“I became a vegan slowly,” recalls Tammy Jackson, 22. “I gave up red meat after I developed a serious aversion to beef after a bad burger experience and because of all the negative stuff I’d read about the beef industry—hormones, antibiotics, sanitation issues and so on.”
While only about 2.5% of Americans don’t eat meat, the surge in vegetarian products over the past few years shows that there’s an increasing interest in meat-free lifestyles. In-n-Out and Burger King now offer a vegetable burger. And it seems like every grocery store carries soy milk and veggie alternatives to steaks and hot dogs. But besides peace of mind when you think of all those cute little farm animals you’re saving, what do meat-free diets really do for our bodies? Do they contribute to healthy weight loss? Are they all they’re cracked up to be?
You are what you eat.There are three main categories that meat-free lifestyles fall into:
* Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian: This describes the majority of the US’s veggie population. Meat, poultry and fish are excluded, but eggs and other dairy products are still consumed. * Lacto-Vegetarian: Same as above, minus the eggs. * Vegan: All animal products are excluded, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products. About 1/3 of meat-free dieters are vegans.
It’s not as easy as it looks.According to a recent survey conducted by vegetarian newsletter Jupiter Rising, 72% of non-meat-eaters shun animal products for moral reasons. “Being a vegan makes me feel connected to those less fortunate than myself. I’m trying to be conscious of how my consumption patterns affect other people,” says Jackson. She points out that eating just five ounces of flank steak has a profound effect on the environment; it takes 40 acres of grass to support one cow.
But what about the rest of the self-declared non-meat-eaters? Heather Correy, 23, gave up meat when she was 16: “I thought it would be an easy way to lose weight. I figured hamburgers and steaks were fattening, so if I barred myself from eating them I’d be skinny in no time. Boy, was I wrong!” Correy’s misguided attempt at weight loss had her replacing protein with high-fat and high-starch alternatives, like cheese and extra servings of garlic bread and linguine. “One year later I was 10 pounds heavier and anemic,” says Correy. Anemia is often caused by a lack of iron, and iron is primarily found in meat. When someone’s anemic, they’re often tired, light-headed and suffer from weakness and headaches. Ever since reintroducing lean meats like chicken and fish into her meals, Correy has both begun feeling better and lost the excess weight. So does meat-free not necessarily mean healthy?
“The problem, as I see it, is that most people struggle with consistently eating a ‘healthy’ diet whether they are vegetarians or carnivores,” says Sue Dieffenbach, Registered Nurse and Certified Nutritional Consultant. According to Dieffenbach, the only difference between a healthy carnivorous diet and a healthy vegetarian diet should be the primary source of protein. That’s it.
So where’s the protein?Women need about 45 grams of protein a day, which is roughly equivalent to a six ounce chicken breast and an egg. So how can non-meat-eaters get the protein they need? Dieffenbach maintains that all essential nutrients can be obtained from a vegetarian—or even a vegan—diet. All it takes is informed planning. “The key point, for both meat and non-meat-eaters alike, is to focus on nutrient-dense whole food choices and avoid nutrient-poor processed and fast foods,” she advises. This means Correy’s cheesy, starchy meals are out and meals like Jackson’s are in: “A vegan diet is centered on grains, legumes, beans, veggies and fruit. Foods such as tofu, mushrooms, sunflower seeds and flax are all high in protein, but many people don’t know this,” says the vegan. Since non-meat-eaters usually consume far more wholesome, natural foods and (hopefully!) much less saturated fat than most people, there are many health benefits associated with these lifestyles: lower blood pressure, lower rates of heart disease, type two diabetes, hypertension and colon cancer.
“Healthy” pitfalls.Jenny Geyser, certified personal trainer, nutrition and lifestyle coach, cautions young women considering meat-free diets to beware of overdosing on certain overly processed products. “They tend to consume far too much soy and processed soy products, which lately had been shown, through many studies, to possibly be harmful.” Informed veggie gals should avoid all processed soy, including the “soy protein isolate” found in powders, bars and all those fake soy hot dogs, soy patties, ice creams and so on. Geyser cautions: “There has been much research coming out to show that these are not healthy food choices!”
How do you do it right, then?Well, now that you know how to do it wrong, how do you start heading in the right direction? Jackson, Dieffenbach and Geyser all agree that the best way to approach a meat-free diet is to become informed. Read up as much as you can on the subject and, if possible, consult with a nutritionist or dietician. “Vegans must be even more careful about planning their meals to avoid creating deficiencies of certain vitamins and minerals, especially vitamins B12 and zinc, which are commonly found in animal products,” says Geyser. Most experts suggest that vegans take a B12 supplement.
Bottom line? If it’s weight loss you’re after, shunning meat is unnecessary and may even set you up for more food-based difficulties. But if it’s something you really care about, it’s worth the extra effort. Just ask Jackson: “I’d say that the major health improvement, for me, has been self-respect and a true love for food. Too many women cannot enjoy eating because of body image issues and regret. I get to love what I eat.”