I’ve been a vegetarian for more years of my life now than I haven’t been; I’m going on 20 years without meat now. My husband is entering his 3rd year of vegetarianism, and we are raising our children as vegetarians. In fact, my youngest child has never tasted meat. So, I think it’s safe to say I’m familiar enough with it; it’s a part of who I am. Over the last two decades I’ve seen vegetarianism and overall awareness about healthier eating evolve; both in my own understanding, and society’s as well. I find this exhilarating and promising! When I first stopped eating meat, I’d have to trek (and I do mean trek… I didn’t have a driver’s license yet, folks) to an out-of-the-way tiny health food store to get the one brand of soy dogs that were made at the time – that tasted, well, let just say: less than awesome. Nowadays, meat analogs (that actually taste like meat – if that’s your thing; it’s not really mine) are sold at nearly every grocery store – alternative as well as conventional. I’ve met many vegetarians in person (not just online), I know another family raising their children without meat, my children’s school excludes meat from the lunch menu, most restaurants have menu options other than salad for vegetarian patrons, and even fast food chains have vegetarian choices (though, personally, since viewing Supersize Me several years ago, we no longer patronize fast food restaurants). The fact that meatless options are so readily available now is a testament to the increasing normalization of vegetarianism in our culture. It only makes me increasingly hopeful for the future health of our nation!
Often, when my eating habits come to light, one of the first questions I’m asked is, “why?” It’s a valid question, and one I’ve not really put into words, until now: Why am I a vegetarian? In all truthfulness, I first embarked on my vegetarian journey trying to be different, rebellious, special – I was a teenager in a meat-loving household; you get the picture. It just felt good to answer the question, “Would you like some meat loaf?” with a dramatic, “No way!” (and watch my level of coolness exponentially increase). I even influenced one of my sisters to become vegetarian (and she still is to this day). Of course, after a while, the act of not eating meat became far less of a conscious effort and was much more habitual, and eventually I entirely lost interest in the taste of meat. But it wasn’t until fairly recently – I’d say around the time I became pregnant with my first child (enter Supersize Me again), that I really started digging a little deeper into the whys and hows of a meatless diet. Full disclosure, I haven’t been a strict vegetarian all 20 years. There have been points in time where I have eaten fish, even had some chicken during my pregnancy & breastfeeding years. Yet, I always tend to come back to a vegetarian diet; and strive towards a vegan (or nearly so) diet. So why is that, after all these years?
Primarily, I believe that vegetarianism is one of the healthiest ways to eat. It is naturally low in saturated fat and cholesterol, high in fiber, and rich in nutrients gained from the key building blocks of the food pyramid: fruits, veggies, and grains. It tastes good and feels good to eat fresh, real foods. Being vegetarian often forces one to pay closer attention to what is in the things one is eating, and in doing so, one reads labels and studies menus more carefully and closely, and becomes more choosy overall about what is going into one’s body. I see all of these things as good: the more aware you are about what you eat, the better choices you tend to make.
Secondarily, I believe vegetarianism is a more sustainable and earth-friendly way to eat. For example, it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef (Sources: http://www.vegsource.com/articles/pimentel_water.htm | http://www.earthsave.org/environment/water.htm) compared with 60 gallons of water to produce one pound of potatoes. That’s a lot of H2O saved by not eating meat. Not to mention the land savings: it takes far more land to produce a pound of meat – via mass amounts of grain needed to feed cattle intended for slaughter (which is neither a natural nor healthful diet for cows, though not precisely the point) than it does to produce a pound of vegetables/grains intended for human consumption. (Source: http://michaelbluejay.com/veg/environment.html) Simply put, cows consume far more food than they produce. More complexly, in order to produce the amount of grain needed to generate meat, the grain needs to be grown in large quantities (through use of pesticides and water) and harvested and transported quickly (through use of fossil fuels). It doesn’t make sense from an environmental standpoint to use so much of our precious land and resources to feed a cow, just to slaughter it for a fraction of the amount of food which could have been gained instead from planting the fields with crops intended for human consumption. Recently, Adam and I watched Food Inc., and I’ll never look at animal-derived food products in the same way. The ideas about more vegetable consumption and reduced animal consumption being better for the planet really came into better focus for me after seeing this film.
Finally, and perhaps most simply, by not eating meat, I’m not directly contributing to the killing nor torturing of animals, through my dietary preference. Frankly, I teach my children to treat other beings that share this planet with us – people AND animals – with kindness and empathy; so to do otherwise when it comes to our dietary choices is a dichotomy which I’ve yet to find a better way to reconcile, than going with a compassionate (vegetarian) diet.
So there are the whys. What about the hows? As healthy a way of eating as vegetarianism is (heck, switch around a few letters, and you’ve practically got the word vegetable), as many celebrities who “go vegan”, as many articles that are written on the benefits of a low fat, plant-rich diet, I find that still the mention of a meatless diet causes concern, in varying degrees, from strangers, friends, and family. I find the concern directed most particularly towards “getting enough”. In other words, by eating vegetarian, are we really eating healthy enough? Are we eating enough protein, consuming enough calcium, getting enough iron? Honestly, I can’t say even I am immune to this concern. How can I be sure we’re getting enough? Anecdotally, I’m healthy, my children are healthy, and after just a few months on a nearly-vegan diet, my husband’s high cholesterol came completely under control; he’s healthy & vegetarianism helped him get there. I was a vegetarian through my pregnancies & got the thumbs up from my midwife and OB, our children’s pediatrician says a vegetarian diet is healthy, yet I still regularly revisit the issue. I read books, articles, and ask questions. I’m constantly learning more about eating healthier and feel I’m continually making better choices when it comes to the food we eat. I believe vegetarianism is the diet of a healthier planet, and I really do believe we’re “getting enough”. I’ll share some of the hows; and maybe you too can join us in going vegetarian!
I’ll start with perhaps the most common question vegetarians face:
How will you get enough protein if you don’t eat meat?
The short answer is: assuming one is consuming enough calories, one will consume more than enough protein – as there is protein in nearly everything you consume. In fact, the American Heart Association indicates that Americans eat too much protein & too much protein can increase health risks. However, the question really begs a longer answer, as certain foods are more calorie-dense, and some foods, while calorie-dense, aren’t necessarily healthful (even while being meat-free). Ideally, I’d suggest when eliminating meat from your diet, and attempting to maintain an adequate supply of protein (especially important for children and pregnant women), one should choose foods rich in nutrient-dense calories like fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and nuts; and limit foods which are rich in saturated fats or cholesterol (like eggs or full-fat dairy) or simply calorie-dense but lacking in nutrients (like sugars and processed foods). If you’re looking to eliminate only meat from your diet, but not other animal products, eggs and reduced-fat dairy easily make up more than enough protein in the average diet. Eggs and dairy also contain vitamin B12 which is essential to the human diet, and not easily found in non-animal sources (though it can be sourced from seaweed & barley grass). I find it necessary to mention that if you do choose to keep eggs and dairy in your diet, to be a bit wary. While these items are a good source of protein, they are also a source of saturated fats and cholesterol. Due to those high levels of fat, dairy and eggs also tend to “hold onto” any pesticides, hormones, additives, or antibiotics that the cow or chicken was given in its feed or healthcare regimen. To that end, I strongly recommend only eating grass-fed organic dairy and eggs whenever possible, keeping in mind that a hen or cow fed on healthy organic pasture greens produce eggs and milk that are richer in key nutrients. To read more about why grass-fed animals are healthier (and thus produce healthier milk and eggs), go here: http://www.eatwild.com/basics.html
So realistically speaking, how can one get enough protein without meat? Here’s an example. An average (non-pregnant) adult needs 0.6-0.8g of protein for every 2.2 lbs of body weight per day. So divide your current weight by 2.2, then multiply by 0.7. Or, have this calculator do it for you). According to the calculation above, I need approximately 38g of protein in a day. I’ve broken down my consumption of protein in an average day (you can create your own breakdown with this awesome site http://www.nutritiondata.com/), so you can see that it is possible to acheive adequate, even surplus of protein without meat in your diet:
Bowl of Oatmeal: 11g
Add skim milk: 8g
Add molasses: 0g
Half cup of raspberries: .5g
8oz glass of OJ: 2g
Handful of cashews: 2.5g
Starbucks iced latte: 12g
Tofurky (13g), cheddar cheese (7g), spinach (.5g), tomato (0g), sprouts (1g), on whole wheat bread (8g) sandwich, reduced fat potato chips (2g)
(Note: Only at lunch, and already at 69g total protein for the day – 31g over my recommended daily value; and haven’t consumed any meat. Now, if I were to eliminate the animal protein sources altogether (the milk in my oatmeal, the cheddar cheese slice, and the Starbucks latte), I’d be at 40.5g – already over my recommended daily value, without animal-sourced protein)
Carrots & hummus (3g).
Whole grain pasta (10g), with black beans (5g), sautéed Portobello mushrooms (5g), spinach (.5g), and garlic (0g), with tomato sauce (1g), whole wheat bread (4g) with olive oil (0g), and green salad (0g).
If I add a meat analog (say, soy “meatballs”) to dinner, I’d add another 10g or so… but even without it (I try to keep our processed soy intake low. For some links to further info on soy, see the stars, below **), I’m at 97.5g of protein for the day. 59.5g of protein above my recommended daily allowance… and that’s without any animal products.
** There are varying reports on the benefits and drawbacks of soy; the drawbacks being numerous, and primarily focused on processed soy, like soy baby formula, soymilk, and TVP/TSP (textured vegetable/soy protein). Here are a few articles:
The Ploy of Soy | Soy & Hexane | Behind the Bean
If you do choose to use soy as a meat replacement, I’d recommend only buying organic and GMO-free soy.
For a less negative read on soy, here's Eden Organic’s take.
So what about iron?
Iron is a key element for health; one that happens to be highly present in animal sources of food. However, it is also found in non-meat sources. The iron sourced from non-meat sources, called “non-heme” iron is more difficult for humans to absorb than iron derived from meat. However, consuming vitamin C-rich foods at the same time as iron-rich vegetarian foods will increase your iron absorption dramatically (like, for instance, my eating oatmeal with orange juice or spinach with tomato sauce)
With that in mind, here’s a list of foods that we regularly consume from non-meat sources that are rich in iron:
Whole wheat bread
Enriched whole wheat pasta
And some accompaniments, high in vitamin C:
Tomatoes & tomato sauce
Some other sources that we eat less often, but which are also rich in iron:
Fortified breakfast cereal
Black strap molasses
Miso (high in protein, iron, and calcium – this stuff is awesome for vegetarians)
Quinoa (again, awesome)
Here is a good article which explains the importance of iron, iron absorption, and why vegetarians aren’t necessarily prone to iron-deficient anemia.
How about calcium?
I bring up calcium, not because vegetarians don’t get enough. But, because though I’m a lacto-ovo vegetarian, I still try to limit my intake of dairy products for a couple reasons: the difficulty in being able to find grass-fed organic cheese; the higher concentration of fat and cholesterol in dairy. I think it is wise in general to limit our intake of dairy products, vegetarian or no. However, in limiting dairy in one’s diet, one also limits a very available and plentiful source of calcium. Calcium is particularly important for women and children. So with that in mind, I make sure to eat items from this list of non-animal sources of calcium:
Leafy green veggies
For more suggestions on non dairy sources of calcium, visit Ellen's Kitchen.
Vegetarianism and healthy eating continues to be a journey for me and my family. We’re always changing the things we consume, clarifying the whys and hows of our eating habits, always with an eye towards overall health both now and in the future. I’ve made food mistakes in the past; my vegetarian path hasn’t been straight and narrow. And, while I’ve strived to be closer to vegan, there are some days, particularly on my second latte of the day, when I find that goal very difficult to achieve. Yet, tomorrow brings with it the promise of continually better choices. My greatest hope is that through demonstrating an awareness about healthy vegetarian eating my children will grow up to have an appreciation of healthy eating, to understand the benefits and drawbacks of certain food choices, and most importantly, to be healthy and strong throughout their lives. I hope some of what I’ve written helps you make better food choices too! Please share your thoughts, both positive and negative --- comments are always welcome!
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I shared this post on Melodie's Vegetarian Foodie Fridays Carrnival (#29).
Please take a moment to visit her site, Breastfeeding Moms Unite
for vegetarian recipes, and articles on natural health and parenting!