I’m for experimentation. I’m for trying things. We need to try some things, because doing what we have always done because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t work.
I set out to try the vegetarian diet for a week from Monday May 13th to Sunday May 19th, 2019.
These are the questions I aimed to answer:
I tracked macros and calories, and kept a record of the micronutrients discussed here to the best of my abilities. However, if counting macros and calories isn’t an exact science, counting micronutrients is practically guesstimating, so take my results with a grain of salt.
Question 1: Complete protein
To make calculations easy, I didn’t consider combinations of incomplete proteins.
I was aiming for 1gr of protein per pound of bodyweight and, given my recent injury and inability to work out, my calories were set at maintenance.
In order to meet this target, I consumed a variety of complete protein sources, such as whey protein powder, eggs and egg whites, tofu, quark, cheese, yogurt, and Quorn products (which primarily contain mycoprotein, considered to have a complete essential amino acid profile).
Protein wasn’t a real concern for me, but it was good to have my hypothesis confirmed.
Question 2: Other nutrients
Before the experiment, I expected to struggle with iron and calcium.
In fact, I wasn’t able to get sufficient iron, even without accounting for the possibility that not all of the iron I did have was absorbed effectively. I could only manage a little more than half the dietary reference value for my age and biological sex.
There are two main reasons for this, a general one and one that’s more specific to me.
The former is that the recommended amounts of iron for biological females in my age range are higher than for anybody else.
The latter is that, although there are plant-based sources of iron, I don’t eat a lot of them on a regular basis, especially not those that are higher in iron than others.
I tried to make an effort, but I eat primarily for enjoyment and to sustain my lifting, not to maintain this diet. The experiment therefore seems to suggest that these three goals can’t coexist without more focus on food than I’m willing to have.
On the other hand, calcium surprised me. I actually hit or exceeded the dietary reference value every day, give or take 50mg.
Fun fact – as a kid, I hated dairy and my mother used to be very concerned with my calcium intake.
Now I eat yogurt at least once a day, but I’m still not much of a dairy aficionado. So this experiment “forced” me to include more quark, yogurt, and cheese in my meals in order to reach my protein target.
Unlike the attempt with iron, this was an effortless change, and I have been eating dairy a little more often than before ever since. Who knew I would come to like it?
On the bright side (literally), I went out for plenty of walks and had egg yolks every day, so I’m quite confident about my vitamin D intake.
In general, I eat enough eggs for a family of four, therefore vitamin B12 wasn’t an issue, either.
Moreover, I made sure to have tofu at least every other day and leafy vegetables with all meals except breakfast, so, fingers crossed, I did well enough with omega-3s (ALA, at least).
One nutrient I didn’t expect to have to worry about as much was zinc.
Again, I don’t eat a lot of (or any) vegetarian zinc-rich foods, like nuts, seeds, high-fat cheese, and beans. I just didn’t realise how rare it actually is for me to have them, excluding the odd can of beans and my daily dose of peanut butter.
I couldn’t meet the reference intake for zinc, but it made me notice I don’t have beans and pulses very often.
Even though zinc isn’t as much of a concern now that I’m eating meat again, I’ve been having a variety of beans more often since the experiment.
After all, they’re cheap and convenient: I just add half a can or a whole can to some vegetables, another protein source, and a complex carbohydrate source, and that’s me settled for an easy lunch.
They also have a plethora of health benefits: they’re a low-calorie, low-fat, vegetarian-friendly source of both carbs and (incomplete) protein, fibre, potassium, and other minerals. What’s not to like?
To answer the original question, I nailed four nutrients out of six. As a bonus, I noticed some small changes that could make my diet better.
Question 3: Convenience
A funny thing about me is that I have an app to track pretty much every aspect of my life, including my weekly budget and expenditure.
I expected that I would go over that budget for the experiment, because Quorn products and other vegetarian- and vegan-friendly foods are rather expensive in the UK.
However, dairy and eggs aren’t, and I had my fill of both, so my vegetarian grocery list was overall the same price as my usual food haul.
Nevertheless, every day I ate twice the amount of protein powder I would have on a “non-vegetarian” day. If I sustained this diet for longer, I would run out of protein powder sooner than on my regular diet. And if I had to buy protein powder twice as often, it would result in a 50% increase in my total expense for this product.
Moreover, I wouldn’t be too keen on the idea of relying excessively on protein powder, as I prefer to have regular foods to hit my macronutrient targets.
Still, I was surprised at how convenient vegetarianism can be if you are strategic, going for meat alternatives when they are on sale, and if you include plenty of inexpensive dairy and eggs in your meals.
Question 4: Overall considerations
First of all, I decided to cut the experiment short and returned to my usual omnivorous diet on Saturday.
I have to admit I didn’t feel comfortable with this way of eating.
I find that I feel at my best when I’m on a high-carb, high-protein, low-fat diet. However, many vegetarian sources of important nutrients are high in fat, such as nuts and seeds.
For me, that’s a problem, because I’d rather have carbs than those foods.
Moreover, I already eat a high-fibre diet, so I was having even more fibre. While that’s great for some people, who wouldn’t eat much fibre at all on an omnivorous diet, it wasn’t so great for me.
More isn’t always better.
Suffice to say, I found myself hitting the gentlemen’s room more times in a day than I’m ok with, and also experienced some gastrointestinal distress and bloating.
Ultimately, my main preoccupation is that, if I were to become a “full-time vegetarian,” I might have to make sacrifices, either in terms of food enjoyment or athletic performance, in order to get enough nutrients. That’s a trade-off I’m not willing to make.
On the other hand, I might repeat this short-term experiment every now and again. The reason for that is that it encouraged me to vary my diet at a time when it was getting a little stale.
I believe variety is an important yet underrated aspect of a balanced diet, so this was my favourite experimental outcome.
In the end, this is my personal opinion, based on a five-day flirt with vegetarianism. While I don’t think it’s a good idea for me in long run, this doesn’t change my belief that a vegetarian diet can work very well for others, as outlined in my previous in-depth article on the topic.
I’m also glad I gave this a try because I want to experience different ways of eating, so I can better understand different clients. It’s fun, too!
In Future Episodes:
Next week, I’ll share my personal experience recovering from an injury that kept me out of the gym for two weeks.
I’ll consider the science behind injury and detraining, and provide some tips on what to do to maintain your gains and take care of yourself.
See you then!
Have you ever done an experiment on yourself? How did it go?
A personal trainer who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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