By Meghan Anderson Thomas, MS
I constantly hear:
Omnivores: “Vegetarians just don’t look healthy.”
Vegetarians: “ Meat just isn’t good for you.” Or “I feel so much better when I’m not eating it”
So who has it right? Can they both be right and wrong at the same time? I think the answer lies in the motivations behind the eater. The omnivore may have a point because vegetarianism, like all other diets, has the capacity to be unhealthy.
Essentially, vegetarianism, pescetarianism, veganism, etc. are elimination diets. Like any elimination diet, they have the potential to lack vital nutrients including certain vitamins that are predominately found in animal products. According to Sabate, vegetarian diets when compared to meat-based diets are more likely to be deficient in vital nutrients(1). Similarly, when omnivores (typical American diet) obtain the abundance of their calories from meat and dairy they have less room for the fruit and vegetables that provide them with the other nutrients vegetarians so easily acquire. Moreover, studies show that the increased risk of cancer and heart disease in meat-based diets may be related to a deficiency in the phytochemicals and other compounds found in plant-based foods, not just the intake of saturated fats and excess calories(2).
Again, the problem lies in the motivation. Vegetarians and omnivores alike that eat for health are much more likely to eat properly. The choice of becoming a vegetarian for health reasons alone may lead the vegetarian in question to a more healthful diet in which they are cognizant of variety and balance. That being said, there are plenty of vegetarians that may be doing it for the wrong reasons or are, like most, uneducated in making the proper nutritional decisions.
The observation that vegetarians are unhealthy may actually be evident. Most will argue that they have been deficient in iron, zinc, calcium and B vitamins since they have eliminated animal products, leading to anemia(2). Not to mention that most vegetarians are women who are prone to anemia due to menstruation. The fatigue that follows leads to the snowball effect of fatigue, decreased exercise and depression. The point is, diet has a strong influence on health and well-being and it is dangerously easy to eat incorrectly, even if one’s intentions may be pure. This is seen in all “types” of eaters alike.
It is important to remember that as a vegetarian, the elimination of a steak may reduce your risk for heart disease, hypertension, atherosclerosis, hyperlipidemia, etc., but it is not a free pass to eat all the junk food you can to make up for it. The elimination of meat alone is not the ticket to health. Instead, it seems to be a correlation: the vegetarians motivated by health are also more likely to be cognizant enough to eat right all of the time. Furthermore, Sabate illustrates that the vegetarian diet is viewed as improving health and limiting disease when compared to the meat-based diet(1).
1. Sabate, J. (2003). The contribution of vegetarian diets to health and disease: a paradigm shift? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78 (3), 502S-507S.
2. Nieman, D. C. (1999). Physical fitness and vegetarian diets: is there a relation? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 70 (3), 570S-575S.