Educated Eater 02/20/2013- Is a vegetarian diet really healthier?

by Anjelica Rivas

In the Educated Eater last week, we talked about a plant-based diet and how it may be the optimal way to health. Regardless of if people were vegetarians/ vegans or not, there seemed to be a consensus that a plant-based diet is the healthiest way of life. I’d like to challenge this. What if I said I make it a point to try to eat meat or some animal based protein source at every meal because I think it is the HEALTHIEST thing to do?

Our bodies run on 3 main macro-nutrients:  fats, carbohydrates and protein.  Don’t get me wrong, fruits and vegetables are great, but animals are among the cleanest ways to get healthy fats and lots of protein. Now I agree, when animals aren’t raised humanely they are NOT the healthiest choice, the gruesomeness is horrific, and it’s not the most environmentally conscious process; however, I would not be too quick to categorize meat as less healthy.

So what is unhealthy about the typical American diet? It’s not the fact that meat is such a large part of our diets. Like many people pointed out, many other cultures’ diets are hugely meat based, but the difference is the amount of grains which enter our diet. Grains are fed to cows to fatten them up, and well, grains fatten people up too. Americans eat a lot grain-fed red meat (not the best choice of meat) and we mix this with even more excessive amounts of carbohydrates which we also include in our regular diets. Our bodies are designed to run on fats for energy, not on carbohydrates. Carbohydrates signal the body to store them, but we never need to store as many carbohydrates as the typical American diet provides. The excess is stored as straight up unhealthy fat. So the unhealthy part isn’t necessarily only the meat.

And a completely plant-based diet isn’t as healthy as you’d think. Firstly, it is VERY high in carbohydrates and omega- 6 inflammatory acids, but low in omega-3 anti-inflammatory acids. Grains (even whole grains) and carbohydrates contain anti-nutrients that often lead to leaky gut; beans (often seen as the “protein source”) are high in carbohydrates and high in anti-nutrients and toxins; nuts and seeds (protein and fat source) are a great source of healthy omega-6 fatty acids but must be eaten in moderation and should not be relied upon as sole sources for fats and protein. But all of these foods are missing adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, and hands down the best way to get enough of these is through wild caught fish and even red meat. WHAT? Yes. Did you know that grass-fed beef is similar nutritionally to wild caught fish? The amount of omega 3 fatty acids, which are essential to our diets is spectacular is grass-fed beef.

Another example of how solely plant-based diets can be unhealthy is soy—a relatively recent fad within the ‘health’ community. Soy is a legume and is one of the most common sources of protein in a plant-based diet. Soy is also one of the worst culprits that contain elevated amounts of toxins. Additionally, it is a complete misconception that soy is a clean source of protein. In America, soy IS both genetically modified and highly processed—hmmm kinda like the meat products the vegetarians hate on—and there is no way around it.

So while I believe having many vegetables in our diets is wonderful, I must say I completely disagree that an entirely or even mostly plant-based diet is what we “should” be aiming for. When chosen carefully, animals are the most well-rounded and healthiest source of the two most important macro-nutrients: fats and proteins. Be a smart consumer, but don’t avoid the animal sources completely! In other words, go get yourself a grass-fed steak and know you are treating your body well!

Anjelica is a freshman geography major here at UT Austin. 

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Asiago says:

    Thanks Anjelica for writing up your opinion article about the last Educated Eater! It is nice to read something in defense of meat. I personally am not a fan of “restrictive diets”, more clearly, diets that make it dogma to eat or NOT eat a certain item(s). Eat simple but do not be afraid to eat everything.

    For me, it all comes down to cultural perception of what is healthy. After visiting several countries around the world, I no long follow the Western social norm believing that meals should be centered around a big piece of meat, because like you were describing meat is a true luxury and superfood! Respect it by cooking it well, spreading the flavor, and portioning out a “healthy” serving for your body’s needs.

    Nowadays, the food I want to cook is derived from the Eastern Ideology that meat is a “flavor enhancer” to the main carbohydrate in a dish. So for example, tonight we are having rice… oh and it just so happens to have a little bit of beef in it. Happy cooking!

  2. Hi, I read your new stuff on a regular basis. Your story-telling
    style is witty, keep up the good work!

  3. I love this. In defense of (Meat). Thanks for sharing your opinion.

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