When I was younger I had a period of really disliking the taste and texture of meat and as such I pretty much became a vegetarian. This was great for my parents as if we went out to a restaurant they could just order one plate of food for me and my overwhelmingly carnivorous younger sister to share and we’d just happily munch from our respective sides.
Now this is not what I would refer to as vegetarianism with longevity as an existence based solely on vegetables would provide a wonderful array of micronutrients (your vitamins, minerals and antioxidants) but you’d be failing yourself quite significantly on the macronutrient side of things (proteins, carbohydrates and fats). This is absolutely not to say that vegetarians should start chowing down on meat, quite the contrary, but choosing to eschew animal products does mean that you need to be a tad more conscious of your meal structures throughout the day to make sure you are giving your body all the bits it needs. In fact at this point I will point out that opting for a diet completely or at least majorly based on plant foods is seen to increase longevity quite significantly we could all do with veering this way in my book.
The best place to go for how-to examples is countries where vegetarian food is actually part of the culture. Take a traditional Indian meal, there is rice, some form of lentil dhal, maybe a chickpea based curry and then another vegetable dish served with yoghurt and a bread of some sort depending on which region you’re in (I wouldn’t want to specifically declare chapati, naan or dosa for fear of insulting anyone). This combination of different forms of plant based protein (a concept we will shortly embark upon together) is the integral point of successful meatless-ness.
Lets start at the beginning.
Draw to your mind the concept of a protein; your muscles, organs etc. The basic building blocks of all these vitally important bodily features are molecules known as amino acids. When we need to grow or repair something, clever little chaps in our cells (Ribosomes) toddle along with their shopping list, and in a manner not unlike stringing a pearl necklace, they code for our new protein by matching a specific sequence of amino acids with the complementary code on their piece of paper. The place from which they draw their beautiful gems is known as the amino acid pool, a resource we partially self maintain by producing amino acids with the remainder coming from our diet. This gives us the distinction between essential and non-essential amino acids (essential are the dietary ones, non-essential we can usually summon up from the depths if stocks are running low).
Originally it was thought that we needed to consume all essential amino acids at every meal but more recent research has indicated that as long as we consume all of them within a day we should be fine. I would suggest there may be instances however where the body has an increased protein requirement, such as during pregnancy, post surgery or athletes continuously performing intense exercise, where it would be more sensible to go with caution and ensure you’re getting you’re full range throughout the day to avoid anything being ‘stolen’ from elsewhere in the body.
Now we’ve covered the basic idea we can dive more into what this actually means for the food on our plate.
Animal protein sources are what we call ‘complete’ proteins in that within the piece of meat, fish, egg etc you have all your essential amino acids (this would make sense as we are essentially consuming the end product that we will then go on to make ourselves). Plant proteins on the other hand are usually ‘incomplete’ i.e. they have some but not all of the essential amino acids (well you don’t see a chickpea doing chin ups very often do you…..!) which is why combining different sources is so important as each brings a slightly different profile to the table.
You may have noticed above that I said ‘usually incomplete’ and this is because there are 2 examples of plant foods that can be deemed complete proteins; chia and hemp seeds. Seemingly innocuous but absolutely 100% not these little babies have got all your essential amino acids in them so if you’re opting for a vegetarian meal give them a little sprinkle over the top, pop them in a smoothie or add to porridge. They also have the extra bonus of being packed full of omega-3 which we can always do with more of (especially if you’re avoiding oily fish). Sadly the levels of the amino acids within them are less than that big rump steak (you’d have to eat an astonishing amount of seeds to equal that baby) but as I am attempting to show, victory with vegetarianism is all about the little cumulative pieces, more of a delicate ballet as opposed to a highland fling let’s say.
This is probably a good point to actually go into specifics with your plant protein sources and they are as follows:
Not exactly struggling for them are we? Next up, the golden rules of combining to make those all important complete protein profiles:
Legumes/Pulses + Nuts/Seeds
Legumes/Pulses + Grains
Pretty easy ey?
As long as you pick a variety of different ones (not always sticking to brown rice, pumpkin seeds & almonds for example) you’ll be all set. And then if you’re chucking chia and hemp seeds on top of everything as well you’ve basically hit the jackpot 😉
I think the thing that really seals it for me is the wealth of opportunity that experimenting with meat-less meals provides. Although I have long got over my aversion to all things animal (I would probably class myself as more of a pescatarian egg enthusiast rather than flesh fanatic however) a good number of my meals are still completely free of anything you’d find scampering or swimming about.
Think about how many different types of meat there are (i’m not talking sausages vs steaks vs burgers but more beef, turkey, chicken) and then think about how many different vegetables, grains, pulses, nuts, seeds and legumes we have, the mind boggles with possibilities (well mine does at least). Recently a particularly carnivorous friend of mine mentioned how much she is enjoying a decreased amount of animal products in her diet as she experiments more and more with vegetarian meals (and if she’s doing it anyone can!).
I think it once again comes down to how you perceive your food. Many would look at a meatless plate and class it incomplete, or have been fooled into thinking vegetarian food is just pasta bake, imitation moussaka or those horrendous leather look ‘soy burgers’ that knock about the back of a freezer cabinet. Honestly I can’t blame them as many restaurants are still seemingly stuck in an era where vegetarians were expected to survive solely off something with mushrooms, cheese or lots of potatoes but the tide has begun to change. Vegetarian restaurants are some of the most popular new openings and those who take it further and go fully vegan are also flourishing. Offerings from the Middle East, India and Africa also boast a bounty of entirely plant based delicacies that are easily replicated at home once you allow your mindset to adapt to this new way of thinking and cooking.
The last thing I’ll mention is the pre-conception that vegetarian food makes you somewhat ummm windy……this can be true but is easily remedied.
The reason for the let’s say ‘turbulence’ can be down to a couple of things. The first is that you’re increasing your intake of fibre intake and sometimes if your body isn’t used to it this causes gas as your intestinal bacteria have a bit of a party digesting and fermenting it all for you. By gradually introducing more fibrous foods into your diet and varying the sources you should avoid this. Try an extra serving of green leafy vegetables with dinner one day, then maybe a lentil soup the next day and so on rather than going in gung ho with chickpea curry, houmous, dhal, raw kale and falafel in one sitting (an odd meal combination but I’m sure some have done it!).
The next consideration is what we refer to as anti-nutrient compounds (including lectins, saponins and phytic acid) which we find in our grains, pulses, legumes, nuts and seeds. These are a natural protective mechanism by plants to ensure the distribution of their seeds by the animals who eat them by making them less digestible. This is why I bang on about soaking (more info here) as it increases the availability of nutrients by getting rid of these which also then avoids the windy situation.
Finally the last consideration is that your digestion may not be completely tip top and again this is not uncommon. Low levels of stomach acid can mean that we don’t break down our food as effectively as we should allowing larger pieces travel into the intestine than we would want. This then means our intestinal bacteria (or microflora as it is also known) have larger amounts to ferment which produces gas as a byproduct. Many people will also have a certain level of dysbiosis (imbalance of the good and bad gut bacteria) which can exacerbate the problem. The solution to this is to try having a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in a 250ml glass of water 20 minutes before you eat to stimulate your stomach acid which will help with the breakdown, and then include some nice probiotic foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kefir and natural yoghurt into your diet to bolster the barracks of your beneficial bacteria.
And with that charming thought I shall leave you for today. Today’s recipe happened somewhat by accident as I combined the ingredients in my fridge with a craving for a Korean dish known as a bibimbap. If you haven’t tried it I suggest you do, the concept is basically a layer of rice and julienned vegetables (top with an egg or meat if you wish) in a super heated stone bowl which makes the rice becomes chewy and crisp around the edges i.e. the ultimate bowl of comforting, healthful deliciousness. Anyway I was attempting to mimic this enveloping embrace of a dish and this was the delightful result, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
As always comments are most welcome and wherever possible opt for organic ingredients.