Winter is here, and I for one am already working to avoid gaining what I call “hibernation weight”. There seems to be a double whammy that hits when the days are dark and the cold winds blow. We crave comfort food and hunker down to stay warm. Let this get out of control and you can add some unflattering insulation as winter takes its course. This is why we have to keep moving, hitting the gym or the trail or whatever we must to stay active. And we have to be vigilant about not falling into the comfort-me-with-cookies trap.
Yes, vegetarians have to watch out for weight gain, just like everybody else. In fact, some vegetarians can sabotage their efforts to be healthy with a couple of simple mistakes. I’ve never been a follower of the Atkin’s type regimen, but there is something to be learned from it.
You see, hunger can be a hormonal thing. Specifically, insulin, leptin and ghrelin. Insulin is the hormone that allows you to use the sugars you ingest for energy. If you are insulin resistant, which about 1/3 of the US population are, you are not able to burn the sugars properly and get the energy. This makes you hungry. The foods that trigger this the most are refined carbohydrates like white bread, pasta and sugar. If you don’t eat enough protein and fat along with your carbs, you will continually crave more carbs. Because of the insulin problem, you feel tired and hungry, and can’t lose weight.
Then there are the other two, leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is your friend, the one that tells you you are full. Ghrelin is the one that sends the message to your brain to eat.
The good news, healthy eaters, is that eating adequate protein, good fats and nutritious foods helps balance all of this. So, as vegetarians, we just have to make sure our meals have some protein and fat alongside any carbs. It’s also way better to stick with whole grains. Keep those simple carbs to a minimum, and always eat them with protein and fat.
New research also shows that people who don’t get adequate sleep also get out of balance, and make more ghrelin and less leptin. Sleep deprivation makes you too tired to move but starved for junk food.
Lest we fall into old mythologies about vegetarians, let’s remember how easy it is to get your protein. A cup of oatmeal with a cup of soymilk is 13 gs. Starting the day with whole grains and a healthy helping of either dairy or non dairy milk, some nuts, some eggs, or if you have time, a tofu scramble, is easy to do. A protein-packed smoothie is easy, too. This is the meal where you want to get those hormones off to a good start.
Lunch is easily protein-boosted with cheese, beans, tofu or tempeh, or even the generous amounts in quinoa, which has 9 grams protein in a cup, cooked. A cup of cooked navy beans has 16 g, 2 Tbs of peanut butter has 8g.
Dinner is usually built around protein, just 3 ounces of seitan in your stir fry adds 31 g, and 4 ounces of tofu has 11 g. A cup of cooked spinach has 5 g. There is a little protein in just about every whole food. The up-side of beans, nuts and seeds are that they contain many healthful fats, fiber, and antioxidants, as well as protein.
So, you certainly don’t have to eat meat to get enough protein. And you can have that lean, healthy vegetarian glow, as long as you don’t fall into the refined carb trap. Everybody can enjoy a little treat now and then, and as long as you are treating yourself, it’s better if it has some fat, too.