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. Her amazingly informative answer below.
– Robin Shobin, Founder, Charlotte’s Book
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. Deciding if you should go veg is usually more complicated than trying gluten free for a few weeks. It may be fueled by a desire to drop a few pounds, save the environment or up your nutrient intake.
Keep The Meat—And The Vitamins
Some will 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.
Flipside: Meat Belongs In The Era Of Hunters & Gatherers
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.
Myths About Vegetarians
It’s a myth that you need to eat beans and rice together to form complete proteins, like those found in meat. If you’re skeptical about this, do some homework. Research from Frances Moore Lappe in the 70s coined the term “protein complementing” and she went on to retract this belief and concluded that as long as we’re getting enough varied plant-based food, we’re likely going to meet our protein needs. Most Americans are eating more protein than we need anyway, so it’s rare to be deficient. That said, if you choose the path of veggiedom, make sure you’re eating a healthful varied diet, and not loading up on the fries, buns and pasta. In other words, don’t be a Diet Coke and pretzel vegan. That is not healthy, even if you claim vegan status.
The Beauty Perspective
Many people who become vegetarians or vegans often say their skin becomes clearer, and they take on a new glow. 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.
Meeting Nutrient Needs As a V-Class Citizen
It is absolutely possible to meet your nutrient needs, but deficiencies can, and do, occur. Deficiencies in iron are most common, so vegetarians should make sure they’re eating raisins, spinach, lentils, tofu, oats, tomato sauce and quinoa. 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.
The Animal Welfare Perspective
Many of us choose to be vegetarian or vegan due to concerns about the conditions in which our livestock, pork and poultry are raised, antibiotics or hormones in our foods, and industrial farming practices. If you’re considering vegetarianism for these reasons, you will of course be doing your part in reducing animal consumption. Many people decide to eat vegetarian outside of their home, but will eat humanely raised meats in their own home. As I said, eating is your personal biz, and you can be as strict or as liberal as you like in your philosophy.
There are a lot of numbers reporting that it takes 8 pounds of grains to make one pound of beef and sixteen times as much fossil fuels to raise a pound of meat to every one pound of grain or 54 calories in fossil fuels to make one calorie of beef. No doubt, eating meat is draining to the environment, and vegetarians definitely reduce their carbon footprint when compared to meat eaters.
Vegetarianism and Weight
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. It’s easy to overdo it on the poor quality foods if you’re skipping the meaty entree, so snacking on nuts and satisfying produce is essential to vegetarian success.
It’s a great idea for all of us, vegetarians and omnivores alike, to have a “Meatless Monday” and to bump a meatless meal into at least one meal per day. It helps us be more creative with our produce and keeps us mindful of the environment. If you’re looking to baby-step your way into a vegetarian life, start there and build up in a way that works for you. No one should decide for you if a vegetarian lifestyle is the “right” decision for you. If you’re weighing the decision, even if you are not 100% on your philosophy, make choices that feel right for you.
Photo via Shutterstock.
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