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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.

Better Options
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,
Emily

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Eating right is of the utmost importance to me. I believe that good nutrition is the solution to almost any ailment and is the source of true well-being. I think eating right and fueling your body properly is essential to being a happy, balanced, and vibrant person. It is truly a tragedy that nutrition in America is lacking more than ever. The importance of a good diet can not be emphasized enough. Sadly, the standards for a “good” diet in America are very loose allow a great deal of unhealthy choices that can be counterproductive to your good efforts.

I have a plethora of reasons for eating consciously and thought I’d share some.

Weight Control
I mention this reason first not because it is necessarily the most important, but probably the most popular reason people start to eat healthy. I’ll admit that it is what initially got me interested in adapting a better diet. My first semester of college was filled with late-night pizza, pints of Ben & Jerry’s, and all-you-can-eat buffets for every meal. I gained about 15 lbs for the first time in my life and completely panicked. When I started fueling my body with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and other healthy foods, I watched the weight disappear. As many of us know, being overweight can lead to a great deal of disease and health problems such as hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and some cancers. Maintaining a healthy weight is essential to good health. Plus, most of us feel better about ourselves when we are at our ideal weight and confidence is a beautiful thing.

Immune System Strength
Your body only functions properly when it is provided with all the necessary vitamins and nutrients. Besides making sure to get your daily recommended intake, it is also important to avoid foods high in sugar or chemical additives that weaken your body’s natural functions. When you eat a healthy, nutrient-dense diet, your immune system is strong. Even as a college student, I rarely get a cold or feel run-down nearly as much as my peers. Getting sick doesn’t just come from exposure to germs. If your body is running properly, germ exposure won’t cause you to catch a cold or get sick.

Energy
Another thing I notice with my [unhealthy] peers is that they always seem to be tired. They can sleep for 12 hours on the weekend and still walk around exhausted with dark circles under their eyes. Making sure to get the right balance of complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and protein provides stable energy throughout the day. I also strongly recommend eating four to six small meals a day instead of three larger ones; this keeps blood sugar levels stable and makes for more reliable energy. When you consume high quantities of sugar, refined carbs, and caffeine, you are going to feel exhausted regardless of how much sleep you get. The pick-me-up one gets from eating junk food is only temporary and leaves you in a slump when it’s over.

Skin, Hair, Nails
When you provide your body with essential nutrients, especially the omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, it truly shows. Your hair is shinier and thicker, your skin is clearer and more vibrant, and your nails are stronger. Diets high in sugar, additives, and grease make for break-outs, lackluster complexions, and brittle nails. What shows up on the outside is very much controlled by what’s going on inside. Before you splurge on an expensive new hair product or face cream, think about solving the problem at the source first.

Digestive Wellness
Digestive problems are far too common in America. It is directly related to our diet of chemically-ridden, over-processed foods that are devoid of nutritional value. Laxatives and antacids are among the highest selling over-the-counter remedies in the US. It is imperative not to look to drugs or pills but at the true source of these problems. A diet centered around vegetables and high in whole grains and fiber can alleviate digestive problems and keep your stomach and intestines running smoothly.

Mood
Many people equate their feelings or mood to specific things going on in their life. However, we all have those days where we feel unexplainably happy or sad. Emotions and moods are far more complicated than what is on the surface. Much of it is governed by brain chemicals like serotonin, which is a feel-good brain chemical, and cortisol, which is a stress chemical. Eating a diet that provides adequate nutrients and regulates blood sugar helps keep these chemicals in balance and regulate mood swings. Depression is actually a common symptom of a number of vitamin deficiencies. And remember, when you feel good about your weight, your energy levels are stable, your complexion is radiant, and you are feeling well, it is much easier to be a happy and pleasant person!

I think the best thing you can do for yourself and your body is develop healthy eating habits. “You are what you eat” is a very accurate statement. Your body is made up of cells. Your cells are created and reproduced by the nutrients that enter your body. Essentially, your body becomes the food you put into it. I urge each and every one of you not to turn to the medicine cabinet for every ailment. Take a look at what you’re eating (or what you’re not eating) and if you can regulate your body through making healthier choices. Everything we eat has some effect on our body. Determine if it is positive or negative and choose where to go from there. Do your own research, and gain the knowledge to empower yourself. Remember that health claims on products are for marketing purposes only. If you educate yourself on what a healthy food really is, you can make the best decisions.

You have the power to change and transform your life through what you eat!

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Eat healthy,
Emily

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