My friend Caitlin is writing a research paper for her Master’s degree on the health benefits of a vegetarian diet. She asked if she could interview me for her research – I was so honored! Here is the interview:
1-What was your primary reason for becoming a vegetarian?
I went vegetarian after learning about the horrible animal abuse on factory farms. I’m not just talking about the actual act of slaughter, which is performed in painful and torturous ways, but I’m also talking about the abuses that the animals endure throughout the entirety of their lives. As I learned more about how awfully the animals on factory farms (which produce 99% of our meat, dairy, and eggs) are treated, I became more and more uneasy with eating meat. But the specific thing that “put me over the edge,” and convinced me to go vegetarian for good, was a collection of first-hand accounts from slaughterhouse workers who openly discussed the deliberate and malicious abuse that they inflicted on the animals, without any hint of remorse. It broke my heart to realize the immense suffering that these animals endure, it made me sick to my core to realize how horribly cruel humans can be to animals, and it blew my mind how rampant this behavior is in the meat industry.
It took me 27 years to make the connection that farm animals are the same as all animals: they feel joy and pain, just as your dog or cat does, just as a horse, or an elephant, or a lion does. I realized that if I’m appalled by abuse to dogs, or slaughter of dolphins, or poaching of elephants, or hunting of mink for fur coats, then I should be even more appalled by the way cows, pigs, and chickens are raised and slaughtered for meat, because it is undeniably worse. And I finally understood that by purchasing meat, I was not only condoning some of the worst animal abuse imaginable, I was funding it. Once you know something, you can’t un-know it. So once I knew what was happening to those animals on those factory farms and in those slaughterhouses, I couldn’t in good conscience continue to support that system.
2-What are some of the health benefits of a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle?
Oh gosh, how much time do you have…?!
1. I’d say the greatest health benefit of a vegetarian diet is the reduced risk of heart attack. Heart attack is the number one killer in America. To put that another way: Heart attack is the most likely reason you’ll die. And even more frightening: In more than half of heart disease cases, the first symptom is death. But the really sad thing is that heart disease is completely preventable.
Heart attacks are caused by blocked arteries. Arteries become blocked over time by cholesterol and saturated fat. Animal products (all meats, including fish, as well as dairy and eggs) are the only source of cholesterol and saturated fat (with the exception of a few vegetable oils, like coconut oil and sunflower oil, which contain saturated fat but no cholesterol). A vegetarian diet is significantly lower in cholesterol and saturated fat, and a vegan diet does not contain any cholesterol or saturated fat!
The American Heart Association recommends a (total) cholesterol level of under 200. However, about 35% of all heart attacks occur in people whose cholesterol level is 151-200. Research indicates that a cholesterol level below 150 will essentially make you heart-attack-proof. [source] The average American’s cholesterol level is 200. The average vegetarian’s cholesterol level is 161. The average vegan’s cholesterol level is 133. [source, source]
(Note: Trans fats, which come from processed foods, are another source of arterial blockage, but they have been phased out of most products. They are even banned by law in some states.)
2. Related to heart disease, is blood pressure. Clogged arteries cause your heart to have to work harder to push the blood past blockages. Plus, saturated fat causes your blood to become more viscous, or thick, (more like grease and less like water), which means your heart needs to push harded to get the blood flowing. And, vegetarian diets are lower in salt and higher in anti-inflammatory flavonoids that are found only in fruits and vegetables. So, vegetarians and vegans have lower blood pressure.
3. Another very serious issue associated with blocked arteries is stroke. Stroke is the third-leading cause of death and the first-leading cause of serious, long-term disability in the US. Stroke often attacks with no warning signs and results in death 25% of the time. The majority of strokes are caused by blocked arteries that lead blood to the brain. Some other strokes are caused by burst blood vessels in the brain, often due to uncontrolled high blood pressure. It is said that 80% of strokes are preventable. [source] Vegetarians and vegans, who have less (or no) arterial blockage and lower blood pressures, are much less likely to have a stroke.
4. The second-leading cause of death in the US is cancer. One-third of the population will develop cancer in their lifetime. There are so many different types of cancer that are caused by so many different things, that it’s too difficult to address them all succinctly. But, in general, one-third of all cancers are related to diet, and vegetarians are 12% less likely to develop cancer (any type). [source] Specific cancers that are directly linked to eating animal products (meat, dairy, eggs) are colon cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, bladder cancer, stomach cancer, leukemia and lymphoma. In some cases, the risk of certain cancers is reduced by up to 75% by going vegetarian. Vegetarians are 45% less likely to develop blood cancers and lymphatic cancers [source], 75% less likely to develop myeloma (bone marrow cancer) [source], 50% less likely to develop colon cancer [source], and 40% less likely to develop prostate cancer [source]. These are some significant numbers!
There’s a variety of reasons that a vegetarian diet protects against so many cancers, some of which include:
- Cooking meat (any type, including fish) creates a carcinogenic compound called heterocyclic amines, or HCAs. [source] (For more information, Google “heterocyclic amines.”)
- Animal protein (but not plant protein) is acidic and because cancer cells are also acidic, it’s important to eat non-acidic foods (like plants) to balance the pH of the body and prevent further cell damage. [source]
- Vegetarian diets contain higher levels of antioxidants, phytochemicals, and vitamins found in fruits and vegetables, which protect DNA from damage (this is the root cause of cancer).
- Animal products (meat, dairy, eggs) do not contain any fiber and, therefore, can stay in the digestive tract (stomach, intestine, and colon) for a long time. Vegetarian diets are high in fiber (which only comes from plants), so the fiber helps to quickly push food through the digestive tract, without allowing it to sit in there and cause trouble for too long. This helps protect against stomach and colon cancers.
- Most meat, dairy, and eggs is produced with the use of hormones to make the animals grow faster and bigger, or to produce more milk or eggs. These hormones remain in the meat, dairy, and eggs that we eat and are linked to hormonal cancers like breast and prostate cancer.
- Vegetarian diets are lower in fat and being overweight contributes to many types of cancers. [source]
There are definitely more than just these, but getting into the individual details of how meat contributes to each specific cancer type would take quite a while!
5. Diabetes (type 2) is quickly on the rise in America. Currently, one in 12 Americans suffers from diabetes, but researchers estimate that as many as one in three people born after the year 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime. [source] Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness, amputation, and kidney failure, and diabetes doubles your chance of having a heart attack or stroke. And just like heart disease, diabetes is entirely diet-related. There are so many studies proving that a vegan diet can reverse diabetes.
One study conducted by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine compared type 2 diabetics on the American Diabetic Association’s (ADA) recommended diet, to type 2 diabetics on a vegan diet. They found that the fasting blood sugars in the vegan group decreased by 59% more that the ADA group and the ADA group needed to maintain their medicines, while the vegan group was able to control their blood sugars with less medicines. But, one of the most interesting results was related to protein. Because diabetes can cause damage to the kidneys, diabetics often lose large amounts of protein through their urine. The study found that the ADA group did not improve in this aspect and, actually, protein loss worsened, but the vegan group, on the other hand, had reduced protein losses. [source]
6. Vegetarians and vegans have lower rates of osteoporosis. This is because the average American actually consumes way too much protein! Your body can only absorb so much protein. Any excess protein (including protein from dairy) in your diet gets converted to acid. To try to neutralize this excess acid, your kidneys leech calcium (a base) from your bones, stressing the kidneys and putting you at a higher risk of osteoporosis. [source]
7. And last, but not least, vegetarianism helps prevent obesity which we all know can lead to and contribute to a whole host of ailments. Because vegetables are naturally low in fat an calories, filling up on veggies instead of saturated-fat laden meat (and dairy) helps to maintain a healthy weight. Body Mass Index (BMI) is a measure of body fat compared to height. A “normal” BMI ranges from 18.5 – 24.9. An “overweight” BMI is from 25.0 – 29.9. And an “obese” BMI is anything over 30. The average American BMI is 28.8. The average vegetarian BMI is 25.7. And the average vegan BMI is 23.6.
8. Because of all the above reasons, vegetarians have a longer than average life expectancy. Various studies have shown life expectancy increases in vegetarians from 3.6 years up to 7.28 years. [source] The variability likely has to do with how long an individual has followed a vegetarian diet (you can’t expect that going veg on your 75th birthday will add 5 years to your life!).
3-When you first stopped eating meat, did you worry that you were getting enough protein? iron? B12? etc.
When I decided to stop eating meat, the very first thing I did was read about the health implications of a vegetarian diet because I definitely wanted to make sure that I remained healthy. What I found was a wealth of information on how vegetarian diets are generally healthier than omnivorous ones! (This, of course, reassured me that I’d made the right decision in giving up meat.) The doctors, scientists, nutritionists, and athletes whose books and articles I read, made it infinitely clear that it is nearly impossible to suffer from a protein deficiency, so long as basic caloric needs are being met. You’d literally have to be starving to not get enough protein (but at that point, protein isn’t your biggest problem). Almost all whole foods have some amount of protein, even fruit! So, no, I never worried about getting enough protein because I’d educated myself on the subject.
As for the other nutrients, like iron, B12, and zinc, I knew that it was possible to become deficient in these areas (unlike protein), so I just did a few Google searches on good vegetarian sources of each of these nutrients to ensure I was eating some of them. I found that I was already eating many of the good iron sources (soy, spinach, canned beans, quinoa), the B12 sources (dairy), and the zinc sources (soy, beans, nuts, dairy). So, again, I didn’t feel like I needed to worry about getting enough of any particular nutrient.
Plus, I’ve always taken a multi-vitamin (almost) every day. This obviously can’t be your sole source of a particular nutrient, but it can certainly help to fill in small gaps on days where you may not eat as much spinach, or beans, or nuts, or whatever. As long as you’re eating a variety of whole foods (and not just processed junk, like potato chips and Oreos, which are both vegetarian), you will easily get all the nutrients you need on a vegetarian diet.
4-I have often heard people say that they feel hungry right away if they don’t eat enough protein. Do you know anything about this?
Yes, nutritionists do say that protein helps you feel fuller longer. But this is not limited to animal protein! Plant protein will have the same effect, so ensuring that you include a vegetarian protein (like cheese, beans, tofu, nuts, spinach, etc.) in your meal will easily solve this problem. And you don’t need to center your meal around the protein to include it – add beans or nuts to a salad, toss some spinach and chickpeas into your pasta, or just serve a side of peas with your veggie dinner.
There’s also another nutrient that helps you feel fuller longer: Fiber. Fiber not only fills you up, but it also slows down the digestion process, keeping you fuller longer. Plus, fiber helps lower cholesterol levels and helps lower the risk of heart disease, some forms of cancer, diabetes, gall stones and kidney stones, and constipation. Fiber really is a super-food but, unfortunately, the average American diet contains less than half the recommended daily amount. Fiber is only found in plant foods (vegetables, fruits, whole wheat products, nuts, beans, etc.). Animal products do not contain any fiber. None.
It’s not difficult to feel full on a vegetarian diet, just load up on the fiber (the great thing about vegetables is that you can eat a ton of them and not have to worry about fat or calories!) and include some vegetarian protein.
5-Do you try to eat “complete” proteins? I’ve heard those are important and can only be found in meat and quinoa. But I know beans and rice, for example, together make a complete protein.
Protein is made up of amino acids. There are 21 amino acids, 12 of which your body produces internally, and 9 of which your body can’t produce so you must get them through your diet. These 9 are called the “essential amino acids.” A complete protein is a food that contains an adequate proportion of all 9 essential amino acids. Nearly all whole foods contain protein, and nearly all forms of protein contain all 21 amino acids in some quantity. However, proportions of those amino acids vary by food, and some foods may have lower amounts of one or more of the essential amino acids. So, there are many foods that contain all 9 essential amino acids, but the level of one particular amino acid is too low to qualify it as a complete protein. (This table shows the level of each essential amino acid needed to quailfy a protein as a complete protein.)
All animal products (meat, eggs, dairy) are complete proteins, but there are also some plant-based complete proteins, like soy, quinoa, hemp (ps – hemp milk is delicious!), buckwheat, spirulina, and amaranth. Plus, foods can be combined to form complete proteins (and it just so happens that we instinctively pair these foods together already!), like beans and rice, or beans and corn, or hummus and pita bread, or nut butter on whole-grain bread, or pasta with beans, or veggie burgers with bread, or tortillas with beans, or split pea soup with whole-grain bread. Typically, the perfect pairing is a vegetarian protein (like beans or nuts) with a grain (like rice, pasta, bread, corn).
But here’s the important part to know: You don’t need to pair these items together in the same meal! Research shows that you can spread your food combinations over a two-day period to effectively create complete proteins. So, if you eat a spoonful of peanut butter with lunch today, and a piece of bread with lunch tomorrow, you’ve got yourself a complete protein.
This really isn’t something you need to consciously think about. As long as you’re eating a variety of foods (don’t eat only zucchini for every meal, every day, please) it would be extremely difficult to not acquire all 9 essential amino acids. In fact, Frances Moore Lappe, the author who originally published the protein-combining theory in 1971 (indicating that vegetarians need to consciously combine foods to make complete proteins), retracted her position on protein-combining in 1981, stating, “In 1971 I stressed protein complementarity because I assumed that the only way to get enough protein … was to create a protein as usable by the body as animal protein. In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get high-quality protein, I reinforced another myth. I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually, it is much easier than I thought. With three important exceptions, there is little danger of protein deficiency in a plant food diet. The exceptions are diets very heavily dependent on  fruit or on  some tubers, such as sweet potatoes or cassava, or on  junk food (refined flours, sugars, and fat). Fortunately, relatively few people in the world try to survive on diets in which these foods are virtually the sole source of calories. In all other diets, if people are getting enough calories, they are virtually certain of getting enough protein.” [source]
6-What does a vegetarian need to do to make sure she gets all of the nutrients she needs?
It’s really pretty simple – eat a variety of whole foods. By “whole foods” I mean non-junk foods. Sure, potato chips, cookies, and ice cream are vegetarian, but you’re not going to get your nutrients from those. Vary the fruits, vegetables, and grains you eat, because you get different nutrients from different foods, and there’s really nothing more you need to do!
However, if you’re particularly concerned about specific nutrients (iron, zinc, B12, etc.) try just keeping track of how much you’re consuming of it for a few days to see if it’s really something you need to worry about. If it is, research what vegetarian foods have higher amounts of that nutrient and be sure to incorporate those into your diet more often. Or even consider a supplement if you’re that worried about it. Vitamins are a great thing.
I always recommend (to both vegetarians and non-vegetarians) taking a daily multivitamin because, well, why not?!
7-What does a VEGAN need to do to make sure she gets all of the nutrients she needs?
Veganism is only slightly different than vegetarianism in that by dropping the dairy and eggs, you lose your only source of vitamin B12. Interestingly, B12 isn’t made by animals, it’s made by bacteria. It’s found where things are unclean (like on rotting flesh…). Though the required amount of B12 is miniscule (3 micrograms a day), it is still critical to normal nervous system functionality. So, it’s important that vegans take a B12 supplement. Nearly all daily multivitamins contain 100% of the daily recommended value of B12.
Also, meat, dairy, and eggs are the only dietary source of vitamin D, so vegans need to ensure that they get their vitamin D from the sun. The recommended daily amount is 15 minutes of sun exposure per day.
Other than that, same as above!
8-What are the main health risks involved in not eating meat?
I’ll start by saying that it is NOT protein deficiency! I’ll repeat: You do not need to worry about getting enough protein. Ever.
But there are other deficiencies that are very real possibilities. These include: Iron, vitamin D, zinc, iodine, vitamin B12, and calcium (especially if you’re vegan). But it is easy to avoid any deficiencies if you are eating a varied, well-balanced diet.
To get more iron, try soy, pumpkin seeds (one of my favorite snacks!), quinoa, spinach, white beans, lentils, prune juice, tomato paste, and dried peaches.
To get more B12, eat eggs and dairy products. For vegans, sprinkle some nutritional yeast over your meals, drink B12-fortified soy/almond/rice milk, or take a vitamin supplement.
To get more calcium, eat dairy products, leafy greens (like spinach, kale, collard greens), soy/tofu, broccoli, okra, and almonds.
To get more zinc, eat dairy products, nuts, leafy greens, beans and lentils, peas, and squash.
To get more iodine, use iodized salt instead of sea salt, and eat dairy, soy, and leafy greens.
Vitamin D is a bit different, as the only food source of it is meat, dairy, and eggs. So vegans must ensure that they get their vitamin D from the sun. Get outside and play (15 minutes per day)!
*All of the above can also be supplemented with vitamins. A daily multivitamin will contain most of these.
9-Do you adapt your diet when you are training for a race
I do, but only slightly. Ok so, I’ve already harped on the fact that you don’t need to worry about getting enough protein. The official government-recommended daily amount of protein is 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men. Most people (especially those who eat meat) already get much more than this (as I discussed in question 2). However, the protein needs for “athletes” or “highly active people” is higher than for average Americans.
Exercise and sports physically break down your muscles and protein repairs and rebuilds the muscle. So the protein needs of athletes are influenced by the length, frequency, and intensity of their workouts. Marathoners, who are running much more often and for much longer distances than average, need about 50% more protein than a sedentary person. Body builders may need as much as 100% more than a sedentary person. [source] So, yes, when I’m training for a marathon, I do add a daily protein supplement. I use a vegan protein powder made from peas. But it’s important to remember that most people do not need a protein supplement, even those who are going for a 30 minute to 1 hour jog, 3-4 times a week.
10-Have you ever had a medical professional be concerned about your diet?
Never. Nor any of my trainers/coaches. Nor do I have low iron levels when I go to donate blood (I do eat a lot of pumpkin seeds..!)