For those of you who followed my blog through my Asian travels at the beginning of last year may know that I was 'vegan' for about 6-ish months. You can read more about my meat-free life here. Once I started culinary school in August, it was pretty difficult to maintain a fully vegan diet as we had to learn to cook animal protein and I wanted to taste all our creations! For the time I was in school, I ate and enjoyed whatever animal protein we made during class, but maintained a vegan diet at home. So, with that, let's call it about a year with limited animal foods, and particularly minimal red meat consumption (probably 5 times the whole year).
Once winter set in (my first real winter in 5 years), I began noticing some interesting signs that my body was out of balance: sugar cravings, poor sleep and easily anxious/stressed. I mentioned this to my Ayurvedic doctor at our consultation recently and he said he thought these issues were due to protein deficiency...and that I needed more meat!
If you know anything about Ayurveda, you may be thinking, "Whaaaat? Doesn't Ayurveda promote a vegetarian diet?" The answer is YES. In the study of Ayurveda, we learn that a vegetarian diet is the healthiest. However, if you are going to follow a strictly vegetarian diet, there is extra time and work involved in designing and cooking nutritionally balanced meals to prevent protein deficiency. So much so, that in many traditional Asian cultures, there is someone in the family designated to cook all day. In our modern Western world, we hardly have thirty minutes a day to prepare a meal, much less have time to think about proper food combining to achieve a complete protein from vegetarian sources.
Basically, what I took from this is that it's pretty easy to become protein deficient as a vegan/vegetarian if you aren't paying super close attention to your meal composition. Based on our individual constitutions, some of us are more susceptible to protein deficiency than others. So if you are maintaining a animal-less diet, keep an eye out for the following telltale signs of protein deficiency:
Sugar/Carb Cravings and Wonky Blood Sugar
This was me. I had my blood sugar tested and it was far too low for having eaten breakfast an hour before the test. I could also tell that my blood sugar was unstable, especially in the afternoons when I would get low energy and cravings for sugar. If you're a vegan/vegetarian who has carb/sugar cravings and doesn't feel satisfied without bread, grains, sweets, you may have unstable blood sugar due to a deficiency of protein.
Low Energy, Moodiness, Stress
Do you get low in energy, moody, or easily stressed? I sure did! When your blood sugar is unstable due to a lack of protein, you're on a constant energy roller coaster. These highs and lows can exhaust the body’s reserves and leave the body without the energy it needs to calm itself down. Yes, you actually need energy to be calm and composed throughout the day and to sedate yourself at bedtime and sleep through the night.
Can't sleep through the night? Yep, that was me too. I'd wake up to pee around 2-3am and not be able to fall back asleep. Sleeping through the night requires the body to burn fat – a long-lasting fuel – rather than sugar, for a stretch of at least eight or nine hours. If you're protein deficient and constantly grazing on food throughout the day, your body becomes accustomed to burning sugar and carbs, which burn very quickly. Being a sugar-burner will cause you to wake up every 2-3 hours because your body is looking for its next meal. A body that is trained in burning fat will be calmer and more able to sleep through the night. Getting enough protein at each meal will help stabilize the blood sugar and avoid the carbohydrate roller coaster in the first place!
Protein Deficiency Prescription
Eat 4 ounces of red meat a day for two weeks. Preferably at lunch.
This is a medicinal protocol; not a way of life!
Why Red Meat?
Red meat is the most acidic of all meats and of all protein sources in general. The more acidic a substance, the deeper it penetrates and the better it stores in the tissues of the body. Legumes, beans, seeds, nuts, eggs, chicken, fish, and red meat go from more alkaline to more acidic in this order.
You might have heard that you want to eat a more alkaline, less acidic, diet. In many cases that is true since alkaline foods (i.e. any green veggie) efficiently remove waste and toxins from the body. More acidic foods, like meats, are harder for the body to remove and detoxify. While we tend to associate acidic foods with mostly toxic foods (sugar and dairy), many acidic foods are actually very healthy and essential. In the fall/winter, we need more acidic foods because they help rebuild the body during the colder months. In the spring/summer, we need more alkaline foods as they flush the lymph and cleanse the body of toxins as the weather heats up. Nature's perfect balance!
How did I do this?
Luckily, I work from home so I was able to prepare lunch as my main meal of the day. I experimented with all kinds of red meat: elk burgers, buffalo sausage, beef chili, lamb chops.... It was crazy! SO different than what I normally have for lunch but a fun experiment and totally do-able for two weeks. I could not have done it any longer though.
Additionally, I made an effort to add more protein to both breakfast and dinner meals too. I added hemp protein powder to my morning smoothies, or ate eggs. And for dinner I ate fish or beans/lentils + whole grains (this combination provides a complete protein).
What was the result?
Miracles! I've always been an afternoon snacker. I need something to get me through that afternoon slump (4pm) before dinner. While I try to make my snack healthy and balanced (i.e. celery sticks with tahini or avocado on a rice cake), I often find myself over-eating and then not having a full appetite for dinner. During this red-meat-for-lunch-deal, food did not even cross my mind in the afternoon. I seriously had zero urge to snack. I had no sugar cravings whatsoever, neither in the late afternoon nor after dinner (both of which were common pre-protocol). I usually wasn't even that hungry at dinner time so I would eat something light like a soup or piece of fish with veggies. I started sleeping through the night. Some nights I slept all the way through (amazing!!) and others I would wake up but be able to go right back to sleep without stress/sleep anxiety. I was totally blown away by the results I was noticing just days into the program and was super happy to know I was on the right tract for getting my blood sugar balanced.
What do I do now?
I try to get some animal protein in each day, ideally at lunch. I'm a bit over the red meat at the moment so I am focusing on chicken, turkey, and fish. I am being sure to include more vegetarian sources of protein: seeds, nuts, beans, lentils, whole grains, spinach, sweet potato, etc.
With this experiment, I've learned that my body requires more fat and protein in the winter in order to insulate and rebuild. While each of us has our own unique body constitution and has different needs based on various factors (age, body type, blood type, cultural background, etc.), most of us will require more protein in the colder months of the year.
If you suspect you are protein deficient, or are experiencing the effects of unbalanced blood sugar, perhaps give this red meat protocol a try! There's no harm in it and it may be an easy solution to your sugar cravings/low energy/sketchy sleep, like it was for me!
Thinking of giving it a go? Stay tuned! Next week, I will share a deeeeelicious recipe for buffalo and sweet potato chili that can be your red meat lunch for a week!