When someone tells you they’re vegetarian or vegan, chances are you automatically assume that means they eat a healthy diet. Although plant-based diets go a long way in mitigating the risks of developing many chronic illnesses, there’s more to consider.
Is it better to eat plant-based?
Vegetarians eat a mainly plant-based diet, especially when it comes to protein. Vegetarians, however, can eat eggs and dairy, while vegans refrain from all animal products. The benefits of being a vegetarian are abundant, as legumes, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains automatically make up a huge portion of daily calories. But there are also plenty of unhealthy processed foods that are both vegan and vegetarian.
Sugar and processed foods can be a problem no matter what diet you follow. Many packaged and processed foods market to vegetarians, including fake meat products that are sometimes loaded with preservatives. Furthermore, dairy itself can be inflammatory to the body if eaten in large quantities, a trap that some vegetarians fall into unknowingly. Sugar, a known inflammatory food and addictive substance for most of the population, is just as present in any vegetarian diet as it is in omnivorous diets. So, if you really want to eat a healthy diet, vegetarianism is only going to benefit you if you if you also avoid processed foods and sugar and maybe even slow down on your consumption of dairy products.
So, I’ll eat meat!
Let’s look at the other side of the coin. It turns out that animal protein is the best bang for your buck in bioavailable protein and amino acids. In other words, while eating plant-based proteins is a healthy option, animal proteins provide more easily absorbed nutrients. Those who sparingly eat lean meats, like chicken and fish, are well on their way to having healthy diets. Beyond that, those who consume other parts of the animal through bone broths and organ meat get a bonus batch of superfood vitamins and minerals.
Are you saying eating meat is healthy, too?
Research is starting to show that, because all bodies are different, sticking to a vegetarian diet isn’t the healthiest plan for everyone. Some people require animal protein to feel their best. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s time to go out and grab a fast-food hamburger every day for lunch, but it does mean a diet that incorporates meat shouldn’t be labeled unhealthy.
As we navigate the world of plants and animals, a quote comes to mind from author Michael Pollen: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” In his opinion, eating some meat in moderation is good for your overall health.
What’s a foodie to do?
If you like meat but also feel the lure of the health benefits of vegetarianism, we have a new word for you: reducetarian. This movement, springing out of the desire to support local farms that serve up grass-fed meats, dairy and eggs while also taking the food industry’s impact on the planet into account, is all about moderation. Reducetarians aim for a mainly plant-based diet with a sprinkling of animal protein added for good measure. It’s a great way to get the benefits of both a vegetarian and omnivorous diet.
Whether you opt to go full vegetarian or leave some meat in your rotation, keep in mind that both eating styles have many similarities in nutritional requirements. Fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes should be staples of any health-conscious diet. Beyond that, vegetarians need plenty of complete proteins, which is achievable through food combinations as well as amino-acid powerhouses like soy. Meat-eaters should remain conscious of the type and quality of meat they eat as well as the quantity so that saturated fat and cholesterol don’t become an issue.
If you have more questions about creating a nutrition program that works best for you, ask one of our Hancock Wellness Center dieticians. They’re ready to help make your health possible.