10 May 2021
My Year as a Vegan Vegetarian

Yes, I have gone vegetarian. No, I do not eat fish. Yes, I get my protein from a wide range of plant-based sources. No, I don’t need meat to gain muscle or strength - I can squat 1.5 times my body weight since not eating meat.

I have stopped eating animal products because I don’t like the taste and I get enough amino acids and nutrients from my plant-based options.

Since going vegetarian at the start of 2020, I have had lots of people asking why I went vegetarian and how I am going with these changes. Most people who are asking these questions are coming from a good place and wanting to gain a better understanding of a plant-based lifestyle, but there are a few people who are ignorant and cannot understand my choices because they choose not to learn. In this article I will go over my motivations for going plant-based, and my experiences with these changes.

I initially began moving to a vegetarian diet to lose weight, to reduce my impact on farmed animals, to expand my cooking knowledge and also to align with my core values. But since those first few months of 2020, my views and values have changed. Now I focus more on creating meals to fuel my body for training. I am learning to understand nutrition and the role of different nutrients on the body, especially factoring in a plant-based lifestyle. A lot of time spent at home cooking and learning during NZ’s first Level 4 lockdown helped with this.

Throughout this year and previous years I have interacted with a wide range of people who have shared their experiences with different lifestyles and food preferences, and it has been great to understand how they have come to be where they are and the learning curve they faced while doing so. I have spoken with athletes, students, friends, and family who have adopted plant-based eating habits and their experiences have helped to shape my own values and ideas around this. But first, I will define some terms to give you some background into a plant-based diet and all of the variations that come with this. 

Lets define some plant-based food terms

It is not uncommon to hear a whole bunch of different words being thrown around to describe someone's eating habits: vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, or flexitarian. But what do they all mean?

Vegans: no animal products at all, including meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products, no by-products from animals such as leather, wool, or honey (depending on their values).

Vegetarians: no meat, but often consume eggs and/or dairy products.

Pescatarians: no red (and other) meats but will consume fish and/or seafood products.

Flexitarians: can also be termed semi-vegetarian. Eat whatever they want but mainly follow a plant-based diet.

Paleo/Caveman: hunt and gather foods such as lean meats, fish, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Limited dairy and grains.

One thing these diets or lifestyles tend to have in common is the focus on fresh produce and limiting processed foods. Often you hear people spouting success about a specific diet; however, if you look closer it might be due to the fact that they are simply reducing their refined sugars and grains, or the amount of processed foods they consume (these tend to be higher in simple sugars and bad fats).

What does a vegetarian eat?

What does a vegetarian eat
  • Breakfasts: are pretty standard – some variation of oats, chia seeds, fruits, and sometimes added protein powder. Occasionally I make this into protein pancakes, or splurge and create an omelette or tofu scramble when I have the morning off.
  • Lunches: can be anything from roasted veggies, salads, chilli beans, or homemade chickpea and peanut patties, to boiled eggs and wraps filled with leftovers or marinated tofu.
  • Dinners: are the really exciting part because I can create anything I want - from pizzas to homemade gnocchi, stir fries with seitan to intensely spicy lentil curries with homemade coconut naan bread.

The options are endless if you know where to look to find recipes, or create your own! Savoury meals If you are wanting to try creating vegetarian meals and don’t know where to begin, start with what you know. Take your go-to recipes and adapt them, swapping out the meat or dairy for other options such as veggie sausages, different patties, fake meats, or even adding lentils and beans to make a vegetarian chilli con carne. Once you get comfortable and get used to the different textures of these meals, you can start expanding into making your own recipes using soft and firm tofu, seitan, roasting chickpeas, and using jackfruit to mimic pulled pork.

I have also become a whiz at adapting any type of baking to be vegan. It is amazing what you can do with soy milk and apple cider vinegar, a cup of coffee or even using silken tofu in your cooking! For some really great cooking inspiration check out this recipe for an amazingly rich chocolate cake and her other meal ideas too!

One of my favourite (quick and easy) meals, which is my go-to after a long day working or training, is broccoli stir fry with spicy teriyaki tofu and rice or noodles. It’s easy to prep, is all cooked within 20 minutes and can be even better the next day for lunch.

For another great recipe, and tips for marinating your tofu, check out the following link. I love to pair this with stir fried vegetables such as broccoli, bok choy, carrots, capsicum or even edamame and corn for some sweetness and crunch, and of course top it with plenty of coriander and crushed peanuts or toasted seeds. Super easy and yum!

Why would someone adopt a plant-based lifestyle?

There are many reasons why someone might alter their consumption of animal products. Some might do it for allergy reasons by reducing or limiting dairy or eggs; others might not enjoy the taste (“But you just haven’t learnt how to cook it right!” I have heard people say countless times about steak), or they could have set values around animal welfare and consumption of these products might disrupt these values. If you or someone you know is considering a change in food consumption or lifestyle, it is great to ask questions and expand your knowledge around why they might be doing this. Show your curiosity but be open-minded to their responses and respect their beliefs.

My expansion into the world of plant-based was helped by the people around me. My sister, close friends from the gym and even high-level athletes who I worked with all helped through sharing their experiences, and this helped me to adopt the values that I follow now. I increased my love for cooking and creating new recipes and ideas from a plant-based menu. By surrounding myself with people who have the same values, supporting my fitness and health and learning about my strengths and weaknesses, I have been able to develop habits and behaviours over the last 15 months that reflect my values around nutrition. This has also carried through to my strength training - I have never been stronger since learning more about how training and nutrition interact and realising that consistency really is key!

Top things I learned about plant-based nutrition

Top Things I Learned About Plant based Nutrition

Most things can be substituted for your favourite meals if you know some good replacements. Research into new recipes, substitutions and different vegan sources are a great place to start. Check out these foods and see how you can incorporate them into your cooking:

  • Legumes such as chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils and green peas.
  • Nutritional yeast (high in B12 and fortified with other minerals).
  • Flaxseeds, chia, and pumpkin seeds (good sources of omegas 3’s and 6’s).
  • Seitan (wheat based, high protein meat alternative).
  • Jackfruit and tofu (make sure to marinate and season well before cooking).

How to read labels and food packaging to know what is in my food. This one is huge - whether you have specific allergies, intolerances or dislikes, it is important to know how to read food packaging labels to know what exactly is in the food that you are consuming. Some words to look out for in ingredient lists to show the addition of animal products can include a combination of: casein, collagen, elastin, gelatine, lard, shellac, and albumin. Often foods such as eggs and milk products will be highlighted on packaging as these are common allergens, other times foods can be labelled as vegetarian or vegan friendly.

How to ensure you are getting complete sources of all the essential amino acids through understanding food pairings and how plant-based foods can be combined to boost the amino acid profile. Education around essential amino acids and the role they play in your body's ability to continue functioning at a high level, especially if you are playing sports or resistance training, is very important. Research into the amino acid profiles of different foods can help you understand what they might lack in a certain amino acid, so you are able to pair it with other foods which complement this.

Some great examples of this are pairings such as rice and beans. Rice and wheat are low in the amino acid lysine but high in methionine, whereas beans such as chickpeas or kidney beans are the opposite of this. By combining these foods together, you are able to get the full 9 essential amino acids in a meal.

Understanding leucine & other amino acids

Understanding leucine other amino acids

The body needs amino acids to grow and function properly, to help our immune system responses, brain and to be capable of daily movement and repair. There are 20 amino acids in our bodies but only 9 are essential amino acids, meaning that our body does not naturally produce these and so we must gain these from the foods we eat to sustain these bodily processes.

The 9 amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine (good luck pronouncing them!). One of these amino acids, leucine, is particularly important for resistance training vegetarians as it assists the processes for muscle repair and protein synthesis, among various other roles. Leucine is mainly found in meat, poultry and egg sources. Very low levels are found in plant-based foods, which can be particularly difficult for vegetarians and vegans especially, so it is important to do your research and make sure you are getting enough of this particular amino acid.

Overall, the shift into the world of veganism and vegetarianism isn’t as scary or overwhelming as you might think. An open mind and the willingness to try new things is really all you need.

Have fun on your plant-based journey!

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