Saturday, February 1, 2014

Do We Need Substitutions for Foods We Gave Up?

I have considered this question at two very different times of my life. First when I became vegetarian at the age of sixteen and now as an adult when I have been on a gluten free, dairy free, egg free, corn free and then grain free journey that some describe with the word "paleo".

Zucchini noodles taste good but they taste
 nothing like wheat pasta. They are probably better.
But do they have to be in the noodle shape?
When I became vegetarian I cooked vegetarian versions of common meat foods, came up with clever replacements for the meat in recipes and used soy based meat substitutions. I enjoyed tricking my dinner guests, especially the ones who were suspicious about vegetarian diet.

After a few years I realized that I can just come up with vegetarian foods that are delicious on their own and not because I have managed to mimic the meat with some vegetarian source. That was a great and relieving realization. It took away the great burden that the vegetarian diet would be just a shadow of the diet containing meat.

Then our family discovered food allergies and I have gone through a similar path. I gave up vegetarianism as meat became the only protein source we could tolerate. I have cooked gluten free and dairy free versions of common grain and dairy foods, I have come up with clever replacements for the grains and dairy in recipes and bought gluten free processed crackers and pastas. I have enjoyed tricking people to think the grain free and vegan cupcake is the "real thing".

I have tried to make gluten free breads, pizza crusts and cakes that would taste just like the ones made of wheat. Frostings, puddings and pancakes without eggs, dairy and wheat or corn. Sometimes they turn out good, sometimes they are disappointing because they are not like the favorite food from our past. Sometimes they turn better and still they taste different.

I see it everywhere - people post recipes of paleo muffins, paleo cupcakes, paleo pancakes, 100 ways to replace the junk food you miss with healthier foods replicating them, nomato sauce, the perfect grain free hamburger bun, pizza crusts made of cauliflower. 

We are obsessing over coming up with recipes to replicate the foods we miss. Do we really miss them so badly? Or do we just think we miss them? Are they just foods that represent the cultural norms of our days? There are probably some people on this planet who do not eat pizza, hamburgers or cupcakes and are perfectly happy. Do we just want to blend in even though we chose a path different from others by eating the same foods as they? Why do we miss food we call "junk food" so much we try to replicate it with other ingredients? Why do we put it on a pedestal above healthier real foods?

Why not glorify organic fresh vegetables instead of junk food?
This food is the food that really makes you feel good.
Doesn't the effort we use in trying to find and make the replicates for breads and cakes give those products we have chosen not to eat an unnecessary glorification? Why not just eat real food that makes us feel good? Why not come up with recipes that just taste good even though they don't remind us of our old comfort foods? They were comfort foods probably because they were feeding the bad bacteria and we were addicted to them. The grain free and sugar free version is not going to ever make us feel the same. In the long run it will make us feel better!

I think the pretty limited autoimmune paleo diet helped me debunk the glory of the junk food replacements. I felt so good on just real foods not trying to replicate anything. Like soup. I have come to a point on my path where I don't care about the substitution recipes so much anymore (they have even started to irritate me a little bit, I am in the black and white phase of this and will soon move to the grey area and become more accepting ;)). I mean ok, I admit that the plantain pancakes are good (I had two this morning with maple syrup) and the raw chocolate pudding made with avocado. And I put coconut milk in my tea because it reminds me of the cow milk I used to put in my tea. But those foods taste delicious just because of their own ingredients, not because of the nostalgic memory of the foods they replicate. They are special treats I don't eat every day.

I think making the nomato sauce was the turning point. It didn't even taste like tomato sauce and I went through so much trouble making it. I even realized that I didn't like even the real tomato sauce that much anyway. It gave me heart burn for heaven's sake. Why am I trying to imitate it with a sauce made of beets and carrots? Sure, if the sauce would taste delicious. But it was just ok. I am not going to make the beet and carrot sauce with meat balls again unless the kids request it. 

Finnish cabbage soup is comfort food for me.
I am ok eating foods that are good on their own like traditional Finnish cabbage soup made with homemade broth. THAT is a comfort food for me. I will still probably make plantain pancakes and dairy free ice cream because they taste good. I might even make the 3 ingredient strawberry shake I have threatened to make this weekend to show that I can make a just as good if not better strawberry milkshake without the 59 ingredients in the industrial one (is one of them at least strawberry?). But I am stopping my desperate search for the perfect grain free and sugar free junk food substitutions here and just enjoy food that tastes good and makes me feel good. I think it is a good message for our kids too. Glorifying the junk food is not. I feel like this is a


  1. I have thought similar things about vegetarian "meat". At first I ate lots of it because I didn't know another way of cooking. But then I started trying all these new veggies I never even ate growing up, and I learned that a plant based meal can be delicious without containing fake meat. Being vegetarian has taught me how to cook lots of good stuff. Sometimes people do still ask "but WHAT do you eat?!" And I tell them I eat so much more variety and more delicious foods than I did before.

    1. That is great! I have very similar experience although I also got stuck eating a little too many grains and cheese on my vegetarian path which changed after I went paleo. But I agree that I also learned to cook when I became vegetarian. I have actually been writing another post about my relationship to food and there is some more about this too. Thanks for commenting!