The debate continues. Who’s healthier? Vegetarians or meat eaters?
As it turns out, the answer’s not so simple. Both diets have their virtues. Generally speaking, the more restrictive a diet is, the harder it is to get all your nutrients, so a balanced diet is key.
A Balancing Act
Generally, vegetarians tend to eat healthier and have a healthier lifestyle, said Jenny Maloney (formerly Jenny Schwartz) a registered dietitian at the Galter LifeCenter. Vegetarians have a lower risk of high cholesterol and heart problems caused by the saturated fat in red meat. They generally consume fewer calories and eat more nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables.
But vegetarians lack Vitamin B12 and other vitamins and minerals found in meat, like iron. Vitamin B12 is important for nerve function, fat metabolism and reducing the risk for heart disease. Vegetarians can get B12 from food — such as fortified breakfast cereal or fortified soy milk — but it may not absorb fully. Doctors may recommend B12 supplements or injections. Before taking an iron supplement, talk to your doctor about your iron levels because you may be getting enough from other foods or a multivitamin. Vegetarians can make up for the lack of protein by eating beans, whole grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds, peanut butter and dairy. Keep in mind you only need 10 to 20 percent of calories per day from protein.
Meat eaters, on the other hand, may get enough protein, Vitamin B12 and iron but can be at risk for high cholesterol and heart disease. Be aware of your cholesterol level. If it’s high, you may want to limit your red meat intake. In general, choose lean cuts of meat and remove the skin from chicken, said Maloney. Meat eaters can still be low in vitamins and iron, but they can find these essential nutrients in green leafy vegetables and fortified foods. Overall, meat eaters tend to eat higher calorie, lower nutrient-dense foods, she said.
Maloney is a proponent of eating oily fish — such as salmon, tuna and mackerel — because they are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids that benefit your heart health.
Many people become vegetarian, often to prevent disease, lose weight or for ethical reasons. About 3.2 percent of U.S. adults are vegetarian, while .5 percent of those are vegans, meaning they consume no animal products. One in 10 U.S. adults follows a vegetarian-inclined diet, meaning they try to limit the meat in their diet (Vegetarian Times, 2008).
A growing trend is the flexitarian diet, for people who want the benefits of the vegetarian diet, but occasionally eat meat, poultry, eggs and fish. Eliminating meat from your diet two or three days a week can have many health benefits, including weight loss, lower cholesterol and decreased risk of disease and cancer.
There’s also the Paleo diet — known as the caveman diet — based on how we ate back in the day of hunter-gatherers. This high protein, low-carb diet includes fish, meat, seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables and herbs and spices. You’ll find no dairy, beans, sugar, salt or potatoes. The Paleo diet can lead to weight loss but it’s not recommended for athletes because it’s low in carbs. If you choose to follow this diet, you may want to modify it, said Maloney.
Diet is a personal choice, said Maloney. If you’re trying to lose weight, have digestive problems or other symptoms, the vegetarian diet may be for you. Just make sure you’re getting all your necessary nutrients.
If you change your diet completely, talk to a doctor or nutritionist first, said Maloney. “A diet is something that people want to follow because it’s quick and easy,” said Maloney. “But if you just eat a balanced diet — back to the basic food guide pyramid — you’ll see long-term results. If you’re not going to be able to follow a food plan for the long term, then don’t do it. It has to be realistic. For a long-term healthy lifestyle, find a comfortable weight that’s realistic for you and stay there.”
Be sure to read Jenny Maloney’s nutrition blog at www.chicagonow.com/blogs/nutrition-health-chicago-style/
(Editor’s note: A billboard located at the corners of Western, Lincoln and Lawrence avenues in Lincoln Square poses the question, “Vegetarians are healthier; Agree or Disagree?”. Let us know what you think on our discussion board, then read on and get a local dietitian’s take on the topic.)