Whether you’re a gluten-free gal, vegetarian, soy-sensitive guy, vegan or anyone who requires or has chosen a special diet, chances are you have heard this question:
BUT WHAT DO YOU EAT?!
People — family members, friends and strangers alike — very often express concern with the fact that you have eliminated a common food item or ingredient from your diet, and feel it necessary to make sure you are getting the food and nutrients your body requires.
And, by the way, I don’t blame them! Eliminating an ingredient, like gluten, or entire food group(s) (in the case of vegetarians/vegans), is definitely not a task to be taken lightly. It is of utmost importance that we do in fact make sure we are getting the vitamins, minerals and calories we need.
In addition to missing out on proper nutrients, one of the other mistakes I have seen crop up when modifying a diet is the over-consumption of a particular food. I’ve heard of vegetarians who only rely on pasta and gain weight in the process. Gluten-free dudes who rely solely on lettuce and fruit because they are worried about contamination (a very worthy concern). And vegans who lean so heavily on soy or other meat alternatives that their bodies have gone completely wonky.
Now, let’s get one thing straight: I’m not an expert. All I know is the things that have worked for me throughout my process, including a number of them that are from the health experts I ♥ the most. And, yes, we should all consult physicians before making a dietary switch. But for the moments of confusion that follow, I offer you a few things that have been helpful to me …
1. Stop trying to replace meat. I am a vegetarian who sometimes eats fish (I think it’s what they like to call a pescatarian, but I don’t dig on labels). I go lengthy periods of time without fish (it really is an occasional thing) and I’ve dabbled in veganism, but haven’t decided to entirely make the switch just yet. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made and have seen other people make is the assumption that because we are eliminating meat, we therefore have to replace it with meat-like products. Sure, tofu is OK, and so are soy hot dogs or “chicken” nuggets made from wheat protein (if, of course, you are not gluten-free). But treat ‘em like everything else — eat them in moderation and as a part of a well-rounded diet that includes tons of fresh vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
2. Dairy is not the only source of calcium. Did you know that 1 cup of calcium-fortified orange juice has the same amount of calcium as 1 cup of milk (300 milligrams)? Or that a cup of broccoli (178 milligrams) has more calcium than 1/4 cup of cottage cheese (120 milligrams)? The point is, you can get your calcium and keep those bones strong without the help of milk at all.
3. I am a vegetarian/gluten-free eater/vegan/etc. and, therefore, food is boring. Whether you’re choosing a special diet or just been given a diagnosis that it’s time to cut some foods that are making you sick, I promise there are plenty of food options that are delicious and sometimes downright sinfully good. Vegetarians do not have to exist solely on pasta and cheese (can you say veggies and fruit?) and gluten-free eaters can still have bread (like this and this). Will it be an adjustment? Absolutely. Will you still enjoy your food? Mmm, hmmm! Might your new dietary decisions/requirements help you to discover a love for cooking and baking? You just never know.
4. You have to take vitamins like crazy to make up for what you’re missing. Again, just like the point I made about calcium, your foods can and should be the source of your vitamins. Even in the case of a vegan diet, you can still get your iron (seems to be a big concern with the grandmas). True story: A broiled sirloin steak has 0.9 milligrams of iron (per 100 calories), while cooked lentils have 2.9 milligrams of iron (per 100 calories). Spinach has 15.7 milligrams of iron (per 100 calories)! Remember Popeye? Yeah, he knew a thing or two about iron.
5. That being said. There are a few supplements worth considering. I love this article by Kris Carr which highlights the benefits of a few supplements, like probiotics, green powders and digestive enzymes (there’s also a more extensive description in her book, Crazy Sexy Diet: Eat Your Veggies, Ignite Your Spark, and Live Like You Mean It!). Are they always necessary? No. For the most part, you’ll get the good stuff from your food. But sometimes a lil’ boost doesn’t hurt. (NOTE: When choosing supplements, be sure to look for the label you require — i.e. vegan, gluten-free, etc.)
6. When in doubt, do a little research. Throughout the years I have spent learning about healthy living and applying it to my life, books (and nowadays, the Internet) have been one of the most valuable resources I could get my hands on. My bookshelf is packed with a wealth of books about eating and living well, and they are a few of my most prized possessions! Some of my favorites:
Vegan and Vegetarian
- Crazy Sexy Diet: Eat Your Veggies, Ignite Your Spark, and Live Like You Mean It!
- Eat, Drink & Be Vegan: Everyday Vegan Recipes Worth Celebrating
- Peas and Thank You: Simple Meatless Meals the Whole Family Will Love
- The Kind Diet: A Simple Guide to Feeling Great, Losing Weight, and Saving the Planet
- Clean Food: A Seasonal Guide to Eating Close to the Source with More Than 200 Recipes for a Healthy and Sustainable You
- Skinny Bitch: Ultimate Everyday Cookbook: Crazy Delicious Recipes that Are Good to the Earth and Great for Your Bod
- Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef
- 125 Gluten-Free Vegetarian Recipes: Quick and Delicious Mouthwatering Dishes for the Healthy Cook (a new favorite!)
- BabyCakes: Vegan, (Mostly) Gluten-Free, and (Mostly) Sugar-Free Recipes from New York’s Most Talked-About Bakery
- BabyCakes Covers the Classics: Gluten-Free Vegan Recipes from Donuts to Snickerdoodles
- Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual
- The China Study
- Marilu Henner’s Total Health Makeover (I read this book when I was 14 years old and it completely changed my outlook on healthy living.)
- What to Eat
This is, of course, only a few of my favorites. You can find more of my most-loved books here!
When it’s all said and done, the truth is there is not a one-size-fits-all prescription for maintaining a special diet. What works for you is simply that — what works for you. My point in writing this post was to address some of the questions I get from readers about how I have learned to lead a healthy lifestyle (with the necessary cookie treats along the way). I hope this was helpful!
In other news, I have a very busy few weeks coming up soon (starting on January 1st) as the result of some exciting changes (more on that soon). Because of that, I am looking for a few volunteer guest bloggers who would like to share their wonderful tips, recipes and other assorted knowledge on the blog when my presence is required elsewhere.
Interested? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.