How to be a Vegetarian
There’s been numerous studies that suggest going vegetarian can add a few years to your life. If you fancy a few more years on the planet, Dr Graham Simpson, Medical Director at Intelligent Health, shares his thoughts on how to stick to a plant-based diet and still get the protein, nutrients and minerals you need.
I should begin with a disclosure. I’m not a huge fan of the vegetarian diet. That’s not to say it can’t be healthy. In fact, my position has more to do with what vegetarians do eat – rather than what they don’t. What am I referring to here? Well, grains mainly. The majority of vegetarians I know (but certainly not all) tend to have a diet that is quite heavy on the grains, and as we know, grains are the cause of an endless list of ailments, from fatigue to highly damaging insulin spikes and immune system deficiencies.
Aside from the phytic acid grains produce, which strip the body of vital nutrients, there are the lectins that bind to insulin receptors and impede our natural ability to store nutrients and process glucose in the bloodstream. That means insulin spikes and “silent inflammation” – the number one killer of our day. This is, however, not another “grain bashing” article (as much as I love doing that). No, this article is more about understanding some of the challenges of being vegetarian, and how to be a responsible one.
The toughest challenges
From the traditional lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, which forgoes meat and fish, to lacto vegetarianism, which also discounts eggs, right through to veganism, there are many different paths to take when embarking on a meat-free diet – each with its own pros and cons. While some studies suggest that a low-carb vegan diet can help to reduce cholesterol levels, meat remains by far the most convenient source of protein and iron, which can leave vegans struggling to get their daily fix.
Vegetarianism too has its fair share of champions pointing to proof of a lower risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. However, like veganism, many vegetarian diets may not be quite as healthy as many assume – once again, due to what’s being eaten, and not due to the meat that is being avoided. Many vegetarians, for example, tend to fill the void left by meat with overly processed foods, which are often high in sugar and have been shown to cause lethargy, increased cholesterol and depression.
What’s more, not only do plant-based foods contain less protein than animal products, but very few are classified as complete proteins. This makes it harder to ingest the levels of protein needed for a healthy diet, without eating much larger quantities of food – an idea that many calorie-counting individuals refuse to entertain. Vegetarians also tend to turn to foods such as soy, to replace nutrients usually found in meat. Again, I have to take issue with this. Soy, like grains, are high in phytic acid which hamper the body’s ability to absorb vital nutrients such as calcium and iron. It’s also been linked to an increased risk of several cancers and is known to wreak havoc with thyroid function.
What you should be eating
As with all healthy eating, you must ensure you are getting all of the vitamins and nutrients that you need, in the right quantities and from the right sources. And so meat-eaters and vegetarians alike should eat a balanced diet, taking in all relevant food groups. And while we often highlight the protein challenges vegetarians face, that’s not to overlook the importance of getting enough iron, zinc, and vitamin B12 either – all of which are vital to a healthy lifestyle. Vitamin B12, in particular, can be hard to come by outside of animal products, with a recent study showing high levels of B12 deficiency among the vegetarian population – which in extreme cases can lead to irreversible nerve damage.
A great way to avoid these common deficiencies and their side effects is the Paleo Diet, which I have written about here. Although predominantly popular among carnivores, it also lends itself extremely well to both vegetarian and vegan lifestyles. In fact, a good Paleo and a good Paleo-Vegetarian Diet are nearly identical as can be seen from the table on page 57 of my book “Reversing Cardiometabolic Disease” (which you can receive from me at no cost by sending an email to email@example.com).
With the Paleo Diet, we are sticking to natural foods – mainly meats, vegetables, fruits, eggs, nuts, seeds, and certain oils. This is really the only way any of us should ever be eating. And so my advice for vegetarians is as follows: Just because you don’t have the meat group doesn’t mean the rest of those categories don’t suffice. Stick to those remaining groups. It is that simple. Natural. Foods.
Can it be done without getting boring? Sure. Is it easy? It depends on how creative you are with your cooking. Think how wonderful the Indian vegetarian curries are, or those vegetable dishes from Thailand or Vietnam, for example. And if you insist on having rice with it, fine, but then stick to very small amounts. It should take up maybe an eighth of your plate at most (yes, I am aware of how little that is, and no, I won’t give any more grace than that).
Finally, should vegetarians top up with any supplements such as nutraceuticals or whey powder? It’s a good idea. Specifically, in absence of the high biological protein intake that would come mainly through meats, do take a couple of scoops of whey powder daily. It’s an excellent substitute.
Keep it natural
So I guess it is pretty clear by now that it is not so much about eating meat or not eating meat. For both my vegetarian clients and my meat-eating clients I recommend natural foods as a singular way of eating. Those are really the only categories of food I can, as a responsible physician, recommend. Whatever type of eater you are is in fact almost irrelevant. Sure, meat eaters have it easier because meat, with its high protein content, is a sure-fire way to satisfy hunger and better help keep those carb-cravings at bay. But anyone regularly eating grains and sugars in even small amounts is going to see the same poor health readings come check-up time.
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Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.