By Maureen McDonnell, RN
I’d like to start this discussion with my favorite quote by Vaclav Havel: “Follow those who seek the truth—Run from those who say they’ve found it.” In my younger years, when arrogance dominated most of my discussions about health, I might have offered a strong opinion and given what I deemed “the right answer” to this nutritional dilemma. But thankfully with older age comes a little wisdom, and the truth is—I don’t have the answer as to whether or not being a vegan (avoiding all foods from animal origin), some version of a vegetarian, or eating meat is right for you. One thing I can say, is that when you are equipped with the facts about the benefits, as well as any negatives associated with each choice, then you have to trust—not what I say, and not the latest popular diet book, but instead, listen to the most reliable resource and guidance system there is: your own body!
If you can honestly say you are feeling fabulous, have lots of energy (without resorting to major doses of caffeine), maintain a good weight, rarely get sick, you don’t crave sweets and have good stamina, then obviously whatever dietary regimen you have chosen is working for you, and I’d stick with it.
However, if you are following a vegetarian diet (defined as the practice of abstaining from the consumption of red meat, poultry, seafood and the flesh of any other animal, and may also include abstention from the byproducts of animal slaughter such as animal derived rennet and gelatin) and you are struggling with health issues, you may have a nutritional deficiency and or a specific biochemical or genetic element in your makeup that requires some animal protein. If that is the case, it might be time to rethink your dietary choices.
If on the other hand, you are consuming meat and dairy products and you feel sluggish, congested, constipated, or weighted down, then eating a more plant-based diet might be a better option for you.
After 36 years of helping people transform their health, I do not believe there is one diet that—across the board—is right for everyone. Listening to your body and adjusting what you eat based on how you feel (physically and mentally) after you consume certain foods is key to helping you decide which dietary option works best for you. Whether you include meat in your diet or not, I also believe there are several other critical components that factor into optimal health (such as your sugar and processed food intake, lifestyle habits including smoking and exercise and your level of happiness) that are as relevant to your health, if not more so than your chosen source of protein.
Instead of making this a pro and con, black and white, right or wrong discussion, let me just present some information about both options.
Benefits of being a vegetarian/vegan: People embark on a vegetarian diet for different reasons: health, ethical (treatment and practices in the raising and slaughter of animals), religious, cultural, political, etc. Environmental concerns are also motivating factors and they include: greenhouse emissions, fossil energy use, water use, water quality changes and effects on grazed ecosystems. In 2006, a United Nations initiative showed the livestock industry to be one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation worldwide. (1)
Embarking on a vegetarian diet for health reasons has some credible science behind it. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Dieticians of Canada: at all stages of life, a properly planned vegetarian diet is “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provides health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. A diet derived from plants (with our without eggs and dairy) done correctly can offer an individual many nutritional benefits including giving them a higher intake of fiber, antioxidants, minerals, enzymes and vitamins.
In addition to the often-cited health benefits of a no-meat diet including: lower body mass index, decreased incidence of obesity, reduced cholesterol levels, less incidence of hypertension and Type 2 Diabetes; a study recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition stated that vegetarians had a 32% reduced risk of heart disease (2).
The most impressive data comes out of a study of over 1900 vegetarians over 21 years by the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsche Krebsforschungszentrum). The study’s results: vegetarian men reduced their risk of early death by 50%! Women vegetarians benefit from a 30% reduction in mortality. (3)
Drawbacks of a vegetarian diet: Unless one is very diligent about their nutrient intake, it is possible to experience depletions in important nutrients including valuable animal based Omega 3s (as the plant form of these fatty acids cannot always be converted), Iron, Vitamin D, sulfur (a precursor for the body’s most important detoxifier: glutathione) and B12.
A wise insight on why a vegetarian diet may not be right for everyone comes from Joseph Mercola, MD, a trusted authority on health and nutrition. On his popular website, the doctor states: “Vegetarian diets do work for large numbers of people. From my observations, perhaps about one third of the populations would benefit from it – those who are strong carbohydrate types. These people thrive on plant-based foods and have spectacular health.”
Similar ideas (regarding the fact that different people require different diets) come from the author of Eat Right for Your Blood Type, Dr. D’Adamo. Like Mercola, Dr. D’Adamo believes there are “nutritional types.” Some types do better with a diet that includes animal-based protein and others feel better and stay healthier when they rely on beans, whole grains and nuts as their protein sources. Mercola goes on to say: “The people who fare the worst on a vegetarian diet are those who are naturally protein types, as they’re depriving their bodies of essential fuel, determined by their genetic and biochemical makeup.”
To learn more about Nutritional Typing visit Dr. Mercola’s website and complete his free assessment questionnaire.
Benefits of Eating Some Animal Foods: Meat (red or white) is a source of “complete” protein meaning it contains all the essential amino acids needed for growth and the body’s repair. Typically, meat is also a good source of specific minerals such as Zinc, Selenium, Phosphorus, Iron and some Vitamins such as Vitamin K, Niacin, Riboflavin, B6 and B12.
Meat is low in carbohydrates. The fat content varies depending on: the species and breed of animal, the way it was raised, what it was fed (grass fed beef is leaner), the anatomical part of the body the meat comes from, the method of butchering and the way the meat is cooked.
According to Sally Fallon from the Weston A. Price foundation, author of the book Nourishing Traditions and proponent of including some meat in our diets (especially during periods of growth such as childhood and pregnancy). “Our primitive ancestors subsisted on a diet composed largely of meat and fat augmented with vegetables, fruits and nuts. Studies of their remains reveal that they possessed excellent bone structure, heavy musculature and flawless teeth. Agricultural man added milk, grains and legumes to this diet. These foods allowed him to pursue a more comfortable lifestyle than the hunter-gatherer, but at a price. In his studies of primitive peoples, Dr. Price found that those whose diets consisted largely of grains and legume, (while far more healthy than civilized moderns), nevertheless had more caries than those living primarily on meat and fish. Skulls of prehistoric peoples subsisting almost entirely on vegetable foods have teeth containing caries and abscesses and show evidence of tuberculosis as well.” (4)
Drawbacks of eating meat: Unless livestock is grown locally using sustainable methods, meat is typically processed meaning it is “enriched” with additives to protect or modify its flavor or color, increase tenderness or preserve it. Meat additives include: salt, nitrites, phosphates, chemical stabilizers, hormones, sweeteners, MSG, tenderizers, anti-microbials (including antibiotics) and acidifiers.
Another health concern regarding meat is the risk of the transmission of diseases from animals to human including salmonella (an estimated 1/3 of all chickens in US are contaminated with salmonella.) (5)
It is also estimated that 20% of all cows are affected with a variety of cancer (known as bovine leukemia virus (BLV) which has been linked to with HTLV-1 the first human retrovirus discovered to cause cancer in humans. Additionally, in recent years, studies have shown that meat (in particular red meat and processed meats) increase the risk of certain types of cancer including cancers of the lung, esophagus, liver and colon. (6)
Antibiotics are commonly given to cattle raised in industrial scale animal farms because they are kept in close proximity to one another which leads to an increased rate of disease transmission. It is estimated that more antibiotics are fed to livestock in this country than are prescribed for people. Many health experts correctly assume that the rise in drug resistant bacterial infections (such as MRSA) is related to this unsafe practice.
The way meat is cooked influences how healthy it is too: Meat cooked at high temperatures (either grilling, frying or broiling) can create Heterocyclic Amines (compounds that have been linked to cancer and are especially prevalent in charred or blackened meat). Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons have also been linked to cancer and result when fat drips onto the heat source and causes excess smoke which surrounds the food, and finally high temperature cooking of meat also encourages the formation of Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs) (compounds that bioaccumulate and contribute to oxidative stress and inflammation increasing one’s risk for developing Heart Disease).
Bear in mind, there are vast differences nutritionally between meat that comes from factory raised cows, pigs and chickens where they are jammed into rows of small cages in warehouses, fed hormones to fatten them up and given drugs to fight off illnesses stemming from the inhumane conditions in which they are kept, and the meat from sustainably raised, organically-fed livestock. If for instance, cows are not allowed outside to graze on grass (the diet they were designed to consume) and instead are given a GMO corn-based feed, the unhealthy meat that results from this unnatural, profit-driven practice will have a higher and different fat content, contain antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, and preservatives.
The differences environmentally, as pointed out by author Michael Pollan, in his 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma are that factory-farmed livestock are raised and handled in unhealthy and inhumane ways as opposed to the ethical and earth-friendly ways independent local farmers raise their pasture fed livestock. (7)
Summary: As a result of man’s “progress” and advancements, our food choices our now nearly limitless. While there are advantages to having so many choices, the rapidly deteriorating health of individuals over the last century (that science tells us is indisputably linked to our western diet), has left many of us confused and concerned about what to eat. While some may choose a vegetarian or vegan diet for health, ethical, environmental or religious reasons, and experience great vitality consuming mostly vegetables and plant sources of protein, for others this same diet spells disaster. The key, as mentioned earlier, is knowing the facts about each dietary choice, listening to your body when it gives you messages after consuming certain foods, and finally, after making a decision regarding whether to include meat in your diet or not, create the healthiest, highest quality, nutritionally-sound version possible. A “grilled cheese/French fry” vegetarian is not a good example of a healthy vegetarian; just as a person who excessively indulges in factory-raised beef or Big Macs is not a good example of a healthy carnivore!
I no longer predetermine someone’s heath status simply with a label. Instead, I look for the light in their eyes and a spring in their step. If they exude vitality, health and happiness and they are vegetarians … God bless them and their decision! If they are shining like a light bulb, look and feel great and they’re eating red meat … then regardless of my opinion, their choice is obviously working for them.
Some may disagree, but I don’t believe for a minute that consuming meat or not is the sole determinant of great health. There are many other aspects such as: cutting out sugar and processed carbs; exercising; eating lots of organic, whole foods with an abundance of fresh vegetables; keeping our system alkalized; not smoking; not consuming alcohol in excess; getting enough fiber; drinking enough water; laughing more; and deriving pleasure out of life that all factor into optimal health. So whether we choose a portabella burger or an organic grass-fed steak, listening to our bodies, feeling good about our choice and paying attention to all the other aspects of health are just as important as the answer to the age old question: “Meat or No Meat?”
1. www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM (United Nations report)
3. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine and Does low meat consumption increase life expectancy in humans? – American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
4. Abrams, Journal of Applied Nutrition 1980 32 :270-71
6. Cross, et al (2007). “A Prospective Study of Red and Processed Meat Intake in Relation to Cancer Risk”. PLoS Medicine 4 (12): e325.
7. Pollan, Michael (2006). The Omnivore’s Dilemma : A Natural History of Four Meals. Penguin Books.
Maureen McDonnell has been a holistic, nutritionally-oriented registered nurse for 36 years. On Wednesday evenings she now offers classes on cutting-edge health information that includes the option to participate in a “30 Days to Feeling Fit” program. Classes are held at the beautiful Wysteria Inn in Weaverville (formerly the Secret Garden Inn and Spa). Call 609-240-1315 or email Maureen at MauraHealth@aol.com to reserve your seat at this free program.