I have been reading your column for a while now and have grown to trust you health advice. My husband has been trying to convince me to become a vegetarian and I am resistant. He has explained all the negative side effects of eating meat such as how it is processed, stress hormones in the meat from the animals during slaughter, antibiotics, etc. I made the switch to organic meats but even this is not good enough for him. While I do understand the poor health effects associated with eating meat, can you tell me if its safe to eat a vegetarian-only diet? I'm afraid I will be lacking in protein, iron, etc.
Thanks for asking such a great question. I get tons of email on the subject of vegetarianism. Both myself and my husband are vegetarians and I limit my children's consumption of meat. Although organic meats and poultry are better than non-organic, there are other problems with animal foods. Your husband is correct when he warns you about stress hormones in animal meat. Without being too graphic, I will say that animals in slaughterhouses are consistently abused and subject to inhumane treatment. Regardless of an individuals viewpoint on animal rights, the fact remains that these animals are enveloped with intense fear at the moment of slaughter, which leaves adrenaline flooding their bodies and eventually, entering ours if we eat the meat. For more in-depth information, visit www.peta.org.
With that said, if done properly, a vegetarian diet is considered extremely safe and ripe with tons of health benefits. People who consume a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, etc. Often suffer from less diseases and physical ailments. There are 3 main factors to remember when undertaking the transformation to a vegetarian diet.
Start slowly. If you consume meat products every night of the week, or if you have a meat with every meal of the day, stopping cold turkey is not the way to go. It will leave you feeling dissatisfied and frustrated and chances are you'll just go back to eating meat. Instead, wean yourself off of meat. If you eat a meat with all 3 meals, begin by eliminating meat at one meal. It's generally easier to start with lunch. Do this for a week and then do the same for breakfast, following with dinner a week later.
Remember that when you eliminate one source of food, unless it is junk food, you need to replace it with another. Your nutrients need to come from somewhere. You will need to make sure you consume enough protein and iron. Contradictory to what many people believe, this is not hard to do. Although protein is important, our bodies do not require large amounts to function efficiently. Food sources of protein include nuts and seeds, eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, chick peas, and soya. Iron is crucial to maintain adequate hemoglobin levels and prevent anemia. The type of iron we get from animal meat is not as easily absorbed by our bodies as iron found in plant foods. Taking vitamin C will boost the absorption rate of iron from plant sources. Iron can be found in fortified whole grain cereals, green leafy vegetables such as spinach, beans, broccoli and dried fruits. When consuming a vegetarian diet, it is recommended that you consume a whole foods vitamin and mineral supplement daily.
Becoming a vegetarian to improve your health requires more than just eliminating meat from your diet. I have seen many people make the mistake of eliminating meat and replacing it with unhealthy foods (think french fries, pizza, bagels, sugary treats, etc.). If you are consuming refined sugars and flours, artificial sweeteners and unhealthy carbs, your doing more damage to your body than if you were eating the meat you wish to avoid.
Regardless of whether you choose to become a semi-vegetarian, vegetarian, vegan or remain a carnivore...keep in mind that you really are what you eat. Your body can only perform as effectively as the fuel you provide it with.