Are vegetarians healthier than meat eaters? Should we swear off meat? As a personal trainer and soon to be sports nutritionist, I get asked diet question all the time. What’s my diet? Do you eat meat? Are you a vegan? Whatever answer I give it is always returned with a question. Why? My views are just an opinion and I hope this article helps iron some of that out.
You’ve heard over the years that following a vegetarian diet is better for your health, and have probably read a few articles about individuals that swore off meat and animal products and “magically” lost weight. So does ditching meat automatically equal weight loss? Will it really help you live longer and be healthier overall?
First off, what constitutes “vegetarian”? There are two basic kinds of vegetarian diet: lacto-ovo and strict (vegan). Most vegetarians fall into the lacto-ovo category: They eat only non-animal products (fruits, veggies, grains, nuts, soy, etc.), but do eat animal byproducts, such as yogurt and eggs. In terms of nutritional requirements, being a lacto-ovo vegetarian isn’t all that different from being a meat eater. Vegans, however, don’t eat any animal products whatsoever – and as a result, they must be very careful in their selection of foods so that they get all the nutrients they need. For me this is one of the first reasons I do eat meat.
Is the vegetarian co-worker munching down on greasy veggie burgers and fries every day for lunch, healthier than you, who always orders the grilled salmon? Definitely not! I do believe in meat moderation. Some studies say that eating too much red meat, particularly cuts high in saturated fat, “can” lead to cardiovascular disease, cancer and an increased risk of mortality. For best results, eat red meat in moderation, and limit your intake to one day per week or one day every other week. I do think everyone should reduce the amount of red meat they eat but not give up on it totally because there are still many benefits to eating meat.
Animal protein intake is consistently linked to increased muscle mass. In one study in older men, eating beef increased muscle mass and reduced markers of inflammation. Meat eating develops stronger bones. Animal protein may improve bone density and strength. In another study, older women with the highest intake of animal protein had a 69 percent decreased risk of hip fractures. Meat eating also benefits better iron absorption. Meat contains heme iron, which your body absorbs better than non-heme iron from plants. Another fact about meat eating is the reduced appetite and increased metabolism. It has been shown that high-protein diets that include meat will increase metabolic rate, reduce hunger and promote fullness. There is nothing like eating a big meal and still feeling hungry.
On the other hand, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than meat eaters. Vegetarians also tend to have a lower body mass index, lower overall cancer rates and lower risk of chronic disease.
The actual causal relationship between becoming vegetarian and living longer is unclear, and is certainly smaller than the correlation might seem to suggest (as many vegetarian advocacy organizations do). By far the most likely culprit for the health costs of eating meat is red meat: rich in saturated fat and carnitine. But, in terms of animal suffering per calorie, red meat pales in comparison with chicken, eggs and fish (where the animals live in far worse conditions, and where dramatically fewer calories are produced per animal).
So if, by promoting the health benefits of meat reduction, consumers cut down on red meat and compensate with chicken, eggs and fish, then the vegetarian advocates might have done more harm than good. Also, choose organic meat from small farms. This is more environmentally friendly and better from an ethical perspective. As with all areas of doing good, we need to use effective altruism: to think hard, and find good evidence to work out the consequences of our actions, and try to do the actions that do the most good – whether that’s doing the most good for animals, for humans or for anything else. Some good-seeming actions can achieve very little, and some can even backfire. Promoting the health benefits of vegetarianism might be one.
The bottom line is unprocessed and properly cooked meat has many nutrients and have some health benefits. If you enjoy eating meat, there is no compelling health or nutritional reason to stop. However, if you don’t feel right about eating animals, you can also stay healthy by following a well-balanced vegetarian diet. Ultimately, whether you consume meat is a personal choice. However, it seems wise to limit your consumption of processed meat. If you choose to eat red meat, use gentler cooking methods and avoid burning it.
When it comes to a healthy diet, I try and give my best nutritional opinion unless I know the facts. The best opinion I can give on the topic of my article is, I do not believe that eating meat will shorten your life or give you cancer but I do believe that you should maintain a healthy diet. If you feel like eating dandelions and grass clippings by all means enjoy, just make sure you have the proper supplements to make up for the lack of minerals, vitamins and nutrients you are lacking. I feel just having a well-balanced diet that takes care of all of your bodies needs for the type of outcome you are looking for is all that is important. If it’s a chicken locked in a cage all day for your one egg that bothers you, then try cage-free chickens. At least they can run free until they make it to your plate. It would bother me if I put thought into it and that is why I do not give my food a name.
The author is pictured with his daughter, Kaylee Brower.