There was a time in my life when I would rather cross the street than walk by a butcher shop. I scorned those who partook in all things flesh-related and raised my vegan banner for the world to see. I even went on national radio in Ireland advising against the consumption of meat and dairy products—needless to say, in an agricultural country like Ireland, my proclamations were not so well received by the farming community. I didn't quite go as far as yelling at old ladies wearing fur coats, but I certainly judged them and associated myself with those who did yell. I felt I was walking the high road and doing my bit for my own health and the health of the planet—and I was, to a point.
I quickly learned that my food has a much louder voice than any ranting and raving I could do in my attempts to change the world—I could simply do it one veggie burger at a time. I also learned I was holier than nobody, and that it's the intention and love behind our actions that create a negative or positive impact. I learned that I must, at all times, respect people's choices, and that the best I can do is offer the gift of my experience and encourage people to move in a direction that will take them closer to the goal of health, peace and happiness.
These days, I can occasionally be seen perusing the meat department in my health food store or chatting to a meat farmer at my local farmers' market. I've learned that butchers are not all murderers—in fact, most of them are lovely people and many have become my good friends. Cooking meat is still a learning curve for me, so I'll often rely on my butcher friends for advice in this area.
Now, I'm not personally a meat eater, except on a rare occasion when I feel I need a certain kind of energy that meat can provide, but I have relaxed my moral principles a bit and will now cook it for my clients if requested. I still believe a diet that relies mainly on whole grains, pulses and vegetables from land and sea is optimum. I believe food creates our consciousness, and if we are aware of making healthy food choices, the ripple effect will be that we'll treat our environment and fellow humans in a more conscious and respectful way.
Find out what happened the first time Aine ate meat.
Perhaps being raised a strict Irish-Catholic cured me of the need to strictly adhere to a particular system of beliefs. I tend to be quite free-spirited in my approach to life and all its facets, including diet. I don't believe in a "one diet fits all" approach; as I move through life, meet new people and explore new environments, I'm constantly growing, evolving and allowing myself the liberty of changing my mind.
I remember the first time, after almost 20 years on a vegan/macrobiotic diet, I was advised to start eating some meat by a renowned acupuncturist who felt I needed it to build my blood and raise my energy levels. At the time, I was quite appalled by the suggestion and was just not ready to make that shift. About five years later, when I was in a very busy and often stressful job in London and having regular acupuncture to keep my energy levels up, it was recommended to me again to integrate some meat into my diet. I agreed to try it, if my acupuncturist would cook it, and I would cook the vegetables to accompany it.
She cooked up some lamb chops and I made some roasted sweet potatoes and a big green salad. In a very ritualistic way, we thanked the lamb for sacrificing its life for our nourishment and partook. I have to say the meat was a bit like medicine—it seemed to infuse me with a different kind of energy that I hadn't felt in a long time. I had to agree with my healer that my body could benefit from it occasionally...though it didn't help that I was living across from a field of leisurely grazing sheep and felt rather guilty looking at them, knowing that one of their brethren ended up on my plate!
As with all things in life, there are pros and cons, and the vegan diet is no exception. People choose to become vegetarian or vegan for various reasons—health, spiritual, moral or religious. Whatever your reason, if you are choosing a vegetarian or vegan path, it's vital that you understand how to do so in a way that keeps you healthy and balanced.
One of the most important things is to make sure you're getting sufficient, good-quality protein. Protein is present in many vegetarian foods, but the foods need to be properly combined to make sure you're getting all of the amino acids to make a complete protein. Quinoa is an excellent food for vegans, because it is said to be a complete protein. Make sure to include a good range of beans, combined with whole grains like brown rice, millet, quinoa and barley in your daily meals. Nuts and seeds are also good protein sources.
Vitamin B12 is also a consideration, as meat is the only reliable source of this vital nutrient. It has been claimed that fermented foods such as miso, tempeh and sauerkraut also contain B12, but the evidence is not conclusive. B12 is necessary for the proper functioning of the nervous system, and to produce red blood cells, which carry vital oxygen to all the cells in the body. The anemia that can result from a deficiency of B12 can have serious consequences. Some of the symptoms of B12 deficiency might include pale skin and nails, general weakness and fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath or heart palpitations, or chest pain. The digestive system can also be affected, resulting in nausea or vomiting, abdominal bloating, gas and weight loss. If you suspect you might be deficient in B12, it might be a good idea to take it in supplement form.
Calcium is often cited as a reason not to adopt a vegan diet, but there are many excellent non-dairy sources of calcium—such as leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds and sea vegetables—so make sure these are part of your daily diet. Vitamin D, vital for proper calcium absorption, is not found in the vegan diet— make sure you get your daily dose of sunshine so your body can produce this vital nutrient. (We're a bit challenged in Ireland in that respect, but there's always Hawaii!)
From a macrobiotic perspective that looks at the energetic nature of foods, meat, fish, chicken and salty cheeses are said to be more yang than yin. To balance these yang foods, people often end up consuming a lot of yin foods like sugary desserts or alcohol. This is a more extreme balancing act, but in the vegan world, it's important to maintain balance by including whole grains and beans, sea vegetables, miso and more yang or grounding foods, as well as a nice range of lighter fruits and vegetables, both cooked and raw. Many people become vegan for spiritual or moral reasons and can become quite depleted if they're relying on just vegetables, smoothies and fruits to meet all their nutritional needs—believe me, I've seen this happen.
It can be quite challenging to maintain a balanced vegan diet while traveling, so if you're truly committed to maintaining your diet, you need to be quite prepared when taking a road trip or traveling to a place where the foods you commonly use are not so readily available. I have an 80/20 theory: If I eat healthily 80 percent of the time, I can allow myself a little leeway or indulgence once in awhile. If I'm going on a long road trip or to a place where I don't have access to my foods—and especially if I'm not in a position where I can cook my own foods—I'll always take a stock of nuts and seeds, nori seaweed to provide my daily minerals, healthy food bars and a green powder such as chlorella, spirulina or blue-green algae for protein and minerals. You can even bring oat flakes, because they can be combined with nuts, seeds and dried fruits and soaked overnight—in the morning you have a lovely muesli to which you can add some fresh berries or chopped apple. Couscous can also be soaked in boiling water...add some chopped veggies, olive oil and lemon to make a lovely lunchtime salad.
This also applies to flying—I've ordered vegan meals on airplanes and been presented with a platter of fruit and cut-up vegetables. There's still very limited knowledge on catering for vegan or vegetarian diets outside of certain hubs where it's become more mainstream; many people are still not aware there's a whole world of food beyond what they're familiar with. I always go prepared when flying these days.
If you are choosing the vegan path, I commend you for making a choice that is sure to have a positive impact on your health and on the planet, and I encourage you to do it in a way that keeps you strong, vital and balanced.
If you're choosing to eat meat, I recommend eating it in moderation and making sure to include lots of fresh, green vegetables in your diet to counteract the acidic condition that can result from excess meat.
I could eat quinoa every day of the week, because it's versatile, quick to cook and provides me with all the protein I need to keep me strong and healthy. I hope you thoroughly enjoy my Summer Quinoa Salad.