Veganism/Vegetarianism – Are they healthier?

March is National Nutrition Month so I am going to be focusing heavily on more nutrition-oriented topics in my blog this month.

One nutrition question I get frequently is whether it is healthier to go vegan or vegetarian over meat eating. My answer probably irritates many who ask: not necessarily.

So first let’s get the differences between the two out of the way:

Veganism

In the most basic sense, veganism is a diet in which you don’t consume any animal products whatsoever. This means no dairy, eggs, fish, meat, honey, or gelatin and no products containing these ingredients. Some vegans are stricter than others. For example, certain beers are clarified using animal parts and some vegans will not consume them based on that while other vegans don’t mind as much because the animal parts are not actually part of the beer. Likewise, honey is technically not vegan in the strictest sense, but many vegans still use it.

Vegetarianism

Vegetarianism allows a lot more dietary options than veganism. In the most general sense, vegetarianism is simply not eating meat. Other animal products, such as honey, eggs, dairy, and gelatin, may be OK for a vegetarian. Some vegetarians, known as pescatarians, will eat fish, while others won’t. Likewise, lacto-ovo vegetarians eat eggs and dairy, but no meat. As with veganism, there is a spectrum of dietary choices that fall into the vegetarian category.

Are Vegan or Vegetarian Diets Healthier than Eating Meat?

Not necessarily. Sorry. While both of these diets have the potential to provide your body with loads of healthy nutrients and help you maintain a healthy weight, there are some mistakes that can make them less healthy.

As a certified health coach, I immediately get concerned whenever the prospect of eliminating entire food groups comes up. That to me is an immediate alert that the individual adhering to that diet needs to be really diligent in making sure they are getting all of the nutrients they need.

One thing that I know from my vegan and vegetarian friends is the most annoying thing people say to them is, “are you getting enough protein”? In our meat-centric society, we often assume that meat is the best or only source of protein. The difference between animal protein and plant protein is that animal protein is what we call a “complete protein” – it contains all 9 of the essential amino acids our bodies need. Plant proteins are known as “incomplete proteins” because they contain some but not all 9 essential amino acids. However, you can combine different plant proteins to make a complete protein and you don’t need to eat them all at once to do it. For example, you could have nuts for a an afternoon snack, tofu as part of your lunch, and pea protein in your morning smoothie. So protein is a concern for vegans and vegetarians only if they are not varying their protein sources enough (generally speaking).

Vegans have a bit more of a challenge than vegetarians when it comes to making sure they are consuming all of the nutrition their bodies need. Eliminating one food group is one thing, but when you eliminate several, it can make things more difficult and complicated. With any diet, it’s important to monitor what you are eating to make sure you’re getting enough variety and nutrition but vegans have that much more monitoring to do. One nutritive concern that I have for vegans is their Omega-3 consumption. The best source of Omega-3 fatty acids (AKA the healthiest fats) is fish – partly because it is already in the form our bodies can use so we readily absorb it. There are plant sources of Omega-3s, but they are in a form that our bodies cannot use. This means that our bodies must first convert them into the usable form, but, once that conversion is done, our absorption rate is less than 5%. So it’s more of a challenge to eat enough Omega-3s without eating fish or taking a fish oil supplement. Iron is another nutrient that we get primarily from eating meat in our society. However, there are a number of rich plant sources of iron. As with protein, it’s really important for vegans and vegetarians to make sure they are eating enough plant sources of iron (like spinach for example), especially for women of child-bearing age.  Click here to receive my list of plant-based, whole food sources of iron.

The last major concern for both of these diets that I will discuss here is the meat substitute products found in grocery stores. Most store-bought, pre-packaged vegan and vegetarian foods are highly processed and loaded with all kinds of fillers and preservatives. These are not healthy options. The healthiest options are organic tofu and organic tempeh, not breaded faux-chicken from the freezer section. If you are vegan or vegetarian or are considering either, make sure that you really read all the labels of products you want to buy to make sure they’re not full of scary ingredients. If you’re a hands-on person and have the time, making your own animal-product substitutes at home is even better. For example, it’s actually pretty easy to make your own nut milks and you can use flax seed meal and water in place of an egg in recipes.

Is Meat Bad for You?

Again, not necessarily. Sorry.

As I said above, meat, fish, and poultry (I’m just going to call them all “meat”) are all complete proteins delivering all 9 essential amino acids. Meat is also a good source of iron (particularly red meat and liver) and fish is a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids.

Where the meat question gets tricky is when it comes to quality. Americans in general have no shortage of saturated fat in our diets and these are not the healthy fats we want to focus on consuming. Overconsumption of animal fats (excluding fish) has been linked to a number of health issues, particularly heart issues. Therefore, it’s important to consume lean cuts of meat as much as possible – this means lean cuts of beef, eating more poultry and avoiding the skin and fatty parts, eating more fish, etc.

Another quality factor when it comes to consuming meats is considering what that meat ate when it was alive. Much of the meat we eat in this country has been treated with antibiotics, hormones, and other substances that we eat when we eat the meat from those animals. Many of the animals in the factory farms that supply most of our meat also don’t feed their animals quality food and that affects the meat we eat as well. There are also a number of really awful humane issues associated with factory-farmed meat. Considering all of this, it’s important to eat organic meat as much as possible. Ideally, select meat from free-range animals that consumed their natural diet rather than some cheap mystery feed. The most ideal situation, is to actually know where your meat is coming from – supporting local farmers at the farmers’ market or joining a local meat share. Obviously, this is not always possible, but following the first two guidelines I mentioned will get you into healthier meat eating.

Read This If You Just Want the Gist of This Post Without Reading the Whole Thing

Science has shown time and again that plant-based diets are the healthiest option for us. Both veganism and vegetarianism can be extremely healthful diets when followed properly. They both have the potential to deliver loads of wonderful nutrients to your body and sustain its health for a lifetime. However, in our rush-rush, convenience-centric society, it can be hard to eat the variety of foods our bodies need and it’s very easy to opt for those junky convenience foods most of the time, regardless of whether or not you eat meat. Eating a variety of plant-based foods is critical to our health. This does not mean that eating meat is unhealthy or that we shouldn’t ever do it, though – meat can deliver large amounts of nutrients our bodies need all in one stop and, as long as you are eating lean, good quality, organic meat, then meat-eating isn’t a health problem. The majority of what you eat, regardless of your diet, should be fresh fruits and vegetables, but meat is a food you can eat every day and it plays an important role in many diets.