The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

I’ll have fries with a side of fries

thumb Veggie1I am a vegetarian, and have been for most my life, even though my understanding of what was involved took some years to develop.

I remember a time when I was five-years-old, my grandma left her kitchen, with me leaning over the table, my tiny legs dangling over the chair, while she went upstairs to call my uncle in for his chicken curry.

She returned to find a plate of curry sauce and me asking, "Chicken isn't really meat is it Nana?"

Young veggie

My mom became a vegetarian when I was five, inspired by the ethical and health issues presented in a book by Paul McCartney's late wife Linda. I copied my mom's example, slowly cutting out beef and pork, then eventually chicken and fish.

It is not that I dislike the taste of meat, I simply don't want to eat animals. Because I haven't eaten meat for such a long time, the thought of doing so turns my stomach.

Meat is murder, I guess

This is my personal decision, but others — especially here in Calgary — often feel the need to weigh in on that decision. I find it surprising, the amount of people angered upon discovering I am a vegetarian.

I used to think it was silly because my dietary decisions and values don't really affect anyone else, but then again things like religious belief or sexual orientation don't affect anyone else and they still anger some people.

When people are annoyed by my "lifestyle choice" I try to express that I'm not of the slogan-chanting, "meat is murder" mindset. I refuse to eat animals but I don't think it is morally objectionable for others to.

I'm not a protest vegetarian as people sometimes assume. I don't lecture friends about eating meat, and it doesn't bother me to watch people consume it. In fact, I will even cook meat for others; the only thing that repulses me is cutting through thick, raw pieces.

What do you eat?

Being a vegetarian certainly cuts down your food options. I have found it makes it difficult to meet nutritional requirements. A recent stance taken by French schools has vegetarians protesting for just this reason. The new policy dictates the amount of protein, iron, calcium and fresh fruit that school lunches should contain, with various meat dishes covering the protein portion of the meal and no vegetarian alternative.

Protest groups have expressed that meat consumption is being forced on the 6 million French students and those wishing to maintain a vegetarian diet are not being provided with a nutritionally balanced meal.

After living in Alberta for more than a decade, I still find myself scratching my head deciding what to pack for my lunch or what to choose at a restaurant or food court. I had much more selection in my native United Kingdom, where there has long been a much wider range of meat alternatives than that provided in Canadian supermarkets. Even the U.K. McDonald's restaurants have veggie burgers and deli sandwiches.

I must admit, though, that being fussy about food doesn't help my situation. Veggie1After being vegetarian for 18 years, I have yet to develop a taste for vegetables.
Photo by: Jenni O'Nyons.

A friend once dubbed me the "vegetarian who doesn't like vegetables" — I'm not the stereotypical hippie-style veggie who is satisfied with a lentil burger or a chickpea salad.

I live off of mostly soy-based meat alternatives, although I find I tend to fill up on carbs like pasta and fries.

One of my favourite foods is meatless meatballs, which are made of mushrooms. I find deep irony in the fact that as a vegetarian, I won't eat mushrooms unless they are disguised as balls of meat.

Although vegetarianism isn't exactly common in Alberta, there appears to be a growing interest. According to the government of Alberta's healthyalberta.com, one million Canadians consider themselves to be vegetarian and one third of Canadians say they regularly serve vegetarian meals. The Alberta Agriculture and Development department also reported that Canadian sales of meat substitutes tripled between 1997 and 2001.

Meanwhile, the province known for its beef has a Vegans and Vegetarians of Alberta group, which has more than 200 members and volunteers. In the time I've lived in Alberta I've also noticed more vegetarian options slowly popping up in supermarkets.

The price of being meat-free

The worst consequence of being vegetarian is not worrying about what to eat, but the fatigue I experience due to the fact that I have iron-deficiency anemia.

This is undoubtedly caused by my vegetarian diet as the iron in meat is more readily absorbed by our bodies. Iron is key to creating red blood cells, which carry oxygen through the body. Without enough oxygen flow I have many of the common symptoms of anemia, like pale skin and constantly feeling cold and tired.

I'm not alone in this problem. According to myhealth.alberta.ca, iron deficiency is the leading nutritional deficiency in the world. The site also says that in Canada, it is most common in children and women of childbearing age due to blood loss during menstrual cycles and pregnancy.

However, it is entirely possible to meet iron requirements on a vegetarian diet. Vegetarians should consciously look for foods rich in iron and protein like nuts, quinoa, legumes and tofu.

In addition, there are several health benefits to being a vegetarian, as those living on a meat-free diet are less likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. The trick to being a healthy vegetarian, though, is all about research, preparation and making the effort.

My advice to anyone taking on a vegetarian diet is to research food options that are healthy but that you also find appetizing.

Oh, and liking vegetables helps.

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Editor's note: The Calgary Journal asked Brenda Davis, a registered dietitian who has authored seven books and specializes in vegetarian and vegan nutrition, how to stay healthy as a vegetarian. Get the information here