To Veg or Not to Veg, Pt. 1: The Health Effects of Vegetarian Diets

I spent the entirety of 2013 as a vegetarian. At the time, I chose to go veg for ethical reasons. I’d been considering making the change for a few years at that point, and was very immersed in the environmental and social topics surrounding the issue. I wasn’t sure if I’d remain vegetarian for life or if it’d be a short-lived experiment. As it turned out, it lasted exactly one year: from January 1, 2013, to January 1, 2014.

I didn’t go back to eating meat because it was difficult to abstain. On the contrary, I actually found it very easy. I genuinely like most vegetarian meal choices, and I was living in Chicago at the time (a big urban city with an abundance of food options).

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I went back to eating meat for health reasons. As you’ll remember from my weight loss story, I initially got into nutrition through low-carb diets. Eliminating starches and grains works really well for my body – when I’m not eating a lot of carbs (however “healthy”) I feel much better. My digestion is smoother, I feel slimmer, I have more energy, I feel happier … proteins, fruits and veggies simply support my body much better than grains do.

Still, there are lots of people who claim that giving up meat is good for the heart. Meat is also calorie-dense (which is biologically a good thing – more bang for our buck) which means that some people may lose some weight if they cut down on their meat consumption. And yet, more and more science is pointing to the fact that animal products aren’t the problem – carbs and sugars are.

Then there’s the ethical side of things. Do I or do I not believe in eating animals? It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot.

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I haven’t eaten meat in about a week. I’ve been thinking about going back to a vegetarian lifestyle for a while now, and I feel like I’m at a crossroads. I thought I’d go over the objective evidence about veganism and vegetarianism as they relate to both health and ethics. What does science say about meat-free diets? What do spiritual leaders say about eating meat? And what are the environmental impacts of both kinds of diets? It’ll be a two-part blog series; today, I’m explaining what science and nutrition say about vegetarian diets.

Plant-Based Nutrition 

There’s a lot of debate about whether human beings are biologically herbivores or carnivores, but I don’t personally see why. Clearly, we’re omnivores. If we weren’t we wouldn’t have evolved to eat the mixed diet that we eat. Humans are remarkably diverse in the number of different diets we can healthily eat. We really can choose. However, there are some important nutrition-related issues to consider if you decide to go vegetarian – issues that are often glossed over by vegetarian communities.

Veg-friendly fats aren’t usually good for the heart: It’s important to address that meat-free shouldn’t mean low-fat. Yes, meat has more fat content than most plant-based foods, but if you’re removing meat from your diet, it’s extremely important to get those nutrients elsewhere. I wrote over at Care2 about the health benefits of high-fat diets. Fats aren’t bad for us: this is why, time and again, the Mediterranean diet (not an actual weight loss program – just the general kind of diet people who live near the Mediterranean tend to eat) has proven to be the most heart-healthy diet of them all. Monounsaturated fats (the kind found in fish, nuts, olive oil and avocados) are absolutely beneficial for heart health.

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When people give up animal products altogether (as is the case with veganism) they run the risk of depriving their bodies of healthy fats. Sure, they can eat avocados, olive oils and nuts. But it’s difficult to get the amount of fat you need from those three items.

There’s also a problem with the types of fats that veg-friendly products tend to contain. Take a look at my article about foods you think are healthy that actually aren’t, and scroll down to the section about canola oil. Most processed vegetarian foods contain highly processed vegetable oils as substitutes for butter, lard and other animal fats. These oils are really, really bad for us – much worse for us than natural animal fats.

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Gotta love highly processed “organic” vegan foods.

Now, there are solutions to this problem. You can drizzle extra-virgin olive oil on everything, cook with coconut oil, eat a lot of nuts, have avocados regularly, and (if you’re not vegan) eat lots of eggs, drink whole milk and eat minimally processed cheeses. But those things require a lot more intake in order to get the nutrient benefits of one fillet of salmon.

Plant-based proteins are not “complete” proteins: You probably already know that it’s important to pay attention to your protein intake if you’re a vegetarian. And yes, you can definitely get enough protein to survive from a combination of plant-based foods. However, by definition, individual plant proteins do not have all of the nutrients that animals need to survive.

Proteins vary in the types of animo acids that comprise their structure (I wrote about this over at Care2 as well). Animal proteins are “complete” proteins; they contain all of the essential amino acids that humans need to survive. These amino acids are termed “essential” because our bodies cannot make them. We need to get them from our food. Plant proteins, on the other hand, are incomplete. We need to pair them up in order to get the full spectrum of amino acids.

That said, the solution is pretty simple. All we have to do is pair accordingly. Rice and beans contains all nine essential amino acids. Same with peanut butter on bread. Generally, if you take a bean or legume and pair it with a grain, you’re all set. However, these are starchier, more processed meals than a simple chicken breast.

The issue with beans and legumes: Beans and legumes are staples of vegetarian and vegan diets, and for good reason. People who are avoiding meat need to get their protein from somewhere. Beans and legumes have a decent amount of protein and, as I mentioned, they complement grains to create a full amino acid profile.

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However, beans and legumes aren’t easily digested. They’re fibrous, sure, but they also contain galaco-ligosaccharides, a type of carbohydrate that’s not easy to digest. Plus, fiber is, by definition, indigestible (that’s how fiber works – it moves through your digestive tract and clears out leftover molecules, keeping you regular and ensuring that digestion runs smoothly). This is good for us, but it can make us bloated, gassy and feeling generally unpleasant.

Now, add the fact that beans and legumes contain phytic acid, an “anti-nutrient” that binds to nutrients we eat, preventing them from being absorbed by our bodies. Phytic acid is present in a lot of foods and isn’t harmful in small doses, but for vegetarians, beans and legumes are a major diet staple. In the long-term, this can prevent them from getting the nutrients they need to function optimally.

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After reading all of that, it may sound like plant-based eating is less healthy than meat-eating. But that’s not necessarily the case. You can eat a very clean vegetarian diet that’s rich in healthy fats, low on refined starches and free of processed vegetable oils – but it takes a lot of effort. You need to be willing to cook the majority of your meals, and those meals will be complex. They’ll require an abundance of fresh vegetables, heaps of brown rice and quinoa, a smattering of beans and legumes, lots of nuts and seeds, and extra attention to healthy fats like coconut and olive oils. In short, it’ll be time-consuming and expensive. If it’s not, you probably won’t be getting the nutrients you need to have high energy, a healthy heart, and good digestion. And you’ll probably be eating a lot of carbs and processed foods.

Yes, all of these things are obstacles – but people rarely switch to vegetarian diets for health reasons alone (and if they do, they’re misguided). There are profound moral and ethical reasons to make the switch, and those reasons tend to be the guiding force for people who decide to go veg. I’ll get into those ethical reasons (both moral and environmental) in the next post in this series.

If you’re vegetarian (or if you ever have been), let me know what you’ve done to keep your diet clean and healthy. If you’ve switched back to eating meat, let me know why! I’d love to hear others’ advice and experiences as I make my decision.

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  • Maggie, you’re very knowledgeable.
    I feel better by avoiding carbs like starches, grains and sugar. But I don’t know where fruits and cottage cheese and yogurt fit in, because they have carbs or fruit sugars. Maybe they do not cause the insulin level rise that other sugars do.

  • I’ve been vegetarian since December. I find that the more healthy carbs I consume, the better I feel. I have a diet high in fiber, fats, and carbs. I get a sufficient amount of protein, probably not as much as I should, but I feel I have enough energy. I do not find that it’s hard to get the required amount of healthy fats, as I cook almost everything with a little bit of olive oil (vegetables, pasta, rice, quinoa, etc.). It’s not more expensive to eat vegetarian than to eat meat. I spend the same amount on groceries now as I did when I ate meat. All clean eating diet, carnivore or not, require work. I really feel that getting the required nutrients as a vegetarian is not hard at all. I feel healthier and happier because I know my carbon footprint is lower and I’m helping animal rights.

    Overall, I thought this post was very informative and well written. You bring up good points and I think they are things everyone should consider.

    • Thanks for commenting! I’m glad to hear that your diet is working well for you. There are definitely a lot of things that I loved about being veg. For me, consuming lots of carbs – even if they are healthy, whole grain ones – tends to leave me feeling sluggish. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with body chemistry. That said, I may still try to make it work again. Sigh…

      • You have to do what’s best for your body, agreed. One thing that has helped me is taking a daily B12 supplement, as I don’t eat a lot of dairy either and it’s extremely difficult to get B12 outside of animal sources. I found that when I started taking that, my fatigue went away. I did feel extremely sluggish and tired until I started that daily regime. Something to look in to, at least!

  • Hi there! I have been vegetarian + vegan for over 12years. And honestly, I have never felt and if you pardon me, looked better. Plant based diet has worked like a charm for me, however I do respect if that is not the case for someone else.