“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” — James Joyce
Mistakes are only damaging if we never learn from them, and food is no exception. I have seen so many people, including myself, go vegetarian, vegan, raw, macrobiotic, or (fill in healthy diet here), and become incredibly unhealthy. With millions of vegetarians worldwide, that’s a lot of potentially out-of-balance people.
Wait, but I thought plant-based diets were supposed to make you healthier? They can, but that’s up to you.
Health is a result of finding balance in your body and cultivating greater harmony in your life in general.
Going vegetarian has been the key for many people in resolving health conditions, feeling more energized and excited about life, and living in alignment with their personal values.
With the intention to stop eating meat comes a transition famous for upsetting the body’s balance. Whenever there is a change of eating habits, it’s important to check in and make sure you are getting all the essential vitamins, minerals, proteins and healthy fats from your new food choices.
Are you getting everything your body needs?
Here are the most common mistakes that vegetarians make, and suggestions for how you can solve them.
1. Too much soy
These days, soy seems to be made into or added to everything—milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, ice cream, tofu, tempeh, imitation meat—and it’s too much! There is such a thing as “too much of a good thing” for your body, especially when it comes to soy. Is soy right for you?
There’s much debate these days about whether or not soy is good for you. Here are some things to consider when exploring this for yourself:
- Most soy grown around the world is genetically modified (GMO). Over 90% of soy grown in the U.S is GMO.
- Non-organic, conventional soybean crops are often heavily sprayed with toxic herbicides, some of which have been found to be carcinogenic.
- Some studies have linked soy to serious health issues such as malnutrition, digestive problems, immune system breakdown, thyroid conditions, infertility, and even cancer & heart disease.
- Soy is commonly used as a “filler” in breads, cereals, soups, power bars, and even tea! Because of this over-exposure, many people have become allergic to soy, if they weren’t already.
- Like many legumes, soy contains trypsin inhibitors that prevent your body’s naturally produced enzymes from completely breaking the protein down. This often leads to symptoms such as gas, bloating and general indigestion.
- Unlike fermented soy products (e.g. tempeh, miso), unfermented soy products contain phytates, which can inhibit the absorption of essential minerals such as calcium and iron. This is especially important for vegetarians who are anemic and struggle to get enough iron in their diet.
Solution – Find other sources
Buy organic whenever possible and reduce the amount of soy you consume. If it’s protein you are after, eat more nuts, seeds, beans and quinoa. If you want a milk substitute, try rice, almond or oat milk. Reduce the amount of tofu and tempeh you use, and try making more dishes with portobello mushrooms, zucchini, squash, and beans.
2. Not enough fat
Many cultures and trend diets push the idea that fat is bad for you. They don’t distinguish between good & bad fat, and leave people scared to touch fat at all.
There is no need to be fat-phobic—your body needs it! Fat is essential for the proper functioning of every cell in your body. It’s especially important for healthy skin and hair, proper brain functioning, and maintaining a healthy nervous system.
Solution – Eat more plant-based fats
You don’t need to eat bacon, steak or milk to get fat in your diet. In fact, there are much healthier forms. Eat more avocados, cook with coconut oil, or munch on nuts and seeds. There are many vegetarian-friendly sources of healthy fat, so give your body the fat it’s craving.
3. Insufficient protein
When I first went vegetarian, I had no idea about nutrition, essential vitamins and minerals, and what to do to have a healthy, balanced diet. I quickly discovered that I wasn’t the only vegetarian struggling with the effects of too little protein in my diet.
If you have blood sugar issues, have skin issues or unhealthy hair, suffer from energy slumps in the afternoon, or generally feel weak, you may benefit from looking at your protein intake. How to get protein without eating animals?
Solution – Find lasting energy sources
Experiment with various sources of protein and which ones work best for your unique body.
- Dairy: Feta, cottage cheese, yogurt, eggs (free range is best)
- Nuts & Seeds: Walnuts, hemp seeds, peanuts, pistachios, almonds, sunflower seeds
- Vegetables & Fruits:
- Dark green vegetables – spinach, broccoli, brussel sprouts
- Legumes – peas, navy beans, lima beans, black beans
- Dried Apricots
- Oats, whole wheat
- Gluten-free: Amaranth, teff, quinoa, wild rice, buckwheat, millet, brown rice
4. Lack of diversity
Every food contains certain levels of vitamins, minerals and micronutrients. Adding diversity to your diet will ensure that your body is getting everything it needs to stay in balance.
If you find yourself eating the same foods in different combinations, it might be time to branch out.
Solution – Expand your options and try something new
An easy way to do this is to eat colorful foods, buy one new ingredient to experiment with every week, or try different varieties of the same type of food (e.g. beans, grains, greens).
You’ve got thousands of meals ahead of you, so mix it up and keep things exciting!
5. Overly-processed foods
Many meat substitutes, dairy alternatives, and organic grain products are highly processed. This intensive processing involves lots of chemicals, toxic gases, and the extraction (and removal) of naturally occurring nutrients from the ingredients.
Solution – Find whole-food alternatives
Rule of thumb = If a food looks like it does when it’s harvested—an apple, broccoli head, grain of rice—it’s a whole food.
Incorporating more whole foods into your diet is a great way of decreasing the amount of processed foods you eat. Instead of soy sausages every morning, make your own bean burgers. A few days a week, try replacing your cereal and rice milk breakfast with a superfood smoothie or egg & sautéed greens.
6. Dependence on vitamins and supplements
Don’t get me wrong – supplements and vitamins have their place. I think it’s fine to add them to your smoothies, to boost your immune system with Vitamin C, and to take specific supplements when healing from an injury or sickness.
Why depend on pills and powders when there are so many delicious and nutritious foods out there! Ultimately, the goal is to get what you need from whole foods. They contain everything your body needs to thrive, and contain within them all the essentials for proper digestion and absorption.
Solution – Eat a balanced diet
Focus on: eating more greens, including colorful foods with each meal, cooking with whole grains instead of processed products, diversifying your ingredients, and eating things that naturally contain minerals and trace elements (e.g. sea salt, seaweed, nuts, seeds, beans).
We all make mistakes on the path of self-discovery, yet we have the choice of turning those mistakes into nuggets of golden wisdom. Eating for a healthier you and a healthier planet means loving your body by giving it what it needs to love you back.