One of the most hotly debated topics in the nutrition world is the age old question: to eat meat, or not to eat meat? Isn’t a vegetarian diet healthier? Less saturated fat? Less heart disease? Less cancer? Live longer?
I have been on both sides of the fence, and this is a topic about which I feel strongly (and about which I have oft changed my mind. In fact, you can read my most recent thoughts on the topic here). Check out my story. I was a vegetarian for almost 13 years and felt great for much of it, honestly, until I developed hormonal issues that were directly linked to my overconsumption of soy products.
But what really began to shake my vegetarian confidence was my foray into veganism.
It’s no secret that factory farming practices in this country are abhorrent at best, and while I worked as a journalist for an environmental magazine, I researched and wrote about the adverse effects our contaminated food supply has on our health. I lasted as a vegan for about 3 weeks and have never felt worse in my life. I could barely drag myself through the day and felt foggy and grumpy. Mine was a well curated vegan diet, mind you, as I had been studying health and nutrition for years and carefully combined whole grains, legumes, and soy products so I could be sure I had enough “complete” proteins.
About the time I enrolled in school and began my studies in holistic nutrition, I read Julia Ross’s book, The Diet Cure. This book completely changed the way I viewed nutrition and vegetarianism. Because, come on, I would be lying if I said I didn’t expect to lose weight going vegetarian or vegan because I wasn’t consuming those fattening animal products!
I learned how wheat and gluten products created inflammation and how processed soy products cause estrogen dominance and thyroid issues, and THAT actually causes weight gain, not animal products. I learned fat was necessary for brain and hormonal health and that eating fat makes you thin. I began to eat meat again and have never looked back. But enough about me.
Let’s talk vegetarianism.
Vegetarian vs Meat: The Debate
Most of my vegetarian clients avoid meat or animals products foremost because they want to be healthy and lose weight. Many avoid meat due to ethical reasons. I began to notice some similar symptoms in my female vegetarian/vegan clients:
- weight gain
- no sex drive
- hormonal issues
- high blood sugar/hypoglycemia/high insulin
- depression, anxiety.
A few struggle with intestinal yeast or uterine fibroids. I explain the following to each one of them:
We are genetically identical to our ancestors, who thrived on a diet of vegetables, occasional fruits, nuts/seeds, and animals. They practiced a “rotation diet” by default, meaning that they weren’t eating the same things every day (or the same animals), and they certainly didn’t consume soy or fake foods like Morningstar Farms chik’n nuggets.
Furthermore, they weren’t consuming a whole lot of grains, if any at all, because most grains are difficult to digest unless they’ve been processed/soaked/sprouted or fermented to some extent. Yes, your breads contain leavening agents and your flour has to be processed and ground before use. Grains are intrinsically difficult to digest: they are coated in a sticky protein called lectin, which is not easily broken down by our digestive enzymes. The reason is because the grain needs to propagate, and they do so by being consumed by grazing animals and pooped out (not broken down) so they can be spread and then take root and grow elsewhere.
Our ancestors were indeed consuming a plant based diet. But they did have meat, and sometimes it was the focus of the meal (after a kill); sometimes it was more of a condiment. The fact is, we thrived on a diet that included varying amounts of animal protein.
Our ancestors didn’t suffer from the modern ills we experience today: high blood pressure, obesity, high blood sugar, cardiovascular disease, cancer. They also exercised, slept 10-12 hours, and ate an organic diet by default with no processed foods.
I have studied the research and witnessed the effects of a vegetarian diet both personally and among my vegetarian clients, and I have a few thoughts here. First off, sure, a vegetarian diet works for some folks. In fact, our diet should absolutely be plant-based! The people who live the longest, those living in the Blue Zones, eat a diet that is 95% plants. We are all physiologically different and no one diet is right for everyone. I’ve had vegetarian clients come to me because they went veg to lose weight, only to gain weight, perhaps because their bodies have a higher need for protein and they may not fare well on a grain-based diet.
I’ve had vegetarian clients come see me because they began to suffer
- debilitating stomach issues: soy, often a staple in a U.S. vegetarian/vegan diet, is very difficult to digest, as are grains), hormonal issues (soy is very estrogenic and also downregulates thyroid function, causing weight gain, infertility, and a host of other estrogen-dominant type issues
- depression: your body synthesizes feel-good neurotransmitters from amino acids in protein
- lack of sex drive.
- overall fatigue
- hair loss
In these cases, a vegetarian diet may be doing more harm than good. It could require a few adjustments, such as less soy and more cruciferous veggies for estrogen detox, or it may require the inclusion of, say, some salmon and eggs a few times a week. If you are a happy vegetarian and you feel good and your blood work is good, fine.
If you have one of more of the following issues troubling you, time to reconsider your diet.
- anxiety, depression
- hormonal issues, thyroid issues, PMS
- weight gain
- hair loss
- digestive issues, gas, bloating
- no sex drive
- no energy
- brain fog
Let’s clear up a few myths. People say they lose tons of weight and feel great when they go vegan. Great! Sure, this could work for a while. It’s basically like a cleanse: about 70 percent vegetables/carbs, and about 10 percent protein & fat. And anytime you transition from a processed food diet to a plant-based diet, of course your health will improve, and you will lose weight if you are overweight.
Fast forward a few months. Still feel great? Fine, carry on. Starting to feel lethargic, or is your weight plateauing? You’ve probably transitioned off the initial detox high and may be subject to hormone imbalance, iron deficiency, or fatty acid and B vitamin deficiency. You MUST take a B complex and iron if you’re a menstruating woman who eats vegan. It’s well established that vegans cannot get these nutrients from their diet and must supplement to avoid health problems. (source) I also recommend zinc supplementation.
Then there’s the “meat is unhealthy” claim. Sure, meat is unhealthy when you buy it from McDonald’s or if you buy mass produced factory farmed toxin-filled meat. Humanely raised hormone/antibiotic-free meat from reputable sources contains B vitamins, zinc, iron, good fats, and protein necessary for immune & cardiovascular function, tissue building & repair. We all require different amounts. But in times of stress, the body’s need for protein & good fats is greater. Don’t believe the hype about red meat causing early death. These studies are seriously flawed, and my guess is the participants weren’t eating organic meat.
Further, there are claims that red meat is carcinogenic and will raise cholesterol and cause heart disease. There’s a lot that’s wrong with these statements, but it starts with inaccuracies in studying humans, especially when they’re required to recall what they’ve been eating. It’s also impossible to control for other factors such as food quality and stress. You can see a good list of studies that unpack these claims here.
I’m not anti-vegetarian. In fact, I absolutely stress that everyone’s diet should be plant-based. That means 50 – 75% of your plate should be vegetables, possibly legumes if you can tolerate them. But the point of this article is to stress that no one diet works for everyone. It’s of course possible to be an unhealthy meat eater, sure. We need a plant-based diet. Plants provide antioxidants, minerals, and nutrients that oxygenate the body. It’s possible to be an unhealthy vegetarian, especially if you’re eating soy and fake meat products.
It’s about what is the right diet for YOU? The body’s needs change over time, and our diet must change to accommodate these needs. And my other point is this: if you have health issues, your diet should be the first thing you focus on.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.