After introducing myself for the first time, people often respond with: “Oh, so you must be a Vegetarian! . . . No? . . . That’s crazy!” A misconception so many people have is that being a vegetarian is somehow inherently healthier. That couldn’t be farther from the truth! This post will highlight some common problems with a vegetarian diet and offer some suggestions on how to know if being a vegetarian is right for you.
Not all vegetarian foods are healthy
There are aisles & aisles full of ultra-processed foods that are considered “vegetarian” but not at all “healthy”. (Looking at you, cookies, chips & toaster pastries!)
Did you know that many of the popular vegetarian “prepared food products” found in the freezer could actually be harmful to your health? These engineered products can technically be digested but provide no nutrition. And because digestion requires expenditure, you could find yourself depleted of some key nutrients!
What’s in a Veggie Burger?
A typical “veggie burger” probably contains textured vegetable protein, soy protein isolate, or soy protein concentrate. These thermo-formed protein products are usually made from GMO corn and soy.
Binders & Stabilizers
Then there are binders & stabilizers (used to make everything stick together) like vegetable gum, maltodextrin, and methylcellulose. Made from plants, these are essentially *very refined starches* that are high on the Glycemic Scale. Because they are so high on the glycemic index, your body treats them as refined sugars. However, unless these ingredients are used as sweeteners, they are not required to be listed as “Added Sugars.” Because studies indicate that these ultra-refined starches can increase the growth of harmful gut bacteria like E. coli, they could be connected to the development of autoimmune disorders like Crohn’s Disease
The next offender on the list is “natural flavor” – which can be kept a secret if the manufacturer claims it is a proprietary formula. The FDA defines “natural flavoring” as anything a normal person would consider food.
Although rarely used in food today, castoreum was once used in common products like packaged baked goods and puddings and was called “natural vanilla flavor.” Most folks would not consider it “food.”
The main issue with “natural flavors” is they are likely a Proprietary Formula. These compounds (solvents, preservatives & other chemicals) get you from tree bark (or castoreum) to “natural vanilla flavor.” They enhance your perception of the flavor, are used to cover the taste of other chemical ingredients and create cravings. On top of it all, you will probably start to prefer these engineered flavors over those that occur in nature.
The last ingredient I would like to point out is hexane, a byproduct of refining petroleum into gasoline. The CDC classifies this commonly used “vegan” ingredient as a neurotoxin. Hexane is used to separate the oil from the protein in soy-based products. Lesser quality products containing soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, or texturized vegetable protein may be contaminated. Unfortunately, the FDA does not regulate hexane in food manufacturing.
Processed Food Is Still Processed Food
Any food that is ultra-processed is not very healthy for anyone. These “foods” contain added sugars, sodium, fat, and a variety of chemicals.
It is estimated that more than half the calories in the average American diet come from these kinds of food. The problem isn’t limited to the US. A British Medical Journal study discovered people with ultra-processed diets were 62% more likely to be obese or develop cardiovascular or metabolic diseases, cancers, depression, gastrointestinal disorders, or premature mortality. Interestingly, many of the foods falling into the ultra-processed category were plant-based foods that claim to be healthy & environmentally friendly.
Considering all of this, it’s difficult to think that a processed veggie burger is the healthier choice. Choosing locally grown, minimally processed foods (including organic, pasture-raised meat) is more environmentally responsible than eating mechanically and chemically altered plant-based convenience foods.
Bottom line: Processed vegetarian food is not healthier.
Is “Vegetarian” right for you?
Before you completely give up your steak, there are some things you should consider.
1. Eating a completely plant-based diet without relying on heavily processed meat substitutes requires a lot of dedication and work! The vegan burrito in the freezer section may be tasty, but how nutritious will it be?
2. Focus on supplementing vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids is more important than focusing on protein. Most people will be concerned with how much protein they are eating – especially if they are avoiding plant-based meat alternatives! Instead, focus on vitamin B12, Vitamin D, calcium, iron, and omega-3 & -6 consumption. These are nutrients you will need to supplement, as the most readily available forms are found in things like fish, eggs, and meat.
3. Being vegetarian won’t automatically make you healthier. As mentioned earlier, there is a ton of food labeled “meat-free” but not at all good for you! In fact, a 2014 study found that vegetarians & vegans were more likely to be in “poorer health” due to a deficiency in essential nutrients.
4. You might actually gain weight! Following a vegetarian diet requires plenty of fiber-rich vegetables and fruits, as well as healthy fats to stay full. It’s common to need to eat more frequently, and many people reach for high-calorie, ultra-processed convenience foods.
5. Such a drastic change is usually unsustainable. That is because our brain can sustain only 2-3 major changes at a time. You might feel like you lack the willpower to maintain this lifestyle, get frustrated, and go back to what you are used to.
A Sustainable Approach
A better approach is to follow a plant-centered whole food diet.
1. Start by increasing the amount of produce you eat each day and reduce the amount of ultra-processed food you consume. Focus on expanding your diet with a larger variety of fruits & veggies. Choose in-season, locally grown produce over factory-farmed exotic fruits & vegetables.
2. Remove refined sugar & refined grains from your diet. Both have been linked to preventable lifestyle diseases like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, and a variety of cancers.
3. When shopping and preparing meals, look for ingredients that will “Feed Your Body” not just “Fill Your Belly.” Your body can digest (break down) many things that it has no use for. Just because you can eat something doesn’t mean you should.
4. Switch to wild-caught sustainable fish, pasture-raised eggs, meat, and poultry. These items are more expensive than their conventionally sourced counterparts but are much healthier for you and our planet.
As you increase the number of plants (and decrease the ultra-processed “food products”!) you are eating, you will certainly feel better. In fact, you might realize you feel your best without eating meat.
Wondering what the best diet plan is for you? Need support and accountability along the way? Book a free Discovery Session to discuss your options!