Ask any vegetarian why they decided to make the meat-free leap, and you’ll likely get a roomful of answers. Some might love animals. Some might have ecological reasons. Some might have eschewed their steak-eating days to lose weight.
Me? I did it for yoga. I read that yogis are vegetarian, so I decided to try it for a month, and after two weeks, I realized I’d probably never go back. I felt better. I felt less dense, physically and mentally.
Sure, I’ve since eyed a piece of bacon and thought, Mmmmm, bacon, with my inner Homer Simpson voice. I’ve even confessed that if I ever return to my meat-eating ways, it would be for a chicken wing. But here’s the truth: I’ve never once questioned the wisdom of becoming a vegetarian, and my health has remained stellar since I did.
I must admit, when I became a vegetarian over a decade ago, I (like many veggie converts) really didn’t have a clue what I was getting myself into. And, perhaps more importantly, I couldn’t tell if my body was ready for my new, meat-free experiment. I didn’t know where I was getting my protein—everyone’s favorite vegetarian question—and I wasn’t sure if the rice and beans and veggie burgers I was eating instead of chicken and beef and fish would give me all the nutrients I needed.
Thankfully, I worked all of that out. And, also thankfully, the voices supporting the wisdom of my choice are growing stronger.
Why plants promote good health
According to Brooke Alpert, MS, RD, a nutritionist in New York City, a well-planned vegetarian diet can be very beneficial. “Vegetarian diets are often lower in saturated fats and cholesterol, and higher in fiber, folate, and anti-oxidants than meat-based diets,” says Alpert. Because of this, vegetarians tend to have a lower risk of high blood pressure and heart disease than meat eaters. Which is all very logical when you consider that saturated fats come almost exclusively from animal products, and animal fat is the sole source of cholesterol.
Fiber—often lacking in Americans’ diets—comes part and parcel with eating a plant-based diet. Vegetables, fruit, legumes, and grains are all loaded with both soluble and insoluble fiber. “I’m feeling irregular” will be a sentiment you can pretty much put to rest when you’re a vegetarian.
A small sampling of recent studies shows how the wisdom of vegetarianism, and subsequent reduction in disease, is being borne out by science. In Japan—a country widely lauded for its healthy eating habits—a study found middle-aged vegetarians get more nutrients than their meat-eating counterparts, including higher calcium, iron, and fiber levels. In Australia, adolescents who followed a mostly vegetarian diet were found to be healthier, with better body mass index scores, waist circumference, cholesterol levels, and other markers of cardio-vascular health. David Simon, MD, medical director of the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California, isn’t surprised. “Most scientific studies that compare herbivore and carnivore diets find that vegetarians have overall better health, including a reduction in cardiovascular disease, cancer rates, and depression.”
Notice a trend, though, of experts citing a well-planned and balanced vegetarian diet. Trading out meat for potato chips and pasta every night doesn’t cut it.
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When vegetarianism doesn’t work
“If you’re going to try a vegetarian or vegan diet, you can’t just give up meat and dairy and think, Now I’m a vegetarian or vegan,” says Ann Gentry, founder and CEO of Los Angeles–based vegan restaurants Real Food Daily and author of The Real Food Daily Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2005). “A varied plant-based diet is crucial,” says Gentry. Translation: A poorly planned, imbalanced, same-foods-all-the-time vegetarian diet—also known as a “junk food vegetarian” diet loaded with simple carbs like bread and french fries—can cause a host of nutrient deficiencies. My sister tried this and, of course, her vegetarian days didn’t last long. She was in college. Becoming a vegetarian was a phase. And because she wasn’t able to get off the french fries and on the stir-fries, her experiment in vegetarianism became an experiment in not eating well—antithetical to going vegetarian in the first place. “A poorly planned vegetarian diet can make you tired, prevent healthy metabolism, and cause nervous system damage, weak bones, vision issues, and poor brain function,” says Alpert.
Luckily, before I became vegetarian, I was a fairly robust eater. I liked food. All food. It turned out to be a trait that served me well in those early years after I switched to a plant-based diet. I easily avoided eating the same vegetarian foods over and over again because I traded meat for any and all vegetables and veg-friendly products I could get my hands on. But for those who think the main concern when it comes to being a vegetarian is getting enough protein, here’s some news: rice and beans—complete protein. Soy—complete protein. Peanut butter and whole-wheat bread—complete protein. It’s that simple. And to be clear, a “complete” or “perfect” protein supplies all the amino acids that must be consumed because the body cannot make them on its own.
However, there are other serious nutritional deficiencies that can result from a poorly planned vegetarian diet. When you cut out meat and chicken and don’t eat enough beans, iron deficiency can result and lead to anemia. Not eating fish or dark leafy greens? You may not be getting enough omega-3 fatty acids, which can lead to inflammation in the body. And a lack of iodine—found in shellfish and some cheeses—can lead to thyroid enlargement and goiter.
Some of these deficiencies will be easy to detect. You’ll know if you’re tired. A goiter, well, you’ll know that too. But will you know if your brain’s cell membranes are starving for fatty acids? Maybe not.
“Making sure you’re getting the right amount of nutrients may require more attention than you’re used to and force you to become more aware of how your body feels in relation to what you’re eating,” says Simon. “But every study that looks at vegetarianism finds that if you follow a healthy, balanced diet, you can get all the nutrients you need.”
Despite the potential drawbacks, eating a well-planned vegetarian diet is less complicated than you think. It just takes a little more planning—and a new mind-set. “There’s a large contingency of people, whether they’re vegetarian or not, who want to eat more vegetables and whole grains, but they find it hard to do,” says Gentry. “Getting past the resistance in your head is a good first step.”
Another important one: Make sure you stock the right kinds of foods. Is your pantry full of processed and prepackaged foods? Ditch those, and start storing rice, beans, legumes, and other basics of a good vegetarian diet. Also, prepare yourself for spending more time planning and cooking meals—especially at first. But the more comfortable you get experimenting with new foods, the easier preparation will become.
And keep that little reminder voice in the back of your head: varied, balanced, well-planned. This mantra will be your guide to healthy vegetarianism. “The best tactic for vegetarians is to make sure each meal includes foods with a variety of colors,” says Alpert. “It’s an easy way to cheat to help you get all the nutrients you need.” And that’s good advice for everyone.
By Bryce Edmonds, a Los Angeles–based freelance writer