Leaving the food co-op one sunny afternoon, I noticed a young woman struggling with a toddler.
The little girl was attempting to climb a short retaining wall while the young woman watched and waved her hands. I could not tell if her actions were for encouragement or out of helplessness. Having never learned to stay out of it—despite years of coaching from my husband—I walked over to see if I could help.
The woman strained as if she were lifting a Volkswagen rather than a toddler and heaved the child the few feet to the top of the wall. The lip of the wall was level with a grassy patch where the child proceeded to poke happily in the dirt. I started a conversation with the woman who, unsurprisingly, turned out to be the toddler’s mother. She was a long time co-op member and committed vegetarian. After several minutes of bonding over the joys of co-op shopping, the woman confessed she felt very weak and had a hard time carrying her daughter. Her doctor declared her to be in perfect health, but she was sure something was wrong.
We All Need Protein
I am a clinical nutritionist who specializes in difficult cases. People come to me for ideas after they have exhausted more traditional medical approaches. They regularly tell me the intimate details of their lives after a few minutes of acquaintance, so this was not an unusual conversation for me. I described my background and settled in to listen to the details of her story. When she finished, I observed that in my experience some people are not constitutionally suited to vegetarianism and her weakness could be a sign her body needed more concentrated proteins.
Thankfully, the woman looked more stunned than offended. “But I eat an extremely healthy diet with plenty of organic fruits and vegetables,” she said in defense.
As I explained then—and have been explaining ever since—some bodies do not thrive on even the highest-quality vegetarian diet. A diet-conscious vegetarian may consume sufficient protein from beans, cheese, eggs, nuts and seeds on top of buckets full of fruits and vegetables and still not feel peppy.
This is confusing and sometimes shocking for people who have embarked on a meatless diet for its health benefits. “I can’t believe I have to eat meat to feel well,” one woman complained to me recently. “It is contrary to everything I used to believe.”
To balance the scale, there are meat eaters who do not flourish on animal proteins. They may only eat the highest quality animals raised on organic grains by loving monks and still feel bloated and irritable. For them, dropping the meat and upping the vegetables improves both digestion and temperament. But which diet is right for you?
Diet and Disease
In theory, nutrition experts base their dietary recommendations on study results. When it comes to eating, the sum of the literature is about as clear as a bowl of borscht. As a result, the advice you get will reflect what works best for the expert personally or which studies she favors. Some studies suggest vegetarians have a statistically lower risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Ergo, if you are at risk for cancer, heart disease and diabetes—and who isn’t?—it should follow the vegetarian diet is for you. The problem is, the benefits accrued from a vegetarian diet may not come from avoiding meat.
Vegetarians could have a lower incidence of disease because they tend to have other health-enhancing habits and weigh less. Health-conscious people exercise, eat their veggies, watch their weight, floss their teeth and maybe even think more happy thoughts then the non-health-oriented. They are about half as likely to die compared to everyone else from any disease, period. In studies this effect is called a healthy-patient bias. When scientists try to gather data by simply observing how many people get better or worse doing this or that, too many health-conscious types, like vegetarians, in one group will dramatically skew the results.
The heavier you are, the higher your risk of developing cancer, heart disease and diabetes. People who lose weight on a meat-based regimen or simply maintain their ideal weight are also at significantly lower risk of these diseases. One study linking meat eating to cancer found increased risk only when people ate processed meat like sausage and lunch meat, not steak and chicken. Preservatives used to make hot dogs and bacon are known carcinogens—so added chemicals, not the meat itself, may be the killer.
Correlation vs. Causation
Carnivores are more apt to quote a recent study that found vegetarians had a lower quality of life and generally poorer health compared to their meat-eating counterparts. The Austrian medical university study reported vegetarians were more physically active, drank less alcohol and weighed less; but nonetheless had higher levels of impairment from disorders and suffered more from anxiety/depression and chronic diseases. The study’s authors cited the lower nutrient levels in the vegetarian diet as the cause of the sensational results. Vegetarians cried foul in response: Just because two phenomena are associated does not mean one caused the other.
Therein lies the problem. Studies tend to be set up to observe if a medical problem is more or less associated with eating one kind of diet or a single food item. If you listen to enough of these confounding results you will throw your hands up in surrender and reach for a tub of ice cream. You are a unique person beyond any medical problem you may have. Experts agree most people would benefit by eating more fruits and vegetables but there are no studies exploring who should eat meat vs. who should not. The time has come to stop judging diets as good or bad and get smart about who thrives on what.
The potential number of people struggling with the meat vs. vegetarian diet question is substantial. According to a Vegetarian Times study, 22.8 million people in the U.S. alone follow a mostly vegetarian diet or are vegetarian-inclined. One million people are vegans. The main reason people said they were following a vegetarian diet was to improve overall health. Concern over animal welfare was a close second.
We Are Omnivores
I will concentrate on how the diet affects overall health, as there are no easy answers to animal welfare concerns. Breeding and sacrificing animals for food is not appealing to many of us. Cows and pigs cannot be too thrilled, either. Obviously, cows do not dream of being a rump roast at your dinner party.
There is also an environmental impact if we want a chicken in every pot. Animal husbandry is hard on the environment and requires more resources than raising plants. Arguably, there are not enough resources to provide meat for all 9 billion people in the world. The world needs people who thrive on a vegetarian diet.
Consequently, when clients tell me they cannot bear the idea of eating any animal, I do not try to change their minds, although in some cases I explain avoiding meat may not be in their individual best health interest.
While many people thrive as vegetarians, the concentrated nutrients provided by animal flesh are necessary for others to flourish. (Nobody is less happy about this troubling fact than I am, although I myself eat meat.)
Like it or not, humans are omnivores. Our teeth and digestive systems are designed to process both plants and meat—and there are no vegan sources of the essential nutrient vitamin B12.
Your body configuration, energy levels and digestive system all provide clues about how you turn the energy potential of food into energy your body can use. The energy potential of food is most concentrated in meat and least concentrated in fruits and vegetables. Eggs, fish, nuts, dairy foods and grains are somewhere in between. In the simplest terms, the better you are at extracting energy out of your food (digestion and absorption) and then converting those chemicals to cellular fuel (as indicated by muscle tone and vigor), the less you need meat.
Let’s look at the clues in each of these areas, starting with the digestive system. The digestive system is the way food gets processed and delivered to the cells. If you look at your cells as energy-making-and-consuming factories, think of your digestive system as the trucks delivering the raw materials so they can function.
People with efficient digestion can squeeze every last nutrient out of a meal even if the process generates a few cramps or gas. Digestion starts with the mechanical process of grinding up a mouthful of burrito into smaller pieces. The masticated mush travels down the esophagus to an acid bath, otherwise known as the stomach. The stomach churns until the acid and food are thoroughly mixed.
Stomach acid is critical for protein digestion but is too corrosive for the rest of the system. Rather than neutralize the acid all at once, the belly spits out little balls of the mixture into the intestine so they can be alkalized in an orderly fashion. The process is similar to the conveyor belt at a donut shop. Imagine the little rings of dough rolling out of the oven and being sprayed with glaze. A donut conga line is not the healthiest food image, but you get the picture.
In the intestines, enzymes and bacteria attack the little balls of food mush. They process the food until the particles are small enough to be absorbed into the blood. Fiber and anything else that cannot be digested ends up in the toilet.
The healthiest vegetarians and vegans have efficient digestive systems. They can squeeze the protein, vitamins and minerals out of the less energy-dense plant foods. People with strong digestive constitutions are not overly tied to eating schedules. If they are a few hours late for lunch or even skip a meal they do not suffer from serious symptoms of low blood sugar. Their bodies manage their energy flow throughout the day without much ado.
A common characteristic of those who thrive without meat is sensitivity to heavy food. Natural-born vegetarians do not require large quantities of food and may find meat overwhelms their finely honed digestive system. Sluggish digestion and irritable bowel syndrome might disappear when a person stops eating meat.
The only downside of a vegan diet is possible symptoms of low blood sugar, such as headaches and crankiness, if a meal is skipped. Because plant-based food is less dense, it has less staying power—so a vegetarian needs to eat regular meals. Vegetarians who eat cheese and eggs are less susceptible to low blood sugar issues because cheese and eggs are more energy-dense foods.
Once food is broken down to molecule size, it seeps from the blood into the cells. In the cells are tiny energy-making factories called mitochondria. They turn the now microscopic particles into cellular fuel, or adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This process involves many chemical steps and is complicated. You do not need to understand the whole mind-bending process, but what you do need to know is your muscle tone reflects how good you are at converting food energy into cellular energy.
Exercise yields bigger muscles when you have an even and efficient energy supply of ATP. Your basic ability to convert food energy to ATP is inherited but pesticides, toxins and viruses can damage the mitochondria and alter your natural tendencies. Whether you were born with a tendency toward low tone or acquired it, you will do better or worse with the hand you were dealt depending on your lifestyle choices.
While you are trying to figure yourself out, nutrition experts will churn out diet books proclaiming if you have ever felt bad or have a pulse, this diet is you. The well-argued advice will urge you to go vegan, eat more meat, don’t eat red meat, or only eat meat before lunch.
People will continue to want a right answer when it comes to diet. There is a right answer—but it only applies to you.
About the Author
Kelly Dorfman, L.D.N., is an expert on using nutrition therapeutically to improve brain function, energy and mood. She is a popular speaker and workshop leader, and has been featured on numerous television programs and in periodicals including CNN’s American Morning, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and O magazine. She authored Cure Your Child With Food: The Hidden Connection Between Nutrition and Childhood Ailments (Workman, 2013).