Beyonce and JayZ were vegan–at least for 21 days, while Bill Clinton, Al Gore and a number of other celebrities also embrace the vegan life. Vegan and vegetarian diets garner haloed status for a number of reasons from animal rights to environmental concerns. In addition, medical research tells us that vegetarians measure healthier than typical omnivores. But I find it is wise to be wary when science or any food evangelist preaches, “This is the right way for everyone to eat!” In addition, I find it curious that in the science world few seem to question what is cause and what is effect.
There is a world of good that happens when we eat “mostly plants” as famously suggested by Michael Pollan. Hopefully that means choosing food with less processing, less packaging and a whole lot more nutrition. But a plant based diet diet does not necessarily mean eating closer to the earth–there are plenty of highly processed packages of what used to be fresh fruits and vegetables. In addition, eating a plant based diet does not mean eating only plants. While one celebrity after another professes the benefits of going vegan or vegetarian, the meatless diet is not necessarily better for everyone.
WHO CAN BURN CARBOHYDRATES LIKE AN INCINERATOR?
At first glance the vegetable eaters measure leaner than the rest of us. These leaner folks seem to thrive eating mostly plant food– including a hearty amount of starchier grains and legumes. People who struggle with their weight (and poor metabolic health) are often more insulin resistant. They sport thicker bodies even at their most fit, and they usually feel better eating more protein and fat with their produce. Despite an initial sense of deprivation, insulin resistant people feel better eating less carbohydrate, especially less sugar and refined starch. This reality skews a lot of data.
Don’t let the randomized studies throw you off base. Everyone doesn’t metabolize energy the same way and there is no single right way to eat. While eating close to the earth is better for most of us, how much protein, how much fat and what quantity and type of carbohydrate your body can handle is probably unique to you. Here are five good clues that you may benefit from eating enough (or more) protein and adequate fat along with your fruits and vegetables while keeping more refined carbohydrates off your plate:
1. You tend to gain weight in your belly
2. Eating a carbohydrate rich meal leaves you feeling bloated or sleepy
3. When you eat sugar or refined carbohydrates you crave more and more
4. A high carbohydrate breakfast leaves you feeling hungrier all day long
5. You feel hungry “too soon” after a high carbohydrate meal (even as little as 30-60 minutes)
Omnivores who are insulin resistant can readily improve the protein to carbohydrate ratio in their diet by choosing more animal meat and healthy fats. For vegans and vegetarians the effort may take a bit more intention and planning.
IT TAKES EFFORT TO EAT A MIX OF PLANT PROTEIN AND ENOUGH FAT
Most vegetarian communities around the world eat close to 50% of their calories from fat. It is only in the United States that the low fat mantra of the last few decades distorted a more traditional mix of foods. Most of my clients who are insulin resistant and choose to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet end up eating more fat than they are used to. In addition to more fat, I often advise them to choose more than one source of vegetable protein every meal.
A variety of vegetable protein helps most vegetarians feel more satisfied, but especially people who are more insulin resistant. Peanut butter on toast along with fruit served with full fat yogurt uses more traditional breakfast foods. A stir fry with soy beans (or tofu) and cashews or almonds served with brown rice works any time of the day.
Vegans often end up using more protein powders and other refined sources of protein in order to get the protein they need to feel grounded. When the decision to be vegan is not rooted in a philosophical or religious belief, some find that the vegan/vegetarian effort is more than they want to bear–and the benefits of adequate protein and fat are too great. The decision to become a flexitarian–judiciously choosing some animal protein as they need it–is a natural consequence of learning what works best for their body.
IS A VEGETARIAN DIET THE CAUSE OR THE EFFECT?
It’s easy to find studies that report vegetarians are leaner and enjoy better metabolic health. People who are insulin sensitive tend to burn what they eat for energy instead of preferentially storing it as fat. Problems arise when that observation is interpreted to mean that the vegetarian diet is the cause of all that fitness and health. It is just as likely that a person thrives with a vegetarian or vegan diet because they are inherently more sensitive to insulin.
As you step into the new year, let your sense of what works best for you determine your approach to food rather than one more testimonial or advice from a celebrity “expert”. You can enjoy eating close to the earth regardless of what mix of animal and plant food you put on your plate.