The greatest nutrition debate of our time: is a vegetarian diet healthier than an omnivorous diet? Are vegetarians healthier? This is a topic about which I am passionate. Be sure to check out my more updates posts on the topic:
When I was 15, I attended an animal rights workshop. There, I saw for the first time the deplorable and unsanitary conditions associated with factory farming. The mistreatment and blatant abuse. It was inhumane. A lifelong animal lover, I was appalled and vowed never to eat meat again.
And so it was, for the next 13 years. After a bout with anemia, I did reintroduce fish (as if that’s particularly high in iron). I carefully researched how to craft the perfect veggie diet. For the most part, I felt fine. I didn’t crave meat. But I did overdose on soy products, as is common with vegetarians and vegans, and experienced hormonal problems. But when I cut back, I just wasn’t getting enough protein for my physiology. I felt tired and developed some nutritional deficiencies.
So I started eating chicken again. And slowly, some beef here and there. Always organic and sustainable, and usually purchased from local farms. I felt horribly guilty at first, but I also felt…. good.
Should You Be a Vegetarian?
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that vegetarianism is healthier, that vegetarians experience increased longevity, and that eating meat causes cancer. There is no proof that a healthy vegetarian diet when compared to a healthy omnivorous diet will result in a longer life. And typically, people who choose a vegetarian lifestyle also choose to live a healthier lifestyle.
There is little data to support the idea outright that meat-eating causes cancer or heart disease. However, eating processed meat has been linked to higher rates of colon cancer. Here in America, we have very high rates of heart disease and cancer and these diseases are most certainly linked to diet, mainly because we subsist on trans-fatty acids, boxed foods, and too much processed or factory farmed meats. This meat has an altered and unnatural fatty acid composition over the grass fed meat we are designed to consume, contributing to a higher level of the inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. Inflammation leads to disease. The French have one of the highest per capita consumption of meat, yet they have low rates of heart disease. In Greece, meat consumption is higher than average but rates of heart disease are low there as well.
Protein is the building block of health. In this country, most of us consume way too much protein, and we’re consuming too may calories overall. We eat like marathon runners and sit on the couch. We have diseases of excess. We need on average about half of our body weight IN GRAMS in protein per day. So, if you weigh 140, you need about 70 grams. And yes, it is possible to get a complete plant protein. This means you are getting all the essential amino acids that are key factors for health, needed to build and repair tissue, and are necessary for brain chemistry and overall metabolic function. But vegetarian protein sources (quinoa, legumes, nuts) do not contain B12, critical for energy and heart health, and nutritional factors like coenzyme Q10, carnitine, and alpha-lipoic acid are only found in animal foods.
Typically, vegetarians survive on soy products. Non-fermented soybeans and foods made with them are high in phytic acid, an anti-nutrient that binds to minerals in the digestive tract and carries them out of the body. Mineral deficiencies are common in vegetarians, zinc especially. Zinc is a critical antioxidant for the immune system. Also, most soy products today are processed, delivering chemicals like soy protein isolate or hydrolyzed soy protein that can cause major health issues. Fermented soy — miso and natto and tempeh — is healthy in moderation.
In keeping with my belief that we should eat according to our ethnicity, here in North America, we evolved on a hunter-gatherer Paleolithic diet of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and meat such as mammoth, sloth, bison, mountain sheep, antelope, beaver, elk, mule deer, and llama. Our stomach’s production of hydrochloric acid is something not found in herbivores – we need it to break down meat. This is one of the many physiological factors pointing to the fact that we are designed for meat consumption.
Here’s the thing. We are all biochemically different. Your nutritional needs are different from mine, and our dietary needs change over time. Some of us require more protein, and some may thrive on a carb-heavy diet comprised mostly of fruits, veggies, and grains. You may thrive on a vegetarian diet. But when vegetarians show up in my clinic with hormonal issues and deficiencies, or if they have health issues that call for a building diet, I supply facts about why introducing some animal protein can be beneficial.
I believe that we thrive on a plant-based diet, with meat as more of a side dish. 50 -60 percent of your plate should be leafy greens and optional starchy veggies/beans with a little fat and a little meat. Those recovering from surgery or illness may require more, or less. Our ancestors probably did not eat meat every meal or even every day. The current Standard American Diet is too high in protein, unhealthy fats, and sugars.
Eat meat heathfully and sustainably. Support local farms. Look for meat CSAs (community supported agriculture) in your area. ALWAYS eat organic, grass fed, hormone-free meat. Buy from the farmers’ market. Eat more fish. Take a vegetarian day every once in a while. Do a vegetable and fruit-based cleanse a couple times a year. In the end, it’s a personal decision, but meat isn’t the enemy – when it’s done right.
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.