To complement “Carnivore vs. Vegetarian: What’s Best for Your Body?” in the June 2016 print edition of MASSAGE Magazine.
Energy constitution can be gauged by intensity and stamina.
When Greta comes to visit, I feel like if I had hatches, I should batten them down.
Gregarious and rosy-cheeked, she is the personification of the 5 Hour Energy Shots sold at gas stations. When she is relaxed, she laughs frequently and lifts the mood of everyone in her orbit. Under stress, she is intense and volatile.
Greta loves to eat, but puts on weight easily. Her physical complaints are occasional joint pain and a tendency towards high blood pressure. Though she can get tired like anyone, she is a robust specimen.
Because a vegetarian diet has soothing and anti-inflammatory effects, limiting meat and eating plenty of vegetables is the best diet strategy for Greta. Once on a difficult trip to the Himalayas she lived on bread and rice for a few weeks.
While not a healthy regime by any stretch, the fact that she thrived during this period and did not return needing intravenous nutrients is a testament to her strong constitution and vitality.
Rosemary can also light up a room, but with a bright smile and thoughtful conversation rather than an energy infusion. She is peppy and productive but can only maintain her busy schedule if she eats carefully and gets plenty of rest, a lesson she learned the hard way after she collapsed after a stressful period several years ago.
During the illness, she discovered she was sensitive to several foods. Rosemary recovered after many months but must avoid these food irritants to maintain her energy reserves and consume healthy, regular meals.
Protein-Rich Diet Plan
Unlike Greta, Rosemary needs to eat meat to feel her best. She has tried several times to take meat out of her diet because she believes a vegetarian diet should be healthier but finds her stamina wanes.
“No matter how many green vegetables I eat or herbs I take, they never work as well as meat,” she laments. She was relieved when I explained because of her tendency toward low blood sugar, poor stamina and food sensitivities her body required the denser nutrients in meat. We then strategized about finding the healthiest, most humane sources.
Muscle tone, stamina levels and digestion efficiency are your energy-making indicators. The stronger and more flexible you are in these areas, the less you need animal protein. The more sensitive you are to dietary changes and a regular eating schedule, the more you need meat. Whether you consume meat or not, the experts agree that everyone needs plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Where specialists and consumers continue to collide is over the question of animal proteins. We should all insist and fight for safe and humanely raised animals, but it is time to stop squabbling over whether it is better to be a vegetarian or omnivore. The healthier choice depends on who you are.
Protein-Rich Diet Benefits
Years ago as a newly minted nutritionist, I decided to become a vegetarian. I was and remain an environmentalist and wanted to walk lightly upon the earth, not squander its limited resources. Cows and chickens were other beings, too, I reasoned. They should not be sacrificed for my own selfish survival needs.
Even eating animal by-products like cheese and eggs seemed ill-advised. Why exploit animals even for their by-products? Whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables had been proven to contain the nutrients necessary to sustain life, so I would be a vegan. For good measure, I avoided sugar, the white poison, too.
Had Steve Jobs been famous by then, I may have decided to become a fruitarian. The fruitarian diet is a sparse affair composed of only fruit and sometimes seeds. Given my level of idealism and fervor, I might have refused to eat any plant that had not freely thrown itself on the ground to be gathered. I read The Secret Life of Plants, a book released in the 1970s, and knew plants also suffered when they were pulled apart.
Thank goodness I got married and changed my name so anyone I knew at the time will not remember me. I was an extremely annoying but committed dietary zealot. The first week on my plant-only diet, I told anyone who would listen about the wonders of clean, animal-free eating.
By the second week, I was not feeling very spunky. Dragging myself in and out of bed, my thinking was alarmingly fuzzy. The diet needed an adjustment—and soon. I made sure to have nut or bean protein sources with every meal and increased my fat intake. Instead of improving, a week later my hair started falling out.
Desperate, I decided regular vegetarianism would be pristine enough and added back cheese and eggs to get my protein intake up. When I became anemic, I swallowed iron pills and started counting the hairs in the sink after bathing. I could have knitted a cap with all the hair I was losing; a cap I would need soon if the situation did not change. The hair I had left was looking dull and limp so I decided fish had small brains and were being eaten by bigger fish anyway, and added them back.
If only filet of fish had worked. Exhausted, I dreamed of steak. For me, it was a dark night of the soul. How could I be a spiritual, kind person and eat another animal? I consulted a trusted vegetarian friend.
“Tibetan monks sometimes eat yak,” she told me, choosing to ignore my lack of moral fiber. I did some research and discovered she was correct. There were many cultures, including Native Americans, who lived in balance with nature while consuming animals.
My energy and hair growth returned only after I added red meat back to my diet. To this day, when somebody announces he is a vegetarian I longingly wish I could say the same, but have grudgingly accepted I need to eat meat to be healthy.
I tell myself the situation has made me a less judgmental person and more flexible nutritionist. Clearly the best diet for one person can be an insufficient disaster for the next. What you need to eat to be healthy may have nothing to do with your philosophical leanings or taste preferences.
At the time I had no idea why I had failed so spectacularly as a vegetarian. Over time, I have discovered the body clues that determine who needs heavier animal proteins and who can thrive on plants. The secrets are revealed by your body configuration, energy levels and digestive abilities.
Most people know a little about how to read body language. If a friend crosses his arms over his chest during a conversation, for example, you might suspect he is less open to what you are saying. But few people understand how their own body broadcasts its dietary needs beyond the stomach growling for food.
All of the tendencies I will describe are on a continuum. If you have some of the characteristics or only mild versions, you could remain vegetarian inclined and still thrive. But before I explain the three key areas of concern, let’s talk about the basic nutrient differences between plant and animal based foods.
Remember how you learned about photosynthesis in fourth or fifth grade? Kids today are probably memorizing plant biodynamics in pre-school, but most of us learned at some point about the basic process of how plants use the energy from the sun to change carbon dioxide (carbon and oxygen) and water (hydrogen and oxygen) into starches and sugar. The starches and sugar are the plant’s food, but they become our starches and sugars when we eat carrots and hummus for lunch.
Sun and water are critical to a plant’s growth, but they also need many of the same minerals we do. They absorb calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, manganese, molybdenum, copper and boron, to name a few from the soil. Consequently, plants contain these nutrients, too. Eating plants transfers their nutrients into the flesh and bones of the consuming animal.
Experts estimate a steer needs to consume five to 20 pounds of grain to create one pound of meat. The exact ratio is debatable but everyone agrees many pounds of plants are required to produce a pound of edible meat. Animals concentrate the energizing nutrients and minerals in their flesh.
Protein-Rich Diet Nutrients
Nutrients are not distributed evenly. Calcium collects in the bones, for example, so a hamburger will not contain much unless the butcher tossed a few femurs into the grinder. Vitamin A collects in the liver and other organs rarely consumed in modern times by people who are not contestants on Fear Factor, or possibly French.
The thymus, brain, heart, eyes and testicles all concentrate nutrients at a higher level than the muscles. Oddly, we no longer eat the most nutrient-dense parts of animals.
All vitamins and minerals work like computer software. Software becomes enmeshed with the hardware and makes the machine functional. The nutrients regulate and assist the body in the same way. Vitamin A modulates immune function and the repair and growth of your skin and epithelial cells. It is also incorporated into the rods and cones in your eyes so you can see. Without vitamin A, you have eyes that cannot see and skin that will not repair.
Plants use nutrients in similar ways, but do not accumulate vitamins involved with energy production (like the B vitamins), minerals and protein as intensely as animals do. What they excel at accumulating is nutrients involved with keeping pests away.
Substances that protect them from bugs and disease help us detoxify poisons, reduce inflammation and bolster immunity. These are antioxidants like vitamins A and C and other, even more potent plant nutrients called phytonutrients.
Nutrition experts are enamored by blueberries and the other brightly colored fruits and vegetables because different colors in plants are associated with powerful phytonutrients. The blue in blueberries, for example, contain phytonutrients called polyphenols.
Polyphenols reduce inflammation and can even change the way your genes operate. In studies, blueberry polyphenols improve cognition and prevent age-related declines in memory and motor function. The plants themselves do not have a higher IQ but use the polyphenols in their pest defense system.
Protein-Rich Diet Choices
Penelope was born with the perfect body for a plant-based diet. Her muscular calves look like they belong to a Tour de France cyclist, though she does not own a bicycle and her exercise program is best described as relaxed. Her stomach is flat even when she carries a spare 15 or 20 pounds because she ate too many Christmas cookies or drank an extra margarita. Penny is blessed with good muscle tone.
Muscle tone is the indicator of how primed and ready your muscles are for action. Your muscles are always partially contracted even when they are resting. The level of firmness in their relaxed state is your level of muscle tone.
Exercise improves muscle tone, but some people like Penny can exercise very little and maintain good tone. Others who exercise regularly can still be on the doughy side.
Penny is also blessed with energy to burn. Her family and friends struggle to keep up with her. Full of ideas and life, she go, go, goes like the Energizer Bunny. Everybody wants to be energetic, but Penny has a hard time calming down her mind. Her vivacity comes with equal measures of intensity and anxiety.
Her metabolism, on the other hand, is a slug. Very few extra cookies were needed to pack on five extra pounds over the holidays. She does not need to eat much to maintain her energy level or weight.
For Penny, a little food goes a long way. Her food also seems to take the long road through her digestive system, so she struggles with constipation and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). When she stopped eating meat and cheese and concentrated on beans, vegetables and whole grains, her digestion improved and the extra weight disappeared.
Sergio needs to eat meat. He is an attractive man in his late 20s who I am sure never has trouble getting dates. Nonetheless, he did not fare as well in the muscle tone department.
Early during our consultation, he shot out of his chair, pulled up his shirt and grabbed a small handful of stomach flesh. “Look at this,” he cried. “I work out six days a week, watch everything I eat and still am not ripped. My friends show up at the gym a couple times a week, drink beer on the weekend and have better muscles.”
Sergio’s energy was fine as long as he watched his diet. He avoided junk food and ate regular meals or he would feel the effects immediately. There was nothing medically wrong with Sergio but he should have had more muscle development given his workout regime.
On the sliding scale of dense vs. softer muscles, he leaned towards the softer side. He also had fast but not particularly efficient digestion and absorption. This was how his body was telling him he would do best with meat in his diet.
It’s Your Choice
As the examples noted here reveal, every body is unique, and your choice to be a carnivore or a vegetarian will be determined by your body’s reaction to a meat- or plant-based diet.
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). Dorfman wrote “Carnivore vs. Vegetarian: What’s Best for Your Body?” for the June 2016 issue of MASSAGE Magazine.