I have a bugaboo about the concept of the “perfect diet.” There is no one “perfect” diet; everyone’s ideal eating “mix” will be unique to their needs, goals, and genetics.
Hence this blog series. My goal is to present pros and cons of different eating regimens so that you can parse out the appropriate elements for YOU. (Missed part one? Read it here).
Vegetarian versus vegan and the “protein versus veggie” debate
You can’t make healthier choices if you are not aware of your actions, habits, and thoughts; awareness facilitates choice. Regardless of what “nutritional camp” you decide to live in, embrace awareness. Stop guesstimating. Journal your food for a few weeks. We typically underestimate unhealthy choices and overestimate healthy choices. Adopt “the pause.” Before eating, reflect on what you are eating, why you are eating (anger, sadness, etc), and how you are eating (standing, watching TV, etc).
Clarify why you are choosing a particular eating strategy — weight loss, blood sugar control, ethics, etc. Your goals and eating strategy should mesh. For example, people often become vegetarian to lose weight and get discouraged when that does not happen.
In my experience, many people, especially women, tend to gain weight when they become vegetarian. I lost weight (unintentionally) when I stopped being vegetarian. I inadvertently consumed fewer carbs and more protein. Many vegetarian-based proteins are actually a mix of carbs and protein, whereas meat is a pure protein.
I am not making a judgment on vegetarianism or health versus weight-loss goals. What I am saying is, be informed and clear. Don’t conflate health with weight. Know why you are changing your habits so that your choices align with the goal.
Vegetarianism exists on a continuum from those who eat no animal products or animal byproducts (vegans), to lacto-ovo vegetarians (no animal flesh, but hybrid products like dairy and eggs), to pesco-lacto-ovo vegetarians (hybrid products and fish).
- The most obvious: vegetables. Vegetables are nutritiously dense; regular consumption is vital for maintaining healthy, functional bodies. Now, this positive is lost for the surprising number of “carbetarians” — vegetarians and vegans who don’t prioritize vegetables and survive on mostly white carbs such as pasta, rice, bread, etc.
- According to Staying Healthy with Nutrition, vegetarians and vegans, in general, tend to consume fewer saturated fats and more fiber and on average vegetarians have lower incidences of hypertension, obesity, high cholesterol, atherosclerosis, heart disease, and cancer — big positives!
- According to Prescription for Dietary Wellness, for pesco-lacto-ovo vegetarians a positive is the heart-healthy fats found in fish.
- Staying Healthy with Nutritionalso states that vegetarians have a possible reduced iron and vitamin B consumption and higher rates of anemia, and that the most common deficiencies for vegans are the above, plus vitamin A and D.
- For me, the biggest negative is the issue of effort. Of course you can mitigate common nutritional deficiencies; you can prioritize orange, yellow, and green vegetables to get vitamin A, get vitamin D outside, and combine rice and beans to get the required combination of lysine and tryptophan. You can combine foods to get adequate protein, but this takes effort and mindfulness — skills a vast majority lack. (For more information on food combining and vegetarian nutrition check out Staying Healthy With Nutrition, The Complete Guide To Sports Nutrition, and this article by Precision Nutrition). The further along the continuum towards vegan, the fewer foods one can eat and the more critical the issue of effort becomes.
- Hunger and sugar cravings. Protein helps you feel satiated. A lack of protein increases sugar cravings.
Who might want to be vegetarian?
- Anyone with religious or ethical reasons.
- Individuals who want to prioritize vegetables and feel they will only do so on a strict program that highlights the importance of vegetables. When adopting new habits, many people thrive on “non-negotiables.”
- Individuals who are motivated when choices and identity align. Many are more likely to consistently choose vegetables if that choice is connected to the identity shift of being vegetarian.
- Individuals who have traditionally eaten large amounts of meat — especially fried and processed meats. Their systems will appreciate the break.
Who might want to steer clear?
- The less organized among us.
- The meat lovers. Long term no one will stick to a plan they hate.
- Me — or anyone with my genetics. Genetics play a huge role in how well your body processes carbs, fats, and proteins. I feel stronger, leaner, and more energetic as a meat eater. (Let’s be clear: I eat copious amounts of vegetables and moderate amounts of healthy, well-sourced meats.)
BUT isn’t being vegetarian inherently healthier?
I constantly get “but you’re healthy; I assumed you were a vegetarian.” If my journey has taught me anything it is that the presence (or lack) of meat in your diet is not the singular variable that determines whether your diet is “healthy” or “unhealthy.” You can be a healthy or an unhealthy vegetarian. You can be a healthy or unhealthy meat eater. It is the big picture that matters. The way everything in your day combines is key.
Know the rules of different eating regimens so that you can break themand make them your own. Filter different approaches through the lens of your genetics, your goals, your past successes, and the general pillars of healthy eating (eg, awareness). If being a vegetarian is your goal but you don’t want to say “no” when at someone else’s house, be a “vegetarian except when a guest.” If you want to be a vegetarian who minimizes nutritionally vapid “white” foods while prioritizing non–meat-based protein, go for it — be what I would call a “low-carbo-proteinetarian.” You are the artist of your own life.
There is no magic diet or magic food. Align your goals and choices. Prioritize knowledge and awareness. Without awareness you don’t have a fighting chance.
Intrigued? Future blogs will discuss regimens such as the macrobiotic style of eating, the ketogenic diet, and programs like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers.
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