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Can You Be Vegetarian And Healthy?

vegetables
Eat your veggies! In the right combination, it’s all you need for a healthy diet.
(cc) Michael Cannon

A certain well-known actress — Angelina Jolie if you must know — reportedly stated that she was a vegan for a long time but that the diet nearly killed her because she wasn’t getting enough nutrition. Her partner, Brad Pitt, however, is said to be a vegan and he seems healthy enough, judging by all the running around he did in his latest action flick, whichever one that was.

Whatever you think of Brangelina and whether you choose to believe the quotes from “sources close to the couple,” there are many people, including professional athletes, who don’t eat meat — some who never have — and who enjoy health most of us would envy. What’s their secret? What’s the key to a healthy vegetarian lifestyle?

Vegetarian Versus Vegan

The words “vegetarian” and “vegan” are often misapplied, even by those who identify themselves as one or the other. We’re not going to argue the definitions of these words, so if you have a different idea, that’s OK; this is just the way we’re using them here. A vegan is someone who omits all animal products from their diet. That would include not just meat, fish, and poultry, but also milk and other dairy products, eggs, and honey. A vegetarian adheres to a somewhat less restrictive diet. They typically avoid meat of any kind, but may be fine with eggs and dairy. However, some will eat fish because … well, it’s not an animal … really … is it?

It really depends on the reason for the decision. Is it because we believe meat — specifically red meat — is unhealthy? Then we may choose to include fish and even poultry, but avoid beef, pork, and the like. Is it because we don’t want to have to kill an animal — any animal — for food? Then we’ll probably avoid fish, but milk and eggs are likely acceptable, unless we think about the deplorable conditions under which the cattle and chickens are forced to live on factory farms.

Are we limiting ourselves to diet only? Or do we also avoid leather and fur?

Whatever our stance and the reasons for it, a vegetarian lifestyle is a difficult regimen to stick to, since so many animal products are hidden in prepared foods, often under less-than-obvious names. And some of those ingredients could come from either animal or plant sources. The various glycerins and glycerides, for example, may be derived from animal fats, but they may also be made from vegetable oils. You don’t know which, unless you ask the manufacturer — and get a straight and honest answer. Even then, manufacturers often change their suppliers and aren’t likely to send an update to everyone who’s ever asked.

Cutting out a large portion of our diet is bound to leave some holes, and it’s these holes in our nutrition that seem to have troubled Angelina. We’re not generally concerned about eating too many fruits and vegetables. It’s what vegetarians don’t eat that may pose a problem.

Protein – The Building Blocks Of Your Body

Most people who object to the vegetarian path claim that a diet devoid of meat can’t supply the protein we need. And everybody knows we need protein. Or do we? Sort of.

We do need protein for any number of functions, including building cells and producing energy. But our bodies are so well designed they can produce all the proteins we need, provided we have enough of the right raw materials. Those raw materials are amino acids we get in our diet from eating … you guessed it … other proteins which are broken down by our digestive system. Our bodies even manufacture amino acids from simpler compounds. The problem is, our bodies can only make about half of the twenty amino acids we need. The remaining half, known as “essential amino acids,” MUST be obtained in our food. (Exactly which amino acids we’re talking about depends on how you define “essential.” There’s also “conditionally essential.” What matters is, we need them!)

While meat is a “complete protein source,” meaning it provides all the amino acids we need, including those essential ones we can’t make ourselves, it is not the only option. Beans, corn, grains, nuts, peas, and seeds are also rich protein sources. Combine them and you have a complete protein package. Add a few other ingredients and some herbs and spices … and you’ve got a delicious — and meat free — meal.

Iron Man Doesn’t Need Meat

Every breath you take depends on hemoglobin — another protein — to carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. Hemoglobin is built around iron. Without enough iron in our system we suffer from iron-deficiency anemia, the most common symptoms being fatigue, headache, dizziness, and pain.

Wouldn’t you know it, but red meat is a great source of iron. So is spinach, beans, lentils, and various fruits and vegetables.

Calcium

How many mothers have told their kids that if they want healthy bones and teeth they need to drink milk? That’s because milk is a good source of dietary calcium, along with many seafoods. That’s all fine if you’re a vegetarian willing to include dairy products and fish in your diet. But if you’re a strict vegetarian, or a vegan, or if you’re lactose intolerant, try green leafy vegetables like spinach and collards instead.

Nutrition Without Meat

Obviously, there’s more to having a nutritionally balanced vegetarian diet than just cutting out meat. For starters, you need to compensate for the missing meat with an increased intake of other foods. And those foods must be chosen to provide all of the various nutrients we need, including essential amino acids, iron, calcium, and other vitamins and minerals. That isn’t difficult to do. There’s any number of foods and recipes to satisfy even the most picky eaters.

And if you want to go vegetarian but really enjoy the taste of meat, there’s a whole range of meat substitutes, many of them almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Which makes you wonder … What was Angelina’s problem?!

Want to try cutting meat from your diet, but need some help? Read My Beef with Meat: The Healthiest Argument for Eating a Plant-Strong Diet from Amazon.

Jonathan Mycroft is a freelance writer and author. His latest novel, Trial by Fear, is now available as a pocket book and as a downloadable e-book from Lulu.com. Visit his website at www.jonathanmycroft.com