Phase One: Pescatarian – Success! I think…

29 Sep

The end of September marks the end of phase one of my veg experiment. Let’s recap my plans and goals and see how I did:

July: I will follow a (mostly) Pescatarian* diet with a meat allowance of 4 servings for the entire month.

*Pescatarian: a vegetarian who also eats fish.

August: I will follow a (mostly) Pescatarian diet with a meat allowance of 2 servings for the entire month.

September: I will follow a (mostly) Pescatarian diet with a meat allowance of 1 serving for the entire month.

Check. Check. And check! I followed this plan to a T, and this slow and steady approach seems to be working so far. I have only craved meat on a couple of occasions. In the beginning, I wished for regular chicken tenders instead of a vegan replacement. And more recently, I couldn’t stop thinking about beef roast. I solved this by making a roast to eat for my final meat allowance. Sadly, (or luckily?), when I finally ate it, the flavor was a disappointment. Not to mention, the heartburn.

From a mental standpoint, the experiment is going well. I’m not having any issues with disordered eating. Subject to change now that an entire food group (meat) is officially off the table. Having a meat allowance definitely helped make the transition less jarring.

Physically, however, I feel like hell lately. I have no idea if this is diet related. I’m inclined to think it’s not, because my diet hasn’t changed that drastically yet. I  doubt these few tweaks would make that big of a difference, especially when I am taking supplements, but who knows.

I had a doctor appointment yesterday. My doctor is running a slew of tests which will help rule out some of the more obvious dietary causes. I am a weirdo medical nerd and am super excited to see what my levels are. Here’s everything we are looking into:

  1. Magnesium levels – I have never had this looked at before. If anything, a vegetarian diet should help improve my magnesium status. Magnesium is found in healthy vegan staples, like legumes and leafy greens. It’s also found in dark chocolate, which serves as its own food group in my diet. I take magnesium supplements, because it may be beneficial for my fibromyalgia. Magnesium deficiency can mimic fibromyalgia pain, because magnesium plays a pivotal role in muscle relaxation.
  2. Vitamin B12 – I have never had this looked at before either. This is THE nutrient of concern when it comes to a vegan diet. Vegans must supplement or eat fortified foods to assure they get enough of this crucial nutrient. Vitamin B12 is only available in its natural form by eating animal products. However, even meat eaters, especially older adults, may struggle to obtain adequate vitamin B12 without supplementation. I started supplementing with vitamin B12 since I’m eating fewer animal products and plan to cut them all out eventually. And since my intestines have a hard time with absorption, I thought it would be smart to have my current vitamin B12 status looked at. The blood test for vitamin B12 is not as accurate as the urine test, but when I requested the latter, the lab tech looked at me as if I had two heads and replied, “We don’t do that here.” Oh well. Only the blood test for now I guess.
  3. Glucose – This is one of the values measured by doctors to diagnosis diabetes and pre-diabetes. Considering plant-based diets tend to be carb heavy, I have probably been eating more carbohydrates than I normally would. I am not one of those people who believes carbohydrates are inherently evil. Most of my carbs come from healthy sources, such as beans and fruit, so I’m not too worried. However, I have so many random symptoms and some of them seem to correlate with meals, so I figured this would be a good marker to look at. I requested a glucose screen, but my doctor recommended a full BMP (basic metabolic panel), because she said the way insurance billed for a glucose test, it would cost about the same to run a full panel. I am all for more information, so I agreed. In addition, to glucose, a BMP looks at potassium and sodium levels, as well as other fancy kidney function markers, such as BUN (blood urea nitrogen) and creatinine.
  4. Hgb (hemoglobin) and Ferritin – Hemoglobin looks at current iron status and ferritin shows the level of stored iron. Vegetarians can get plenty of iron in their diets, but they may need to make a bit more of an effort than some meat eaters. I don’t supplement iron, because this is one of those nutrients that can cause some pretty wicked tummy upset (just what I need!). Side effects of iron supplementation can be reduced by taking the pills with meals. Unfortunately, this also reduces the absorption by half. Bummer deal! I am open to taking an iron supplement if my levels are found to be low, but otherwise, I’ll just use the tricks I learned in my dietetics training: pair vitamin C rich foods with iron-rich plant sources to increase the absorption of iron, cook in cast iron cookware, and eat plenty of beans, dark chocolate, and leafy greens (Bonus: magnesium!) I’m also still eating eggs and fish on occasion, which are decent sources of iron as well.
  5. Thyroid Panel – Most practitioners will only look at your TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) if they want to test your thyroid function. I had 2 TSH screens in the past: one came back normal and one was borderline high, indicating subclinical hypothyroidism. I have been fiending to see the results of a full thyroid panel for awhile now. Many fibromyalgia symptoms mimic thyroid disease, and I want to get a clearer picture of what that very important thyroid gland is up to. I also recently discovered thyroid dysfunction trends on my mom’s side of the family, so now I’m extra curious! Iodine deficiency and excess can lead to thyroid issues. I currently supplement with iodine. This is a nutrient vegans need to be cognizant of, particularly if they do not use iodized salt. Many Americans get their iodine in a second-hand fashion: the iodine used to disinfect cow udders and milk cans makes its way into dairy products. Um, gross.
  6. Vitamin D – I’ve had this looked at twice before, and it’s always in the correct range, but I’ve been supplementing with vitamin D for years, and it’s a good thing to keep tabs on. When you live in the tundra, and you’re in the nutritional know, you just gotta!

That’s it! In addition to the supplements mentioned above, I also take an omega-3 (DHA+EPA) supplement. People tend to think of fish oils when they hear omega-3s, but fish are only good sources of omega-3s, because they eat algae. Vegans can go straight to the source and take algae supplements instead of fish oil to get their omega-3s. (This is the kind I currently take.) The standard American diet contains large amounts of omega-6 fatty acids. For optimum health, a proper balance of omega-3 (anti-inflammatory) fatty acids to omega-6 (pro-inflammatory) fatty acids is important. An omega-3 supplement may be beneficial to help achieve this. I still eat vegan mock meats and junk foods, and these are full of processed seed and vegetable oils which provide omega-6s galore!

I found it annoying (though well-intentioned) when my doctor expressed concern about vegetarian* diets. She asked if I was eating a vegan diet, and I explained that no, I still eat eggs and dairy and fish on occasion. But even after explaining that, she said it was very difficult to get a healthy vegetarian diet right. Have you seen the standard American diet? Because that’s nothing to write home about either! I’m not saying a healthy vegan diet doesn’t require extra vigilance, but when a person only cuts out meat and continues to eat eggs and dairy, it’s hardly cause for alarm. Many cultures eat vegetarian diets for the entire duration of their lives. Also, I’m a dietitian. If I can’t figure out how to follow a balanced vegetarian diet, then I should never have received these credentials, because it’s NOT HARD. The secret to a healthy vegetarian diet is simple. You know all those foods you are supposed to eat? Yep, just do that and eat beans instead of lean meats. Impossible, I know.

*Vegetarian: typically refers to lacto-ovo vegetarian, as in a person who refrains from eating fish and meat but still eats eggs and dairy products.

Here’s what’s in store for the next 3 months:

October: I will follow a full Pescatarion diet (No more meat allowance)

November: I will follow a (mostly) vegetarian diet with a fish/bug* allowance of 4 servings for the entire month

(*Cricket protein powder! Excited to try it!)

December: I will follow a (mostly) vegetarian diet with a fish/bug allowance of 2 servings for the entire month

Alright, that’s enough rambling for one blog post. I’ll update when I know more about the ongoing mystery that is my body and the relevance of its flaring symptoms to my diet changes.

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