Can A Vegetarian Diet Be Bad?

Editor’s Note: Carissa, creator of Mama’s In The Kitchen, is a mom from the Healthy Child community who, like many of you, has a story to tell about when she “woke-up” to toxics in our environment. Hers is an inspiring story ignited by serious health issues her baby boy faced – and resolved by her commitment to reclaiming her kitchen and eating real food. Check it out:

Below is her call-to-action for all parents to reclaim the kitchen and start feeding our families real food again.

Carissa, Mama’s In The Kitchen:

I ‘got’ it. I was vegetarian in high school and college because I learned that a plant-based diet was better for my health and for the planet. But on a vegetarian diet, I was sluggish and gained at least 20 pounds in my first semester of college. Even my own mother didn’t recognize me at the airport when she came to pick me up for Christmas break. I had to stand right in front of her, wave my hands before her eyes and say “Hi!” It is definitely not a fond homecoming memory.

I confess I did go a little food crazy in college. Sugar-coated cereal for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Countless dining hall visits for Ranch dressing, Honey Mustard dressing, Mayonnaise, American cheese melts, Pesto Pasta, cookies, ice cream with sprinkles galore at the dining hall. I also got a job at the Student Center Cafe, thinking I would learn how to cook for myself. Well, I didn’t learn a thing. The only thing I did learn was how to use the griddle and fryer, slap flat foods together to make sandwiches and slice tomatoes. Everything else was pre-packaged and pre-made somewhere else. Looking back, I realize that most of the food I bought or ate or touched were highly processed foods – not whole foods.

A Processed Culture

I understand why we are attracted to ready-made convenience foods: they do not require much work or energy. We want food NOW without having to work for it. We want to be healthy but we don’t want to put the effort into actually preparing our meals directly from whole foods. We want things EASY.

The thing is though, like most things, it requires work on our part to get something really worth anything. Nutrition is no exception – plant-based or not.

The Difference

Consider this: When a fruit or vegetable is 5 days old, it will contain only 40% of it’s original nutrients. How about processed foods with long shelf-lives?

Plant-based whole-foods are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds. They are in their natural state and are not packaged, canned, bottled or boxed. Most of the time, you can eat them fresh (washed or not) or they may require some time and attention (cleaning, prepping, dressing/marinating, cooking).

Processed foods, on the other hand, require little time and attention. Most are ready to eat as is (junk food) or require some cooking (frozen dinners). They are foods that have been so drastically altered from their natural state. They are anything canned, boxed, bottled and packaged. They are foods that are full of preservatives, artificial flavors and artificial coloring. They include anything refined (like white flours and sugars), any hydrogenated fats, any processed meats, anything with soy fillers, artificial food grade chemicals and additives.

Plant-based processed foods are a whole niche market dedicated to serving ready made Veggie Meats and Veggie Dairy to vegans and vegetarians. Unfortunately, these are highly processed foods too, containing especially high amounts of soy (most of which is genetically modified).

What’s The Big Deal?

Although we call them ‘food’, processed foods are not readily recognized by the body. They are seen as alien matter and our white blood cells will be on attack mode as soon as they enter our system. Processed foods create toxins in our systems and cause degenerative diseases. For our planet, processed foods require more energy and packing material. Most of all, processed foods create more waste.

What’s more? 75% of all processed foods contain genetically modified ingredients – even foods labeled organic! Of all seeds planted in the US, 93% of all soy, 86% of all corn and 93% of all canola seeds are genetically modified. According to Monica Eng of the Los Angeles Times, their bi-products “have become such common ingredients in processed foods that even one of the nation’s top organic food retailers says it hasn’t been able to avoid stocking some products that contain them.” People are generally unaware of foods containing GMOs: only 26% of Americans think they have eaten anything genetically modified and only 28% believed genetically modified ingredients were sold in stores. (Read about The Ills of GMOs.)

Repercussions: Our Children’s Health

Studies have shown that processed foods are contributing to our children’s emotional and/or health disorders. Recently, processed foods have been shown to adversely affect our children’s intelligence. And yet, processed foods are still everywhere: in home kitchens, restaurants, cafeterias, and worse of all, they are used as gifts and rewards for children.

A few months ago, my friend Christina told me her children’s teacher at school was still giving Potato Chip parties every Friday for the best performing student of the week. The kids also received daily Candy Rewards for good behavior. My niece Lia is only in preschool and candy rewards are there too. And it doesn’t end at school. There are always boxed juices, frosted cupcakes and pinatas full of more candy at birthday parties. Doctors visits end with lollipops. People who want to do good, like Cookies for Cancer, raise money for cancer research by selling cookies with vegetable shortening, white sugar, sweetened condensed milk, packaged refrigerated cookie dough and Angel Coconut Flakes. Then there is Easter Bunnies, then Halloween Trick or Treating, then Holiday Sweets… These are all occasions for highly processed foods with genetically modified soy, corn and canola products no doubt.

What adults are essentially saying to children is “You are so good! Here’s some junk food that causes disease!” Why does our culture encourage this shameful and imbalanced exchange? Is it correct to reward our good children with processed foods containing empty calories and zero nutrients? Is it right that we give them foods that negatively affect their future health? Is it acceptable that by rewarding with these processed foods that children will be more resistant to eating whole foods? Is it suitable that we are allowing children to crave junk foods by using them as rewards? According to Joanne Ikeda, a nutrition education specialist highly regarded for her work on childhood obesity, these are all the factors why foods (especially candy) must not be used as rewards for good behavior.

What’s a mama to do? Visit Carissa’s blog to learn her solutions and recipes. We’ll also be featuring some of her recipes in our Eat Healthy archive, as well as more of her passionate writing here on our blog.

What do you think? Have you begun to “un-process” your diet? Where did you begin?