A vegetarian diet is often thought of as a healthy lifestyle choice. Many people say they are vegetarian for “health reasons,” implying that it is healthier than a meat-eating diet. While a diet that emphasizes vegetables and plant-based foods is often superior, there are many dangerous pitfalls to which many vegetarians succumb.
The Problem with Meat
In America, conventionally-raised meat is a dangerous, unhealthy, and unsanitary product. Animals are kept in disgusting and confining conditions, are often unable to move, and live on carcasses of dead animals. They are force-fed an unnatural diet to grow at enormous rates and often given steroids and hormones to excel their growth further. Many times they’re given antibioitics and other drugs in an attempt to keep them from catching infectious disease from their unhygienic conditions. These animals are sickly, often diseased, and live a tortured life from birth. There is simply no way this can yield healthy meat, eggs, or dairy. Factory farms and slaughterhouses would rather perform their operations as cheap as possible and pay for the occasional recall (due to deaths from E. Coli or a similar outbreak) than pay for the cost of cleaner, well-maintained facilities. It’s a sad a reality.
Conventional meat production takes a huge toll on our planet as well. More than a third of all raw materials and fossil fuels consumed in America are used in animal production. Beef production alone uses more water than growing the nation’s entire fruit and vegetable crop. Animals raised for meat also generate about 2.7 trillion pounds of waste annually (more than the human population) which leads to contamination and disease outbreaks. The effect of meat consumption on America’s health, the environment, and the animals is complex and compelling. I urge you to read more if you’re interested by seeing films like Food Inc. and visiting GoVeg.com. If you’re not convinced, I urge you to watch footage inside real factory farms.
If you still choose to eat meat, there are some better options. Certified Organic meat is not treated with antibiotics or hormones, and often has more sanitary farming conditions. “Free-range” is an unregulated term, meaning animals may only get a few minutes outside of their confinement per week. There are no health standards for free-range meat or eggs. Grass-fed is the best choice for any meat. This means the animal was a fed a diet of grass as opposed to corn, soybeans, or animal waste, all of which are unnatural and make the animal sick. Because of the high cost and difficult to find organic and grass-fed meat, many people find it easier to eliminate these foods altogether and take on a vegetarian diet.
The Biggest Vegetarian Pitfall: Becoming a Carbotarian
“Where do you get your protein?” is something I’ve heard a thousand times as a vegetarian. First of all, we do not need nearly as much protein as conventional dietary advice suggests. That being said, there are plenty of adequate vegetarian protein sources (that aren’t meat substitutes; more on that in a bit). Also, nutrients like iron and B12 that are often found in meat can be found either in nutrient-dense plant foods or in a simple multivitamin. I have found it is much more likely that a meat eater is lacking in plant-based nutrients than a vegetarian lacking in meat-based nutrients. Why does no one ask a meat eater, “Where do you get your Vitamin C? Antioxidants? Vitamin A? Vitamin K? B Vitamins? Magnesium? Potassium?” I think those questions are far more valid.
Taking on a vegetarian diet proposes a larger problem that often goes overlooked: excessive carbohydrate intake. Grain products (even whole grains) do not offer much nutritionally. Carbs, especially simple and refined carbs like white bread, white pasta, and white rice, convert into the body as sugar. They spike insulin levels, cause inflammation, make us gain weight, and often leave to chronic digestive issues. You can consume more than enough carbohydrates simply from eating fruits and vegetables. However, in eliminating animal products, many people feel that grains are the only thing they can eat. It can be a challenge, but it is absolutely imperative to focus your diet on vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, and organic eggs (if you choose to include animal products). Grains are addictive. Ever feel yourself coming on with an extreme bread craving? There’s a reason. Your body becomes attached and addicted to these foods that ultimately leave you wanting more. Not until you fully ween yourself off these grain products will you see your overall health improve and your cravings disappear.
Vegetarian Junk Food
Vegetarians often turn to meat substitutes. Companies like Morningstar Farms and Boca have done very well with the increase in vegetarianism. However, these foods are simply not healthy. They are heavily processed (and you know how I feel about processed foods) and almost always made from soy. Soy has health benefits, however, they are truly present in a pure form like edamame, organic unsweetened soymilk, or tempeh (a fermented version of tofu). Heavily-manufactured soy products are not nutritious, despite the wealth of health claims on the package. Soy is difficult to digest for many, and should never be the focus of any diet. Vegetarians can fall into a trap of eating cereal with soy milk for breakfast, soy mock deli meat at lunch, a soy-based burger for dinner, and soy ice cream for dessert. This is simply too much soy, all of it heavily processed.
I am a big fan of the Raw Vegan diet because it is very heavy in the consumption of vegetables, nuts and seeds, and fruit. Everything you eat must be raw (not heated about 115 degrees), so no grains are included. Raw vegans make meat substitutes out of grinding raw nuts and seeds and adding herbs and spices. I am not 100% raw vegan because I still consume organic eggs, but I follow many of the raw vegan principles on a daily basis.
The wisest way to be vegetarian is to follow the advice for any healthy diet: stick to whole foods, or something that you can recognize as a product of nature. Base your diet around vegetables, not grains and breads. In fact, the more you can limit them, the better. Your health will improve, and you will fill the void with more vegetables, healthy fats, and organic protein sources.
This is merely the tip of the iceberg on how to live a healthy, vegetarian lifestyle. If you have more specific concerns, I’m happy to take your questions and do some follow-up posts if needed.
Eat your vegetables,