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Carbs May Have Protein, but Are They the Enemy of Vegetarians?

Marie Simmons

After spending almost two years researching and writing my new cookbook, “Fresh & Fast Vegetarian: Recipes That Make a Meal,” the pressure is off. The book is getting great reviews — life should be good. But it’s not. I’ve grown pudgy through my middle, my energy is at a lifetime low, and my once-normal blood pressure is rising. I am not a happy camper.

I eat well. I exercise. I buy organic and locally grown ingredients, olive oil is my fat of choice and I consume lots of fresh veggies. Each time a wad of bills disappears at the farmers market, I can hear my mother’s advice: “Spend money on good food and you won’t have to pay the doctor.”

The good news is that a visit to the doctor yielded no diagnosis. So what’s going on? The only change I’ve made in my life is my diet. Although I am an omnivore, for the past couple of years I’ve been eating mostly vegetarian. I thought that would be a good thing. But, maybe it’s not for me. I went from my medical doctor to several alternative medicine practitioners and then to a nutritionist hoping to find an answer. What I learned is fascinating. In my zealous quest for protein-rich meat substitutes I have been shoveling in too many beans, grains, legumes and other other high carbohydrate rich foods. Remember the adage, “Too much of a good thing, isn’t a good thing anymore?”

I adore and crave carbohydrates. Especially grains — quinoa, bulgur, farro, rice and polenta. When it comes to eating beans, I’m the queen. A day doesn’t go by that there isn’t some nutty bulgur soaking on the counter or a pot of vegetable-packed black bean chili bubbling on the back of the stove.

Even before I conferred with a nutritionist, I took a look at the numbers. My breakfast of coarse old-fashioned oatmeal with a short drizzle of maple syrup has almost 40 grams of carbohydrates. A lunch of half a baked butternut squash with half cup of white beans and some greens has about 65 grams of carbohydrates. Considering that I was using these foods as a substitute for meat and fish, which have no carbohydrate values, it struck me that my carbohydrate consumption might be on the high side. Was this a good or a bad thing?

To help put this into perspective I turned to Laura Brainin-Rodriguez, MPH, MS, RD, at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. “It is important to remember that all carbohydrates, complex or otherwise, are broken down to sugar when they enter the body,” she says. “Of course, the nutrients, protein, vitamins, minerals, etc., are used by the body in a good way. At one time the popular thinking was that it was OK for us to consume 50 percent to 60 percent of our daily caloric intake in complex carbohydrates. Today, as the understanding of the science of nutrition changes, that thinking is beginning to change, especially as we age.”

Surprisingly, Brainin-Rodriguez says, our bodies are designed to handle fats and proteins better than carbohydrates. According to Gary Taubes, author of “Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It,” as we age and as women go through the hormonal changes of midlife, our muscles become less able to burn the simple sugars. Insulin causes our fat cells to store these as fat. This leaves our muscles lacking fuel, which makes us feel less energetic. Our waistlines expand. Insulin also causes our kidneys to hang on to sodium, which in turn raises our blood pressure.

So what’s a mostly vegetarian girl to do?

I’ve been talking and writing about how important balance and moderation are in healthful eating for years. It was time I made the bold decision to walk the talk.

I’ve moderated my mostly vegetarian diet by adding small amounts of animal protein — mostly seafood and poultry — to the mix. I still eat the foods I love, I just eat smaller servings. And, bingo, it’s working. The pounds are coming off, my energy is coming back and best of all my blood pressure is returning to normal. At this time in my life, there will be no more overdosing on beans and bulgur just because they’re good sources of plant protein and fiber. Today my breakfast was two poached eggs on a mess of sautéed greens (about 10 grams of carbohydrates).

I’ll still eat oatmeal, but not every day. For lunch I’m now likely to dig into a half a spaghetti squash (about 10 grams of carbohydrates) with a mess of greens and a half cup of quick skillet veggie chili (about 20 grams of carbohydrates). For dinner I’ll have a piece of fish with two green vegetables and skip the carbohydrates like rice, potatoes, or a grain, since I enjoyed them for lunch. This is not deprivation, it’s moderation.

Sure, I know plenty of full-on vegans and vegetarians who are glowing and healthy, but my carbohydrate overloading caused my system to short out. Now, I’m making amends. My reward? I’m on my way to being a happy camper again.

Marie Simmons has written or co-written over 20 cookbooks including “Fig Heaven”; “The Good Egg,” which won a James Beard Award; Sur La Table’s “Things Cook Love” and her latest, “Fresh & Fast Vegetarian.” She lives in Northern California.

Photo: Marie Simmons. Credit: Luca Trovato

Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Marie Simmons has written or co-written over 20 cookbooks including “Fig Heaven”; “The Good Egg,” which won a James Beard Award; Sur La Table’s “Things Cooks Love” and her latest, “Whole World Vegetarian.” She lives in Eugene, Oregon.