Pros and Cons of Vegetarian Diets from Pros and Cons of Vegetarian Diets

Pros and Cons of Vegetarian Diets

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Pros and Cons of Vegetarian Diets

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Americans eat an average of 54.3 pounds of beef, 92.1 pounds of chicken, and 50.4 pounds of pork, per person, per year, according to the USDA estimates. About 3.2 percent of Americans –approximately 7.3 million people – follow a vegetarian diet, and 10 percent – or 22.8 million people –follow a vegetarian-inclined diet, focusing on plant-based nutrition, a recent study has found. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 outline three “healthy eating patterns” or “balanced diets” – two include meat.

It can deliver complete nutrition

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It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the professional organization of registered dietitian nutritionists, that vegetarian diets can provide complete nutrition and health benefits. “When properly planned, they can meet all the required intakes of various nutrients,” Joey Gochnour, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, says. “While meat is a convenient source of protein, 1 cup of beans or lentils can have 15-18g of protein depending on the bean,” he adds. “Milk and dairy are vegetarian (lactovegetarian), eggs are vegetarian [too].”

It’s hard to get complete protein

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Most people don’t put as much effort as they need to get complete nutrition of vegetarian diets,” Carly Pollack, Certified Clinical Nutritionist, says. Meat is the most convenient source of protein. It is simply a breakdown of amino acids and there are eight “essential” amino acids people need to get through food because the body does not create them. “Meat is a complete protein because it has a complete breakdown of all those amino acids. You can combine certain vegetarian foods to get close to a complete amino acid,” she adds. Grain and legumes, for example, provide almost as much as protein as a piece of chicken. “But you wound up eating a lot of carbs,” Pollack says. “I recommend eating a wide variety of beans, fruits and vegetables, legumes and a ton of water.”

Athletes and lack of meat

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There is a nutrition requirement for protein and vegetarian sources can meet it.  “An advantage for athletes who are vegetarian is that beans also are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates, which should be an important part of an athlete's diet (provided they are working out a lot and not just shooting a gun or an arrow but swimming/running/lifting),” Gochnour says. “While the bioavailability of some vegetarian proteins can be lower, it just means they need to eat more of the food to get the nutrient.” There are many vegetarian athletes. Carl Lewis, former track and field athlete, who won 10 Olympic medals, is vegan.  There is a large community of vegan bodybuilders. “It just takes some nutrition knowledge,” Gochnour says.

Vitamin B12 deficiency

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B12 is vital for blood cells, a healthy brain, strong immune system and a fast metabolism. Meat is the best source of the important vitamin, Pollack says. Two in three vegetarians are vitamin B12 deficient, compared to one in 20 meat eaters, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “I recommend that all vegetarians and vegans supplement B12,” Pollack adds. “I am a big fan of doing B12 injections because it bypasses digestion and goes right into your body.” 

Other sources of B12

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Vitamin B12 originally comes from bacteria, Gochnour says. Animals get their vitamin B12 from eating foods contaminated with vitamin B12 and then the animal becomes a source of vitamin B12, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group. Nutritional yeast, fortified soy milk, eggs, meat analogues (food made from wheat gluten or soybeans to resemble meat, poultry, or fish), fortified energy bars, and vitamin B12 supplements.

Meat is a better source of iron

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Lack of iron is the most common known form of nutritional deficiency. The essential nutrient is needed to make the oxygen-carrying proteins hemoglobin, found in red blood cells, and myoglobin, found in muscles. The body absorbs up to 35 percent of the heme iron in meat, but only between 2 and 20 percent of the non-heme iron found in vegetarian sources like leafy greens and beans, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements. “Dried beans and spinach can be good sources of iron,” Gochnour says. “Consuming iron foods with vitamin C enhances absorption. Cooking on a cast iron skillet can be an additional way to get iron,” he adds.

Vegetarian diets and weight loss

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“The general argument would be that non-vegetarian is better because the typical diet that helps people lose fat is a high-protein, high-fat, low-carb diet,” Pollack says. But different diets work for different people. “A serving of lentil and rice will give you 30g of complete protein but 70-80g of carbs,” she adds.  It’s hard to lose weight when you’re eating high amounts of carbs because the body goes into fat storage mode.

Double-edged sword

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If people are on a vegetarian diet, they usually consume less protein and a lot of carbs. “If they go low carb, they go low protein as well by eating just salads and vegetables,” Pollack says. Then they are not getting amino acids to build muscle and perform other important body functions, she adds. It comes down to biochemical individuality. “Whatever helps the person maintain a calorie deficit while being personally satisfied with their diet [helps],” Gochnour says. Vegetarian or non-vegetarian diets are not better or worse when it comes to weight loss. “I have worked with people who became vegetarian thinking it would lead to weight loss and they gain weight, so they [come to] see me,” he adds.

Less saturated fat

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A vegetarian diet can help reduce the intake of saturated fat since protein sources won't have as much, Gochnour says. “Saturated fats are still not encouraged for consumption,” he adds. Although the causative effect with heart disease has been criticized recently, major organizations, including the American Heart Association, still recommend limiting saturated fat to 5-6 percent of calories, and the dietary guidelines from 2015 recommend limiting to less than 10 percent of calories, according to Gochnour. “It is important to remember that these numbers are easy to achieve even when eating healthy foods.”

But you need it

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Saturated fat is in fact healthy for us,” Pollack adds. It’s only bad if it comes from unhealthy meat that has been injected with all kinds of stuff as “all toxins in animals are in the actual fat,” she adds. Meat from grass-fed animals is lower in fat. Also, saturated fats contain the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and the cholesterol from saturated animal fat is needed for the proper function of serotonin receptors in the brain. A study found that vegetarians “suffer significantly more often from anxiety disorder and/or depression.” Research has shown that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

Vegetarians and supplements

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If, during a nutrition assessment of an individual, it becomes clear that he or she does not consume certain key nutrients of risk for vegetarians such as total calories, protein, iron, B12, calcium, then, Gochnour says, he would recommend considering a supplement. “Assuming they are not willing to eat the said food groups that provide these nutrients,” he adds. Otherwise, supplements are not necessary at all.

Fewer antibiotics

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“If you’re not eating meat that has been injected with antibiotics, then you get fewer antibiotics,” Pollack says. But you can choose to eat meat from grass-fed animals. “A vegetarian diet does not reduce your percentage of being sick, and it does not guarantee that your immune system is going to be stronger,” she adds. “I have so many vegetarian clients that come to me and they are sick, their hair is falling out, skin is bad. I put them on bone broth, I get them to start eating meat, and it completely heals them.”

When a vegetarian diet is recommended

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There is a saying that “you can undo mostly any sickness or imbalance by doing the opposite of what got you there,” Pollack says. If you eat 12 oz. of red meat a day, your cholesterol is through roof, you’re pre-diabetic, and experience symptoms of obesity, then you are going to do better on a vegetarian diet, Pollack says. However, she doesn’t recommend vegetarian diets for long. “Omitting a food category can be healing but not long term,” she adds.