Should You Be a Vegetarian?
The payoffs and pitfalls of going meatless.
A couple of you have asked me to do a show on vegetarianism. Is it a healthier way to eat? Well, it can be. It really depends on how you go about it.
Many studies have shown that vegetarians—on average—live longer, are less likely to be overweight, and have lower rates of cancer, heart disease, and many other diseases.
But statistical studies like this look backward in time. They tell you how yesterday’s vegetarians fared compared with yesterday’s carnivores. That doesn’t necessarily tell you how today’s vegetarians will fare in the future—especially because vegetarianism has become a completely different sport than it was twenty or thirty years ago.
First of all, let’s get our terms straight. Vegetarians come in a variety of flavors. Vegans are vegetarians that consume no animal products of any kind: no meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, or honey. Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy but not eggs. Ovo-lacto-vegetarians eat both eggs and dairy.
Everyone else—the pesca-vegetarians who eat fish, the cluckatarians who eat poultry, and those part-time vegetarians who refuse the pork chop you’ve prepared for dinner and then have bacon the next morning at breakfast—none of these are vegetarians. That doesn’t make them bad people. They’re just not vegetarians. (And, in case you’re wondering, neither am I.)
Vegetarianism is Hip
According to the Vegetarian Resource Group (which is a terrific resource for anyone researching or considering vegetarianism), the number of true vegetarians hasn’t changed that much over the last twenty or thirty years. But the number of people who choose vegetarian options some of the time has sky-rocketed.
And, because it exists to satisfy your every desire, commerce has risen to the challenge. Twenty years ago, if you wanted rice milk or vegan mayonnaise, you had to shop in a grubby health food coop reeking of patchouli and bulk granola. Today, you can walk into any gas station convenience store and find soy creamer for your coffee.
But here’s the problem: The more mainstream vegetarianism gets, the less healthy it seems to become. The typical vegan or vegetarian diet used to include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and legumes, and less sugar, salt, and saturated fat than the typical omnivore’s fare.
Today’s vegan, however, can easily get through the entire day without coming close to a fresh vegetable. You can fill your cart with vegan frozen pizzas, burritos, and waffles; fake bacon, sausage, and hot dogs; cookies, cakes, and doughnuts; chips, dips, crackers and fake cheese; and breakfast cereals that make Cap’n Crunch look virtuous—without venturing beyond a mainstream grocery store.
I think this is leading some of us to develop a false sense of security. We think that if we’re eating only or mostly vegetarian or vegan products, our diet is automatically going to be healthier. Obviously, a diet of vegan junk food isn’t going to be any better for you than a diet of regular junk food.
Vegetarianism Is as Vegetarianism Does
So here’s my answer: A meat-free diet is not automatically a healthy diet. And, to be fair, a diet containing meat is not necessarily unhealthy. Whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, or a meat-eater, your diet will only be as healthy as you make it. And the rules are basically the same for everyone.
Here they are:
Don’t eat too much. No matter what kind of foods you do or don’t eat, it’s important to maintain a healthy weight.
Eat a balanced and varied diet that meets your nutritional needs. The food pyramid promoted by the USDA is a simple way to be sure you’ve got your bases covered. I did an episode on this a while back, which you can find on the show’s webpage. (http://nutritiondiva.quickanddirtytips.com/keep-your-diet-on-track.aspx )
Eat your fruits and vegetables.
Limit your consumption of processed foods, which tend to be high in sugar and salt.
Beyond Healthy: Other Reasons to Choose Vegetarianism
Besides the potential health benefits, there are some other reasons that people choose vegetarianism. It’s cheaper, and that’s something we’re all focused on these days. Even without becoming as full-time vegetarian, you can save money on your grocery bill by eating meatless more often.
Going vegetarian is also easier on the environment. Keeping livestock uses a lot more land, water, and fossil fuel than growing plant foods. And finally, the vegan or vegetarian lifestyle allows those concerned with animal rights and welfare to sleep easier at night.
There are also a few special concerns with vegetarianism. In particular, vegans need to take care to avoid certain nutrient deficiencies, especially during pregnancy or breast-feeding and in early childhood nutrition. Vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs don’t need to be concerned with any of these. But strict vegans do.
You’ll find lots of resources on vegan nutrition the web. Some are better than others. In my opinion, the Vegetarian Resource Group is one of the more reliable, evidence-based, and un-dogmatic. You’ll find them at VRG.org.
In the show notes, I’ll also include a link to an interesting site I recently came across called “Opposing Views.” This site invites experts to argue the pros and cons on a number of hot topics, including vegetarianism.
It’s a more balanced collection of information than you’re likely to find on sites that promote a certain point of view and it’s a little better curated than your average online free-for-all.
Can a vegetarian diet cure arthritis? Find out in my Quick Tip.
Check out my recipe for making delicious green beans by roasting them.
This is Monica Reinagel, the Nutrition Diva, with your quick and dirty tips for eating well and feeling fabulous. T
hese tips are provided for your information and entertainment and are not intended as medical advice. Because everyone is different, please work with your health professional to determine what’s right for you.
If you have a nutrition question for me, send an email to email@example.com or leave me a voice mail at 206-203-1438. You can also reach me on Facebook or Twitter. I answer a lot of your questions in my new weekly newsletter, so be sure to sign up for that at nutritiondiva.quickanddirtytips.com
Have a great day and remember to eat something good for me.