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So I tried being a vegetarian...
I'll confess: I'm a meat eater. I love a good pork belly, but I consider myself very healthy—I normally eat along the lines of Paleo, and I rarely, if ever, eat processed foods. With vegetarian and vegan lifestyles becoming more prevalent, I sometimes ask myself if I would be healthier if I didn't eat meat. Would I feel better? Look better? Live longer? Have glowing skin?
Every time I see Jared Leto proclaim that he looks so ridiculously healthy and young due to the fact that he is vegan and abstains from alcohol I think—oh no! I'm doomed! These are two of my biggest vices! A quick poll of Charlotte's Book nutritionists says that the majority of them eat meat, which made me feel a bit better, but I wanted more specific answers: I reached out to Charlotte's Book expert Keri Glassman, a celebrity nutritionist, to weigh in on this issue.
"We all have our reasons for eating what we do, and they’re unique to each of us. What you choose to eat, and why you choose to eat it, is your own personal biz. Research tells us that most of our food behaviors are set in early childhood, so our food habits, including what, when, how, and why we chow down, is influenced by our families, culture, skills, cash flow, etc. There are exceptions of course, and people can read, hear, or experience something that triggers them to rethink their culinary and digestive ways." says Keri.
Deciding to go vegetarian was a really difficult decision for me, far more difficult than trying gluten free or dairy free. And it was really out of my desire to see if I would truly see a difference. Truly feel a difference. I went full vegetarian for about nine months. Here's some of of my research and my findings below:
The Beauty Perspective
Many people who become vegetarians or vegans often say their skin becomes clearer, and they take on a new glow. I hear this all the time. Personally I didn't see a difference in my skin. Why not? I consulted Keri. Keri doesn't think better skin is a result of not eating meat. She has a pretty rationale reason," I think the reason many vegetarians feel their skin improves is because as they go vegetarian, they up their veggie intake (which means more antioxidants, etc.) and often reduce junk (sugar and processed foods). Yes, some of the meat-based foods they were eating could have been loaded with junk that hurt their skin, but the bigger reason for beauty results are probably due to the additional vegetables and reduction of junk in their diets, not just the deleted meat and/or dairy." So...your skin may be better if you make the definitive decisions to load up on vegetables everyday. But not necessarily if you simply cut meat. Makes sense, so what about weight? Keri confirmed ,"Vegetarians who fuel themselves healthfully tend to have lower weights than their omnivorous counterparts. Keep in mind, you should do what works for you. I know plenty of people (myself included) that find it easier to maintain a healthy weight by including some animal protein in the diet. Being a healthy vegetarian means choosing mostly whole grains, fruits, vegetables and quality protein sources like hemp, beans, legumes, tofu and healthy fats. They also need to plan ahead so that they don't starve at a barbecue or social event. " Did I lose weight? To be honest - it was hard to tell. But I felt lighter. Learner. My belly felt flatter. This I learned is because vegetarian diets can be easier to digest. I definitely felt like my digestive tract was happier with me. After meals I didn't feel like I was going into food comas - ever. Simply put, that post meal heaviness went away. While I did have a harder time keeping my calorie and carb intake in check, overall I felt skinnier. Maybe it was all in my head - but does it matter?
Keep The Meat—And The Vitamins
One thing I did notice, I was tired. I was also bruising easily. I begun to feel like my body was craving meat. Is this legit? Or my imagination?
Keri gave me a really great perspective and some legitimacy on how I was feeling, "Some argue that we have canines for a reason: to tear meat! (Full disclosure, I’m known to make a mean grass-fed steak.) Our bodies are designed to be omnivorous. Besides those canines, we are biologically engineered to digest animal fuel. We have enzymes to break animal protein into amino acids, and the acid in our stomach is stronger than battery acid (awful thought)—it's designed to dissolve meat so it can enter our blood stream."
Keri adds, "It can be argued that even though our bodies haven’t changed much in hundreds and hundreds of years, we no longer need to eat meat since our food supply is so rich in plant-based nutrition. Hemp seeds weren’t sitting on grocery store shelves years ago. We can now meet our every nutritional need, varied as they may be, without burgers and wings in our diet. If you’re worried that you’ll become vitamin deficient, or that the body must have meat to meet its needs, fear no more. Vegetarians and even vegans can meet all of their nutrient needs with a plant-based diet."
OK. So maybe I just wasn't trying hard enough to get the right nutrients. Keri told me that it is absolutely possible to meet your nutrient needs if you look in the right places; however, she also said that deficiencies can, and do, occur. So it wasn't my imagination.
"Deficiencies in iron are most common, so vegetarians should make sure they’re eating raisins, spinach, lentils, tofu, oats, tomato sauce and quinoa." So that explains my bruising and my constant sluggishness.
But wait, iron is not the only issue. "B12 can also be a concern, so make sure nutritional yeast, unprocessed soy or fortified cereals are on your plate. Zinc (found in whole grains, soy, legumes, nuts and wheat germ), omega-3 fatty acids (thanks flax, chia and hemp), vitamin D (sunshine is veggie friendly) and calcium (dairy, green leafys and fortified non-dairy milks) are also potential deficiencies, but very uncommon in vegetarians who eat healthfully, " Keri advises.
While I didn't necessarily have better skin or lose weight, I can tell you definitively that I felt "lighter" and "better." Oddly enough, I also felt my palette change and my cravings for meat decline. I actually didn't want to eat a steak anymore. And I still don't. A profound realization for someone eating steak 1-2x a week for the last 20 years. While I will definitely eat meat again, this experiment has made me change my habits forever. Unfortunately, being vegetarian didn't make my skin any clearer and I didn't look younger. I have officially concluded that it must be Jared Leto's genetics. Not all that tofu he eats. Photo of Mischa Barton shot by photographer Tyler Shields. Sourced from the depths of the internet.
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Learn more about Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN.