undiagnosed food intolerances and unrecognized inflammation. In my case, the culprits were the beans, wheat and anything containing gluten as well as a group of vegetables called nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers and eggplant) For whatever reason, my body had decided that these were toxins and when your body becomes toxic, as mine did, it cannot digest properly. And proper digestion is key.
We all know the basics of our digestive system: it begins with our mouths and ends in the bathroom. But, in between we have crucial organs at work. Of these is the small intestine. The job of the small intestine is huge because the small intestine digests and absorbs your food. Then it sends those nutrients into your bloodstream, where they are carried to the liver and transformed into energy. If your digestion is sluggish or your intestinal lining is damaged, as mine was as a result of these toxins, then you are not absorbing your nutrients, which means you are lacking the ENERGY you need and deserve.
What most people don’t know is that 80% of your immunity is in your gut. What happens in your digestive system, in reality, affects every aspect of your body –how effectively it functions, both physically and mentally. For all intents and purposes, your gut dictates what happens in your life.
I had inadvertently compromised my body by feeding it grains and beans in my quest to be a vegetarian.
The beans, grains and wheat damaged my digestive system and gave me leaky gut syndrome. Leaky gut syndrome is “very simply (when) your intestine develops leakages allowing substances that would normally be digested to enter the bloodstream. These toxins are passed onto the liver to deal with but it cannot cope with the overwhelming toxins and stores them in the body tissues to come back to later on. The liver is too overworked to go back to the toxins and as the intestinal lining gets consistently weaker more and more toxins and undigested food enter into the bloodstream. The immune system sends out antibodies to fight these foreign substances and in doing that toxic oxidants are produced which attack the body tissues causing allergic reactions and pain and inflammation throughout the body.” (leakygut.co.uk)
The end result for me was joint pain, weight gain, low energy, moodiness and depression.
By cleansing, I cleaned out and repaired my gut. Literally. My body no longer had to “fight”. I no longer had inflammation. To test this, I had to reintroduce those foods back into my body. The reaction was, and still is, the same. When I consume bread, grains, beans, lentils, nightshades, nuts and rice, within 10 minutes my shoulder begins to hurt, my vision gets blurred, I feel dizzy and I experience brain fog. I had developed food intolerances. (Not to be confused with a food allergy, which may be fatal). The problem wasn’t with those specific foods. They are all very healthy foods. The problem was that my body refused them.
The irony is that this happened when I thought I was being the healthiest version of myself possible because I believed-as I read-that being a vegetarian is THE healthiest way to eat. And maybe it is. I still believe it could be.
What works in theory may not work in reality. Cookie-cutter food theories, as discussed in the media, are not applicable to every single person. We are all individuals. Don’t’ let ideology or the latest ‘it’ diet lead you. The only ‘it’ diet you should follow is the one unique to you. What works for so many-vegetarianism-DID not work for me, it made me sick. So it may work for you, and it may not.
I am no longer a “pure” vegetarian because I eat a small amount of lean animal protein. However, the majority of what I eat is fruits and vegetables. Those foods fuel me. And do I still worry about the negative effects protein may have on my body? The reason I got into vegetarianism in the first place? Sure. But nutrition is not a perfect science. There will always be something to worry about, to think about. But, is it serving me well now? Yes.
I’m not telling you this to sway you to one side of vegetarianism or another, or to one side or another of ANY eating plan. This is a cautionary tale to figure out what works for you and your body today. Listen to what your body is telling you when you eat.
Do you feel energetic, light, happy, and optimistic? Or do you feel down, heavy, lifeless, have headaches, joint pain, feel depressed and don’t sleep well? These are all clear signals that your body is under attack, it is inflamed. Don’t simply shrug it off as work-related stress, being an overtired mom or just “I always feel like this.”
You are what you eat. And what inflames you could be something you’ve been eating all your life. It doesn’t have to be something you’ve only recently introduced.
Your foods should give you energy, you should sleep well and wake up ready and happy to start your day, engaged and motivated. You should feel balanced. If you’re not, something is off.
When I look back, deciding to become a vegetarian was perhaps the best thing to happen to me. It led me to discover what foods really fuel me and which inflame me, which is something everyone needs to figure out.
To figure out what foods work for you and which ones don’t, or if you’re feeling like you never have the energy to do what you want to do, check out my 28 day program here.