Vegetarian Eating

By Brenna Thompson, MS, RD, LD
January 9, 2017

article_healthyeating_vegetarian.jpgAt our offices, we often get questions from vegetarians about why we recommend animal protein over a vegetarian diet. This is not to say that our nutritionists do not see vegetarian and vegan clients. We do. In fact, several of our nutritionists and nutrition educators were once vegetarian. Gone are their days of tofu stir-fry and black bean burgers. Vegetarians who add animal protein to their diets find that they have more energy, better moods and lose weight. So why are many people jumping on the vegetarian bandwagon? Read on to learn more.

Common misconceptions about vegetarian eating

The consumption of meat and animal derived products can be polarizing, and because of religious, spiritual, and moral beliefs we fully respect a person’s choice to avoid these foods. However, when it comes to improving one’s health it can be important to break down common misconceptions and misinformation about meat in order to move forward with the nutritional healing process.

Myth: I can get all the protein I need from plant-based foods

Many vegetarians claim that by combining grains and beans they receive adequate amounts of protein. This is based off the fact that grains lack the amino acid lysine and beans (legumes) lack the amino acid methionine. Beans are often low in cysteine and histadine, as well. It is true that a person eating these foods together or throughout the day will receive all the necessary amino acids. However, these amino acids are not necessarily well absorbed. Approximately 50 percent of the amino acids/protein found in grains, beans, and nuts are bound by fiber and phytates, making it impossible for humans to digest and absorb them. For example, a half-cup of black beans only contains four grams of protein; that means only two grams of it is absorbable. That’s not much when you consider the average person needs approximately 84 grams of protein per day for optimal health. Animal protein, on the other hand, is close to 97 percent absorbable. Animal protein increases the body’s metabolism, is the building block for neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), and helps regulate blood sugar. These are a few reasons why we recommend consuming eggs, poultry, meat, fish, and dairy several times per day.

We often hear about celebrities and athletes (Natalie Portman and Scott Jurek) who switched to a vegetarian or vegan diet and noticed that their health, vitality, and performance improved immensely. These people are often the exception to the rule over the long term. They may have gotten lucky in terms of genetics and are able to thrive on a low-protein, high-carbohydrate diet. Initially, if they are switching from a processed-foods diet to one of leafy vegetables and fruit they will certainly feel better. However, over time the initial vim and vigor often disappears, leaving people with poor energy, low moods, and cravings. What celebrities portray on TV and how they feel in real life may not always match up.

The China Study is a popular book often cited by vegetarians; however, the research was cherry-picked from the original "China Project" and is a poor reflection of the actual data. China is one of the least vegetarian countries in the world, and most of their meals contain some animal protein (chicken, pork, beef, fish and eggs), along with lots of vegetables. (For more information about the China Study, we recommend reading The China Study Myth from the Weston Price Foundation's website).

Studies linking meat consumption to chronic disease typically lack the following specifics:

  • Was the meat from factory-farmed sources and animals that are given large quantities of hormones, steroids and antibiotics?
  • How many fruits and vegetables were the participants eating?
  • Were the participants also eating high-sugar, processed convenience foods as part of their eating plan? 
  • Did they lead high stress lives? 

Like so many health topics, we cannot blame disease on just one thing. We must dig deeper.

Myth: Eating vegetarian is better for the environment

Some vegetarians cite environmental destruction as their reason for choosing to be meat free. But what they forget is that much more destruction is caused by mono-crop or single crop farming. Swaths of what was once fertile land have been clear cut and planted with corn, wheat, and soy. This type of farming creates rainwater runoff, uses large quantities of water for irrigation, and relies on fertilizers and pesticides for anything to grow. This also drives out natural inhabitants such as hawks, owls, song birds, and rodents.

Farmers who practice rotational farming replace nutrients through 100 percent natural fertilizer which is conveniently, animal fecal matter. Using manure for fertilizer rebuilds soil integrity to grow healthier plants that require fewer pesticides. This in turn sustains a more bio-diverse ecosystem. Think of the Native Americans who taught the pilgrims to bury fish in the soil with their seeds.

Myth: All pigs, cows and chickens suffer animal cruelty so it’s not right to eat them

Other people choose to eat a meatless diet due to concerns about animal cruelty. Multiple documentaries have come out in the past several years showing the horrific conditions pigs, cows, and chickens are raised in. These mass confinement systems are referred to as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), and they certainly are an awful way to live, even for a small chicken. What we need to remember is that our meat does not have to come from a CAFO.

Many farmers have fought against the industrial farming of animals. Farmers who raise organic, free-range animals treat their livestock and the land with respect. While death is never something we want to think of, it’s important to know that these animals are slaughtered in the most humane way possible and that they lived a healthy life up until that point. Thanks are given for their lives and for the nourishment their meat will bring to people. You can purchase organic, grass-fed, free range meats and eggs at large grocery stores, coops, Whole Foods, farmers markets, CSAs, or directly from a farmer.

To sum it all up…

The bottom line is that it can be difficult to achieve and maintain adequate nutrient levels in your body if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Nutrients frequently lacking in a vegetarian diet include zinc, iron, omega-3, omega-6, and B12, which can have a negative impact on your health.

At Nutritional Weight & Wellness, many of our vegetarian clients initially come to us with symptoms of these deficiencies. They may have poor energy levels, aches and pains, depression or anxiety, osteoporosis, hypothyroidism, and excess weight. But by working with one of our nutritionists and changing their diets, their symptoms disappear and their health is restored.

For more on the topic of vegetarian eating and health we recommend reading Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth and Julia Ross’ The Diet Cure.

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About the author

Brenna loves nutrition and its life-changing effects. With an active lifestyle, she knows firsthand how to use the power of good nutrition to stay energized. She is a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian through the Minnesota Board of Dietetics and Nutrition. She received her B.S. in dietetics from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and completed her dietetic internship at West Virginia University Hospital, Morgantown. Brenna also received a M.S. in applied nutrition, with an emphasis on education, from Northeastern University. She worked as a clinical and wellness dietitian for the Phoebe Putney Memorial Health System in Albany, Georgia.

View all posts by Brenna Thompson, MS, RD, LD

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