Last week I was engaged in a Facebook conversation with Kelly from Kelly Naturally as well as Stefanie from Very, Very Fine. Both are long time vegetarians and extremely healthy ones at that. We got into a brief discussion about my being a former vegetarian and after mentioning that I left that nutritional lifestyle behind due to poor health, the concept of using poor health as an excuse to return to meat eating ways came up.
Now, I do believe that some people do use poor health as an excuse to leave the vegetarian lifestyle behind and those people need to just be honest and admit that either meat is simply too appealing to ignore or that they are too lazy to be a devoted vegetarian. However, in my personal experience as well as from what I know from interacting with other former vegetarians, many vegetarians are not healthy. These people may or may not realize it either. Scary.
Through copious amounts of research I learned that although vegetarians, especially those who eat eggs, milk, or occasional fish and shellfish, may maintain good health for decades, a strictly vegetarian diet lacks nutritional qualities that an omnivorous diet possesses. Vegetarians are welcome to argue with me over this however, all research points to that conclusion. It is what it is.
Anyway, I wrote a REALLY length post that outlined my journey as a vegetarian but decided that I needed to cut right to the chase and discuss why I am no longer a vegetarian. So, if you are interested in learning more about my journey as a vegetarian as well as how I made the decision to abandon that lifestyle, scroll down a ways and you will find my original post. You can read it now or you can save it for later. I wanted to include it for those who were interested.
In short, I was a vegetarian for 15 years. I was probably not the most informed vegetarian during the first ten years of so. I was in my late teens and twenties and not really focused on “how” to be a proper vegetarian. I thought I knew what I was doing. It was not until I started eating meat again (1 ½ years ago) that I realized how unhealthy I really was as a vegetarian.
First, here is the short list of why I WAS a vegetarian:
- I am a huge animal rights activist and animal lover. Everyone who knows me, knows that with certainty. I have been involved in animal rescue for 16 years and have an entire house full of animals who would have died had I not taken them in. I could not justify eating meat from animals who were subjected to ill treatment and slaughter.
- I thought that eating meat was tough on the body. My understanding at the time was that meat was difficult to digest and that grains and vegetables were easier on the body.
- I thought that soy was a stellar substitute for meat, poultry, and fish.
- I thought that taking supplements and multi vitamins would offset whatever I was missing from not eating animal products.
- I thought that I would maintain a healthy weight easily.
- I thought that I would be healthy, period.
Here is why I will never be a vegetarian again:
During my vegetarian years…
- I was sick all of the time. If you even said the word “cold,” I would catch one. Not only did I catch everything under the sun, it would hit me much harder than it would anyone else. I was down for the count for weeks with a “minor” virus.
- I was constantly getting bronchial infections and pneumonia. I even generated pneumonia from a simple cold while I was 7 months pregnant.
- I had horrible issues with asthma and allergies.
Now that I consume poultry, fish, eggs, some red meat, and other animal products…
- My cholesterol is the lowest is has ever been.
- My energy is the highest it has ever been.
- I have no more asthma and allergies.
- I have no more acne.
- My hair and finger nails grow like weeds.
- My eye lashes are super full.
- I can maintain a healthy weight through diet alone…exercise is a bonus with other benefits.
This year I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease (gluten intolerance) and therefore, am very limited on what grains I can consume, which would limit my food choices even further if I stayed a vegetarian.
Recently, I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis – UC – (most likely brought on from gut damage due to the mass amounts of antibiotics I was on for my abscessed growth on my tailbone…which manifested itself during my vegetarian years mind you).
There are many, many foods that I have to stay away from while I am in the midst of a flare up (which I am now). I cannot have:
- Dairy (I have tested this and it is definitely a trigger for the UC).
- Many different vegetables that are simply too harsh for my inflamed intestinal tract (even cooked).
- Most fruits and of those I can have (apples, pears, bananas) they have to be cooked.
- Beans and legumes (again, too harsh for my intestinal tract).
- Most grains, including gluten free grains like millet and quinoa which are high in protein and great for vegetarians.
- In order to help during a UC flare up (as well as to keep flare ups at bay) it is important that I consume lots and lots of homemade bone broth, boiled meats and poultry, egg yolks, fermented cod liver oil, bone marrow, and fish. Clearly, I cannot be a vegetarian if these foods are healing for me.
Most importantly, I have learned about the dangers of soy and will not go near unfermented soy with a ten foot poll.
Let's look at soy for a minute….I feel compelled to share my research with you! You can find this and more at the Weston A. Price Foundation website.
Non-fermented soybeans and foods made with them are high in phytic acid, an anti-nutrient that binds to minerals in the digestive tract and carries them out of the body. Vegetarians are known for their tendencies to mineral deficiencies, especially of zinc and it is the high phytate content of grain and legume based diets that is to blame. Though several traditional food preparation techniques such as soaking, sprouting, and fermenting can significantly reduce the phytate content of grains and legumes, such methods are not commonly known about or used by modern peoples, including vegetarians. This places them (and others who eat a diet rich in whole grains) at a greater risk for mineral deficiencies.
Processed soy foods are also rich in trypsin inhibitors, which hinder protein digestion. Textured vegetable protein (TVP), soy “milk” and soy protein powders, popular vegetarian meat and milk substitutes, are entirely fragmented foods made by treating soybeans with high heat and various alkaline washes to extract the beans' fat content or to neutralize their potent enzyme inhibitors. These practices completely denature the beans' protein content, rendering it very hard to digest. MSG, a neurotoxin, is routinely added to TVP to make it taste like the various foods it imitates.
On a purely nutritional level, soybeans, like all legumes, are deficient in cysteine and methionine, vital sulphur-containing amino acids, as well as tryptophan, another essential amino acid. Furthermore, soybeans contain no vitamins A or D, required by the body to assimilate and utilize the beans' proteins. It is probably for this reason that Asian cultures that do consume soybeans usually combine them with fish or fish broths (abundant in fat-soluble vitamins) or other fatty foods.
Parents who feed their children soy-based formula should be aware of its extremely high phytoestrogen content. Some scientists have estimated a child being fed soy formula is ingesting the hormonal equivalent of five birth control pills a day. Such a high intake could have disastrous results. Soy formula also contains no cholesterol, vital for brain and nervous system development.
Though research is still ongoing, some recent studies have indicated that soy's phytoestrogens could be causative factors in some forms of breast cancer, penile birth defects, and infantile leukemia . Regardless, soy's phytoestrogens, or isoflavones, have been definitely shown to depress thyroid function and to cause infertility in every animal species studied so far. Clearly, modern soy products and isolated isoflavone supplements are not healthy foods for vegetarians, vegans, or anyone else, yet these are the very ones that are most consumed.
I do not think I am off my rocker for never wanting to consume another nonfermented soy product again. Even fermented soy products have me on edge a little.
That my dear readers, is why I am a “retired” vegetarian. Being a vegetarian was simply not in my best health interest. However, I believe that you CAN be a healthy vegetarian if you really, really, really take the time to research HOW to be a healthy vegetarian. In fact, I think that you can even follow a traditional diet and be a real foodie to some degree. I will venture to say that you can even follow many of the tenants of the GAPS diet if you are willing to stretch yourself a bit. I actually have a draft sitting, waiting which discusses all of this. I have been promising Loving Earth Mama that I will post it one day and I think that October will finally be the time!
I also want to note that being a vegetarian was not necessarily the sole reason for my health issues. After much research, I do believe that there is some sound science behind blood types and food compatibility. I wrote a post about that if you are interested. I may not have been eating foods that were most compatible for the AB blood type.
Finally, there is ONE more area, an important one, that I need to address. Animal Rights! Eating animal products improved my health but mentally and emotionally it was very tough. It still is but I set about learning more about where our foods really comes from in an effort to make the best choices when it came to purchasing animal products. Here is what I unearthed…the short version.
Not a single bite of food reaches our mouths that has not involved the killing of animals. By some estimates, at least 300 animals per acre—including mice, rats, moles, groundhogs and birds—are killed for the production of vegetable and grain foods, often in gruesome ways. Only one animal per acre is killed for the production of grass-fed beef and no animal is killed for the production of grass-fed milk until the end of the life of the dairy cow.
Of course, we should all work for the elimination of confinement animal facilities, which do cause a great deal of suffering in our animals, not to mention desecration of the environment. This will be more readily accomplished by the millions of meat eaters opting for grass-fed animal foods than by the smaller numbers of vegetarians boycotting meat.
Vegetarians wishing to make a political statement should strive for consistency. Cows are slaughtered not only to put steak on the table, but to obtain components used in soaps, shampoos, cosmetics, plastics, pharmaceuticals, waxes (as in candles and crayons), modern building materials and hydraulic brake fluid for airplanes. The membrane that vibrates in your telephone contains beef gelatin. So to avoid hypocrisy, vegetarians need to also refrain from using anything made of plastic, talking on the telephone, flying in airplanes, letting their kids use crayons, and living or working in modern buildings.
The ancestors of modern vegetarians would not have survived without using animal products like fur to keep warm, leather to make footwear, belts, straps and shelter, and bones for tools. In fact, the entire interactive network of life on earth, from the jellyfish to the judge, is based on the sacrifice of animals and the use of animal foods. There's no escape from dependence on slaughtered animals.
Yeah… how does THAT sit with my animal rights vegetarian readers? Definitely gave me food for thought. It also spurred me in the direction of ONLY purchasing consumable animal products from farms where I KNOW how the animals are treated. I also only purchased produce from farms where I KNOW “nuisance” animals are not killed purposefully. Most organic farms leave nature alone. But not all do.
And for the record, I am not the only born again meat eater. Here are a couple of short blog posts if you find yourself with time on your hands.
And a post that I wish I had at my disposal decades ago: 5 Things Vegetarians Can Learn From Traditional Foods.
Read on if you wish to learn more about my journey. Otherwise, I would love to hear from my readers who are current vegetarians as well as those who are retired vegetarians like me. What is/was your health like?
My ORIGINAL post outlining my vegetarian journey
As a child I grew up eating meat. My father was a hunter and a fisherman and we ate what he brought home. Some months it was duck, quail, chucker and game hens. Other months it was deer, elk, or wild boar. Our fish selection ranged from salmon to sturgeon to cod to a plethora of other fish. I wasn't always thrilled with the idea of eating Bambi and sometimes my parents had to, ahem, lie to me about what we were eating. But if I didn't know what it was, I would eat it. I did enjoy meat.
At some point in high school I started to get on the animal rights bandwagon. I really cannot recall why I suddenly took notice of the suffering of animals (I was involved in Amnesty International so it is possible that I stumbled onto animal rights through this group) but I decided to limit the amount of red meat I consumed. I was also pretty wary of poultry.
By the time I was 20 I was a full blown vegetarian. Never big on eggs, it was easy to eliminate those from my diet. I missed fish and cheese and ice cream but I found that the soy alternatives were pretty tasty. I also really liked soy milk and having always been lactose intolerant, I enjoyed being able to have something “dairy like” to add to my coffee.
As a college student, you tend to gravitate towards carbohydrates (they are cheap you know) so being a vegetarian was pretty easy. I did cheat sometimes and eat pizza with cheese and I did have butter and would not turn away a baked good made with milk, however, you would not catch me anywhere near a piece of meat. If it walked, flew or swam, I was not interested in seeing it in my fridge or on my plate.
I thought I was pretty healthy. My energy level sucked but I blamed that on being in my 20's and burning the candle at both ends. My blood tests were never great. I had high cholesterol and tended to be anemic. I was also always hypoglycemic, prone to feeling light headed and woozy. I was diagnosed as a diabetic at 25 but classified as diabetic due to my eating habits. Not having good medical care, no one really tried to figure out what was going on.
Throughout my twenties and into my very early thirties, I was sick all of the time. If someone even mentioned a germ, I would be sick within 24 hours. I always found a “good reason” for being sick so much. First it was living the college lifestyle. Then it was working in a preschool around germs. Then it was working in a chiropractor's office around germs. Then it was reliving my youth in my mid-twenties and partying too much. Then it was working as a recruiter and traveling all week, picking up germs from airplanes and hotels.
By the time I was in my late twenties, I decided to start eating fish and poultry again. I even revisited the egg. With cheese. (It killed me being the HUGE animal rights person that I was but I kind of felt like my body needed more than what I was giving it). I was eating fewer grains and more fruits and veggies. My health improved somewhat. Although I was still hypoglycemic, the diabetes diagnosis was found to be related to my diet at the time. (Excessive boozing and eating copious amounts of cookie dough and junk food will do that to you). I wasn't getting sick quite as much but figured it was all the herbs I was taking.
I hired a personal trainer as my weight had increased by 30 pounds over the course of 5 years and I wanted to get back in shape. With his help, I started to realize the error of my vegetarian ways. I guess I was a pretty uninformed vegetarian. I ate a lot of carbs and not enough protein. Even though I ate soy, I did not eat enough of it. Beans and legumes never agreed with me and the fat content in nuts was something I believed I needed to avoid. I was not educated about grains and pretty much ate the processed white variety. After my trainer outlined a healthier vegetarian meal plan, I went back to my vegetarian lifestyle with the exception of still eating fish. I also went back to being sick all of the time. And my energy plummeted.
When I became pregnant in 2008, I really took a hard look at how I ate. I wanted to be healthy for this baby but I also wanted this baby to be healthy. I once again went back to eating poultry, fish, and even dairy (with remorse). I ate lots of beans too and lots of soy. I knew protein was important and I ate tons of it. I also ate lots of raw veggies and tons of fruits. I continued on this path after my daughter was born. She had lots of sensitivities to my breast milk and I was advised to cut out dairy, soy, and citrus. Removing those foods helped her a lot. Surprising, I noticed a positive change in my health.
I started to do a lot of research about food and literally stumble onto the real foods movement. You can read about my journey here. No sense rehashing it.
What scared me the most was what I learned about soy. I came unglued when I unearthed the vast amounts of information about the dangers of consuming unfermented soy as well as improperly prepared nuts, beans, legumes, and grains. That was what I had been doing for 15 years!!!!!! No wonder I was unhealthy. My body was not able to process what I was giving it plus I was giving it something very dangerous in the form of soy.
After further research I decided that I needed to reintroduce red meats into my diet in order to get the protein and fats that I needed. I understood the science behind a high “healthy-fat” diet and decided to go for it. Two years later, I am a happily reformed vegetarian. No regrets. Just better health. MUCH better health.