To be or not to be… vegetarian?

I was a vegetarian for more or less one year. That happened in 2005, and it was not a result of religious beliefs, health issues/concerns, or diet fads. It was because I had braces on my teeth from 2004 until 2007 (yes, three years of torture) and eating meat at some point was a real annoyance for me. Not only I was afraid of breaking one of the acrylic braces (I had them on my upper teeth) while tearing a piece of beef, but I started to hate all the bits of fibrous flesh that got stuck in every available space. Smiling in that situation is not very nice, and the cleaning process not easy at all.

I was fortunate enough to have a very caring mom who still cooked for me even when I was old enough to cook for her (but remember I come from a retrograde country where you live under your parents’ roof until you get married or decide to live on your own), and that she was happy to cook two or more different meals to please everyone at home. My pseudo-vegetarianism consisted in substituting soy “meat” for real meat in burgers, stews, and sauces. I ate meat when there was no other choice but most of the times I stayed away from it.

A few months after my relationship with Alvaro (who was a pseudo-vegetarian at that time, too) started. Time passed by and I got my braces removed. I switched back to meat, except for a few dishes that were tastier with fake meat, like my mom’s soy “meat” burgers and her wheat stew with soy “minced meat”. Alvaro was still a vegetarian (his reasons were more karma-related) for a while, until he realised that he didn’t need to and embraced again a life full of steaks and bacon… just kidding! he’s not the typical meat eater.

Our food intake post-Turbulence Training changed a bit. Basically I cut down our starches intake, which in our country is very high. Our ancestors in the Andes ate lots of tubers (countless types of potatoes, sweet potatoes, oca, etc.), corn, yuca (mandioca or cassava), pseudo-grains (quinua, kiwicha or amaranth), etc. Then the Spaniards arrived with rice and the Chinese, Japanese and Italians arrived with pasta, and the nutritional disaster began. Peruvians eat rice with everything, including other starches. It’s really common to have the rice and mashed potatoes, rice and boiled potatoes, rice and potato chips, etc, in one dish, and it’s perfectly possible to have combinations like rice, potato and yuca, as well. Starches are the staple of our traditional foods, probably because they’re cheap and abundant, and there’s a wide range of textures and tastes to choose from. But they’re starches. And they’re evil. Not really, because technically speaking if you are carb tolerant or if you had just worked out hard, you’re entitled to eat good starches (non-processed ones). But most of the time it’s wise to stick to a lean protein + good fat + veggies combo.

Our main sources of protein when living in Lima were animal: chicken, fish, eggs, cheese, ostrich, and some beef. For some time we ate some kind of meat every day for lunch and dinner. It seemed ok, because in order to build muscle you need animal protein, right? Not so fast! I used to think that before, and therefore our diet included meat and whey protein powder. We ate legumes as well, because we love them. We drank lots of milk, but at some point my gastritis got worse, the doctor recommended avoiding it, or choosing a non-lactose one. We made the switch because Alvaro noticed that he digested it better, too.

One day I noticed something interesting, both John Berardi and Craig Ballantyne, among other fitness experts, started writing that being a vegetarian was not a bad idea after all. I remember reading in Precision Nutrition that maybe the key to eating better was being a vegetarian and using good quality meat as a supplement, i.e. eating it not very often. That made perfect sense to me, specially considering the enviromental and health side effects of having such lifestyle. Now that we live in Sydney, where food costs 3 to 4 times more than in Lima, the economical factor became important, too. Organic beef and chicken are available but very expensive. About twice as much as the regular stuff. Kangaroo is a pretty good option: high in protein, low in fat, sustainable, and cheap. It also has a nice taste, similar to beef, but a bit stronger. It’s available in supermarkets as steaks (marinated or not), sausages, and minced.

On the seafood side, I must admit I’m still confused. I don’t know where and what to buy in order to make a sensible, healthy, and sustainable choice. I love seafood, even when it tastes bland here, but all the information I have read hasn’t got into my system yet. We eat seafood (mostly fish because Alvaro has allergies to prawns, crab, etc.) about once a week, and I’m aiming to increase that frequency. Maybe twice a week, plus a day with other kind of meat, and the rest of the time vegetarian plates.

The other thing that keeps bugging me is the dairy issue. Is it good or not? People say we’re not meant to be drinking cow’s milk because we’re not cattle, but what about cheese? Can I give up drinking milk and still have my cheese? Please? I’ve lowered my milk intake to almost nothing. Maybe one cup of non-lactose milk a week. But I have some yogurt everyday. And cheese. I love cheese and I’m sure that it would be really hard to let it go. Maybe as hard as quitting smoking (I’m guessing here because I never went through that). I’ll be talking about milk and soy later, as it’s such a vast topic.