During the month of October, I'm going to be exploring several different dietary strategies that seem to ebb and flow in popularity. We'll cover Paleo (or real food eating), Keto, vegetarianism/veganism, and the Standard American "Healthy" Diet. Within each category, I'll list the pros and cons, as well as give you my bottom line for each dietary approach.
There is a trend in the health industry right now, and it's rooted in the idea that we are better off not eating meat in order to be our healthiest.
I'm here to break the news that this is, simple put, a really really really REALLY bad idea.
Not only do we get so many essential nutrients from animal products, but we also have always eaten and thrived off of them. In fact, there is no studies of indigenous tribes/groups of people that didn't include at least some portion of animal products in their diet.
I don't come at this opinion lightly. As someone who avoided certain animal products for many years, I'm living proof that many health issues can result from not feeding your body what it NEEDS!
Today, we are going to cover the basics of both a vegan and vegetarian diet, the pitfalls of each, and the key nutrients you will miss out on if you choose to jump on the bandwagon with this approach to nutrition.
Let's dive in.
Foods included on a vegetarian/vegan diet (those foods marked with an * are NOT included on a vegan diet):
Nuts & seeds
Soy/other meat replacements and alternatives
Meat free bars/shakes/powders
Grains (including those that contain gluten)
Grain based products (crackers, pasta, cereal, muffins, etc)
Artificial sweeteners and real sweeteners
Other processed foods made without animal products
Foods excluded on a vegetarian/vegan diet:
Eggs, dairy, and fish/shellfish (for vegans)
Animal fats such as tallow, lard, butter, and ghee
The one thing I've never understood with all these fake meat products: why do food manufacturers work so hard to make them TASTE like meat, if the entire point is to avoid meat by buying said products??
It just seems like a bit of a contradiction to be buying products that taste and look like meat when they aren't. Just a thought...
The biggest problem I have with vegan and vegetarian products isn't actually the lack of animal protein. It's the fact that eating this way in the proper way takes a TON OF PLANNING, planning that less than 1% of people have time to allot.
We cannot eat a well-balanced vegan or vegetarian diet withOUT careful planning because we are missing out on so many key nutrients while eating this way. We need to make sure we are pairing our foods together to get the correct amino acid profile, including specific foods to ensure we are getting enough of the essential vitamins and minerals, and adding in quality supplementation to ensure we are getting the right amount of essential nutrients we can't get from anything other than animal products. So, when it's all said and done, you need to dig deep into what you are eating and missing out on every. single. meal with a vegetarian/vegan approach, and if you aren't overwhelmed just reading that paragraph above, maybe this approach is for you (joking - really, don't try it please).
Besides the planning aspect, eating a vegetarian or vegan diet sets us up to miss out on the following key nutrients.
(Please note that these deficiencies can often take years to develop, which is why vegetarians/vegans often feel okay when they first switch their diet; but what they've actually done is simply swap out a highly processed diet for one with more vegetables so they see some progress. Eventually though, this will end and these deficiencies will set in.)
1. Vitamin B12 - this tends to be the most common, as this is a nutrient only found in meat. B12 is involved in making DNA and red blood cells, as well as involved in nerve health. Deficiency can cause fatigue, lethargy, weakness, memory loss, anemia, and neurological issues.
2. Calcium - essential for bone health obviously, but also muscle/nerve function and blood clotting. Dairy isn't our only source; fish with edible bones qualifies as well.
3. Zinc - critical for our immune system, cell growth, and wound healing.
4. EPA/DHA - plants do contain some fatty acids, but usually in the form of omega-6 and ALA fats, not the essential EPA and DHA. These fatty acids must be obtained from the diet and have been shown to protect against a variety of health issues, including cancer, depression, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer's.
5. Vitamins A, D, E, and K (the fat soluble vitamins) - vitamins A and D are most likely to suffer here, as the plant forms of vitamin A are not readily absorbed (they contain beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A) and vitamin D needs fatty acids present (see above) to be absorbed as well.
6. Iron - the stored form of iron, ferritin, is what we are most concerned about. Plant based forms of iron are only absorbed at 1% (compared to 10% in animal products) and are inhibited by the consumption of coffee, tea, dairy, and certain supplements.
Choline, creatine, taurine, methionine, glycine, and selenium can also be included on this list as well.
Animal products, on the other hand, contain plentiful amounts of these nutrients and are not going to kill us all, as they have been slated to do since the 1960s. Most of our health issues since that time, especially heart disease and high cholesterol, have come from an increased intake of:
Sugar (added in to replace fat)
Partially hydrogenated fats
Highly processed meats (think McDonald's)
Grains/grain-based processed products (think the bun on the McDonald's hamburger)
Soda and other sugar/artificially sweetened beverages
Lack of sleep
We have just chosen to blame animal products in all of this, and wrongly too I might add.
For more information on this topic, I highly recommend looking at Diana Rodgers work. She is much more well versed than I on this topic!