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Two truths and a lie: vegetarian and plant-based diets

facts and myths about vegetarianism photoTo start, I have to let you know that I am not a vegetarian. I appreciate a good chicken wing (I am from Buffalo, after all), and I would be remiss to give up prosciutto forever.

 

That being said, I have dabbled in vegetarianism and veganism many times over the years, inspired by books like Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, and definitely have vegetarian tendencies.
But, I wanted to write about this topic today because, as a slim, 20-something yoga teacher, I am often asked whether I am vegetarian and if I would recommend that others go on a vegetarian diet.
So today, let’s play Two Truths and a Lie: Vegetarian edition.


 
 

Truth: Plant-based diets are better for the planet.

 

All diets are not created equal. Numerous studies have shown that calorie for calorie, plants require less water and oil to produce than milk or meat (read here and here). Agriculture is responsible for up to 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The United Nations has suggested that adopting vegan diets are critical for alleviating world hunger, climate change, and dependence on oil, and the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Committee recommended plant-based diets as more sustainable compared to diets that include meat.
 

Truth: It’s important to supplement with some vitamins if you are vegetarian or vegan.

 

Having a plant-based diet is associated with numerous health benefits including lower risk of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and mortality, among other benefits. It’s a pretty compelling evidence base. However, there are some vitamins and minerals that are much more abundant in animal products, so extra supplementation can help you feel your best if you are eating a vegan diet.

 

Here are some of the vitamins and minerals to look out for:

 

  • Iron and calcium. As compared to vitamin B12, iron is found in many plants, such as spinach, kale, and dark leafy greens. Calcium can also be found in dark leafy greens. However, these plants also contain a high amount of phytic acid and oxalic acid, which decrease absorption of iron and calcium. Plus, the iron found in plants is called nonheme iron, which is less absorbable than heme iron, which is found in animal products. Read here for some tips on improving your absorption of iron from plant-based sources.

 

  • Zinc. Zinc is an important nutrient for metabolism and your immune system. While zinc can be found in beans and grains, it is less bioavailable in plants than in animal-based sources similar to iron and calcium.

 

A few other nutrients that may be of concern if you’re on a vegetarian or vegan diet are omega-3 fatty acids, iodine, and vitamin D. While these are all found in some plant-based foods, they are less abundant as compared to animal sources. It’s important to note that in countries like the US, eating a vegetarian diet with a wide variety of plant-based foods is not associated with a poorer nutritional profile compared to meat eaters. A vitamin B12 supplement is definitely a good idea, make sure you’re eating lots of whole, unprocessed food, and if you’re concerned that you’re not getting the nutrients you need – get tested by a doctor.

 

I’d also like to note the nutrient that’s not on this list: protein. Contrary to the popular wisdom, it is totally possible to get the protein you need with a vegetarian diet. Read more about it here.

 

Lie: Everyone feels better if they are on a vegetarian or vegan diet.

 

Here’s the thing: even though reducing meat consumption has numerous health benefits and is better for the planet, it does not mean that cutting out all meat products from your diet is the healthiest for you.

 

Some people simply feel better with a little meat in their diet. Many people have allergies to nuts and grains that make sticking to a vegan diet difficult. My favorite example of health reasons to eat meat is The Dalai Lama. Unlike most Buddhist monks, the Dalai Lama is not vegetarian because his health does not permit it. So even with the highest motivation (being a devout spiritual leader) there may be reasons why it would be unhealthy for to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet.

 

Also, it’s important to note that no one food makes or breaks your diet. You can be an incredibly healthy meat eater, with a sensible 4 oz portion of meat each day, and a whole, unprocessed food diet, or an incredibly unhealthy vega, who lives on veggie burgers and vegan cookies. If going vegetarianism would actually promote less-healthy dietary behaviors….stick to your meat, my friend.

 

[Tweet “The healthiest diet is the one that keeps you feeling energetic & strong. @happyhealthysam”]

Ultimately, the healthiest diet for you is the one that keeps you feeling energetic, strong, and tastes delicious. And that differs for everyone.  For me, that means I eat vegan 4-5 days per week, and make room for a steak, some eggs, and carnitas when the mood strikes and the meat is delicious.

 

Your balance might be different, and that is ok. If you’re choosing your food consciously, and you feel physically and mentally well, that is the way to go.

 

Thanks for joining on two truths and a lie! Now I’d love to hear from you – have you ever dabbled in a vegetarian or vegan diet? How did you feel?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below. And if you have other nutrition topics you’d like to see addressed here – ask me!

 

  Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful day,   samantha attard sig

 

Explore other dietary myths and facts:

 

 

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  1. Hey Sam! I will say I agree with 2/3rds of what you wrote here.

    Plant based diets are not necessarily better for the environment, and much of our environment actually depends on proper grasslands management which includes grazing herbivores. So grass-fed meat actually can help restore the environment, particularly in the United States.

    I’d check out the Savory Institute for more info about this: http://savory.global/institute

    1. Really great point, Laura. It’s not eating meat that’s bad for the planet, it’s the way we’re currently producing it. Thanks for the reminder about the important role that grasslands play for the environment. Courtney White’s “Grass, Soil, Hope” is another great resource for this discussion.

      Thanks for chiming in!

      Sam

  2. I had no idea the Dalai Lama wasn’t vegetarian! Interesting.. I love your emphasis on choosing your food consciously. I decided that I wanted to try a vegan diet when I’m at home because I feel like it makes more sense for the environment and for my personal finances. I grew up eating hardly any meat and was never a big fan, so this wasn’t a big step. Surprisingly it has brought me so much joy, not because I necessarily feel more energized on a plant-based diet, but because with the new limitations I finally taught myself how to cook properly. I switch to vegetarian when visiting friends, and when travelling abroad or when I would notice my body is sending me signals to go back to eating meat, I would definitely consciously switch back. For now I’m loving exploring the world of tofu, beans and beyond! 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing, Sieb! I love your story – I am so glad that vegan living led to better cooking!! Sounds like you are super in tune with what your body wants and needs. Go you!!