The Unlikely Vegetarian

By Pete Williams

I’m 36 hours away from making it through Lent without eating meat and consuming only trace amounts of dairy.

I’m by no means a by-the-book-Catholic, but in recent years I’ve used Lent as a challenge to make lifestyle changes. In 2010 and last year, I went without television. Not one minute. While I went back to watching TV on Easter Sunday both times, I found the experience cut down my television viewing considerably.

For years I’ve wanted to try a vegetarian or even a vegan diet. In January of 2011, I dealt with a kidney stone and even after cutting back on protein intake, tests last fall showed I still was consuming too much animal protein, which can lead to more stones. That’s incentive enough, but I also wanted to improve my performance in endurance sports and feel better overall.

A vegetarian diet can do all of those things and I figured Lent would offer a good 46-day challenge. I would drop meat altogether, but would eat fish and consume the occasional Mix1 protein recovery drink, which contains whey protein, a byproduct of cheese manufacturing. Other than that, no dairy, which wouldn’t be much of a stretch for someone who rarely consumes any. Jack LaLanne, who never consumed dairy and lived to 96, stressed that humans are the only animals to consume dairy after the suckling stage.

One of the salmon salads at Fitlife Foods

My Lenten experiment confirmed what I’ve long suspected. A vegan, vegetarian or “pescetarian” (vegetarian with fish) diet, like any other nutrition plan, is mostly about planning and habits. Most of us eat bad stuff not so much because we like to but because it’s ingrained in our lifestyles. In recent years I’ve cut out bread, pasta, and beer, realizing I consumed that stuff out of habit, not because I loved it. It’s easy to substitute things you prefer, especially when they’re better for you, such as additional veggies and the occasional glass of wine.

I figured the same thing would happen with giving up meat and that proved to be the case. I didn’t miss it at all and found it easy to resist, even last weekend at our neighbors’ annual pig roast. Of course, I had a few key weapons:

Vegan and vegetarian friendly

1. CHIPOTLE: I love eating at Chipotle Mexican Grill, which makes it easy to justify consuming meat since theirs comes from only farm-raised, grass-fed animals not injected with hormones and antibiotics. I typically get a burrito bowl with brown rice, black beans, fajita vegetables, chicken or carnitas (pork), along with mild and corn salsas, a sprinkling of cheese, lettuce, and guacamole. The chicken version comes to 805 calories, including 57 grams of protein and 2,150 mg of sodium. That’s a lot of protein and salt for anyone, especially someone who has had a kidney stone.

Eliminating the chicken and cheese, however, brought the burrito bowl down to 515 calories with just 17 grams of protein and 1,600 mg of sodium. My bill with a cup of water also dropped from nearly $9 to $6.69. That’s an incredible value. People spend more than that at fast food restaurants for 1,000 empty calories. Chipotle CEO Steve Ells has said he’s cut down on his meat consumption lately and after eating veggie burrito bowls, I can see how it’s an easy transition to make.

2. FITLIFE FOODS: Fitlife Foods, which has three locations in the Tampa Bay area, provides nutritious, ready-made meals packed full of nutrients. They cater to busy professionals and recreational athletes – company founder David Osterweil is a marathoner – and the nutrient-dense meals chef Andrew Ruga creates are designed for the high-performance athlete and professional.

I had been enjoying Fitlife’s chicken and beef dishes before Lent, but found the large versions of Miso Salmon (650 calories, 47g of protein), Citrus Salmon Salad (360 calories, 21g), and Lemon Pepper Tilapia (430 calories, 57g) made me forget about the meat.

Fitlife Foods founder David Osterweil

The tilapia, which comes with a side of green beans, packs a lot of protein. But since I usually went with one fish meal and one vegan dish a day, I didn’t worry about that.

The rest of my diet stayed intact: breakfast of oatmeal and a smoothie consisting of fruit, almonds, and almond butter; a lunch or dinner of black beans, sliced tomatoes, and lots of asparagus; snacks of Clif or Lara bars, fruit/almond butter, and my cheat treat of anything chocolate.

The results have been dramatic. The weight dropped from 163 to as low as 156.6, a figure I haven’t seen since the late 1980s. (I’m at 158.8 today). I fared well at two obstacle races in the last five weeks and despite getting a late jump on triathlon training for next weekend’s Escape from Fort DeSoto race season kickoff, I’m biking and swimming almost in mid-season form – not like someone who virtually ignored both all winter.

Best of all, the mysterious migraines I had in January and February have disappeared.

Nutrition plans are most effective when you can link them to feeling and performing better, not just looking better.

That’s why I just might make this Lenten experiment a permanent thing.

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