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Vegetarians vs. Omnivores

Does Eating Meat Make Sense?

We have all heard the adage, “You are what you eat”. Yet, a conscious effort to sort through all the conflicting information and constantly changing diet trends just adds to the confusion. Changing viewpoints are understandable given the difficulty to effectively study the effect of food on long-term health. However, increasing evidence has me believing that, in the long run, “less is more” when it comes to meat consumption.

For the longest time, eating meat was associated with manhood, power, and virility, while a leaner alternative like soy or beans was generally seen as “weak and wimpy”. However, attitudes have changed and more influential men, such as Bill Clinton, Paul McCartney, Brad Pitt and Carl Lewis, have adopted the “no meat” lifestyle without it affecting their masculinity.

Loma Linda University has been running large scale (60,000 participants), long-term (over 40 years) studies that measure the links between lifestyle, diet, disease and mortality of Seventh Day Adventists. This particular group was studied as they typically follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Most try to stay away from processed foods, sugar, sugar substitutes, food additives, alcohol and tobacco. While their church promotes a vegetarian diet, some members do eat clean meats, including chicken, turkey, beef, fish, venison, lamb, and goat.

When compared with the rest of the population, these studies found the following information:

In general, vegetarians weigh almost 30 pounds less than meat eaters

Vegetarians are less likely to have insulin issues, including diabetes

Vegetarians have fewer risk factors for heart disease, the number one killer of both men and women

Vegetarians have a lower risk of developing certain types of cancers (lung, prostate, breast, stomach and colorectal)

A vegetarian diet has a wider variety of foods and a correspondingly higher intake of food-based nutrients, including antioxidants, dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid and phytochemicals, some of which are also anti-inflammatory

While these findings alone are significant, when considered in conjunction with a study from Harvard University, the benefits of restricted meat intake are evident. The 2014 study showed that an animal-based diet caused the growth of microorganisms capable of triggering inflammatory bowel disease within only two days of eating these foods. Inflammation is currently a hot topic for good reason, since it is a leading contributor to many diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and other chronic conditions.

Plant foods are rich in antioxidants and other phytonutrients that have an anti-inflammatory effect. Vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices are loaded with compounds that reduce inflammation, as are whole grains, olive oil, nuts, seeds and legumes.

Despite several studies that show a diet high in processed meats increases the risk of colon cancer, our society demands convenience. Meats are processed to extend shelf life and maximize flavour; thus, they are exceedingly high in nitrates, sodium and saturated fat, which can play havoc with your heart-healthy diet.

It is not yet clear if the causal link between meat and colon cancer risk is because of the nitrates or other chemicals in processed meat. However, the evidence is compelling enough to have motivated the World Health Organization (WHO) to classify consumption of processed meat as "carcinogenic to humans" and consumption of red meat as "probably carcinogenic to humans" this past fall.

Research frequently associates red and processed meat consumption with colorectal cancer, but there is significant research linking processed meat to stomach cancer and red meat to pancreatic and prostate cancer. There is also research, albeit limited, linking both meats to several other cancers.

More mainstream grocery chains and independents are offering grass-fed beef and meat from organically raised animals. There is a huge difference between free-range, organic, grass-fed meat and processed meat. Meat from grass-pastured cows has less overall fat, more omega-3 fatty acids, and is actually higher in essential vitamins and minerals than meat from a cow raised on a diet of grains and supplements for rapid weight gain, the conventional way to mass produce beef.  

Yes, free range, organic and grass-fed meat is more expensive but, if you are going to indulge once in a while, it is well worth it. You will be able to taste the difference. Local farmers’ markets normally showcase smaller operations that take more care in raising their animals, many of whom use free-range and organic practices (even if they aren’t certified organic).

Even if you don’t want to become a vegetarian, you can steer your diet in that direction by using more plant-based sources of protein like beans, tofu or tempeh (fermented tofu), and keep meat as an occasional indulgence.

If you are concerned that you are not able to get enough protein, you can supplement with the new crop of low-processed, good-tasting and easy-mixing (yes, both good and easy) vegan protein supplements. The best tasting, cleanest and easiest to mix tend to be the organic and fermented proteins.

Avoiding or limiting your meat intake is only one part of the equation. You can be an unhealthy vegetarian if you rely too heavily on processed foods, which can be high in calories, sugar, fat and sodium. Try to eat a variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. A healthy vegetarian diet should be full of wholesome foods with known benefits.  

Vegetarians, especially vegans, need to ensure they are getting enough protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 (preferably the better quality methylcobalamin form), and omega–3 fatty acids in their diets. Using good quality supplements can ensure they do. As most dietary iron is from animal sources, have a powdered, non-constipating iron supplement ready – if required.  Incorporate an organic fermented vegan protein powder (complete protein) in your regular breakfast and exercise rotation, and use a liquid active vitamin B12 and a liquid vegan D2 supplement.

Most importantly, listen to what your body is telling you. Even many Olympic and professional athletes have realized the value of a heavily plant-based diet. They have switched and excel with veggies. Real men eat veggies too!