Cutting out meat is not always the healthy option
Despite our image of healthy vegetarians, some are back eating meat on doctors’ orders
WHILE SOME might extol the benefits of going vegetarian, others warn of the potential risks involved in giving up meat without getting proper advice on how to maintain a balanced diet. Moreover, some vegetarians are reportedly reverting to eating meat again, largely due to health reasons.
Medical herbalist Bridget Meagher herself returned to eating meat after being a vegetarian for 20 years and warns that people need to be extra vigilant if they are changing to a vegetarian diet.
“Turning vegetarian is a serious lifestyle change and if you don’t get it right, then there are going to be problems down the line,” she says.
Meagher was advised to re-introduce meat into her diet after she developed pernicious anaemia in her 30s – a condition which manifested itself in chronic tiredness and constant migraines. Through her own work as a medical herbalist, she says she encounters clients who are not faring as well on a vegetarian diet.
“I’d estimate that about 40 per cent of the vegetarian population that I treat develop health problems that are directly related to their diet,” says Meagher.
“Typical problems that arise could include low energy levels, muscle fatigue, lowered immune systems and menstrual problems,” she states.
Meagher maintains that in north European countries like Ireland, which have a colder, damper climate, eating foods that keep the body warm are important and that the solely plant-based diets of some warmer, eastern countries may not always suit Irish people – a factor which may explain why Ireland has the second lowest rate of vegetarianism among 29 countries, according to a recent report prepared by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).
She insists that if someone is opting for vegetarianism, they should seek proper advice on how to get a balanced diet.
“My advice is either be a good vegetarian or don’t be a vegetarian at all. I’d definitely recommend that people who are changing to vegetarianism should enrol in a good vegetarian cookery course, so that they learn how to balance their diet properly by getting complete proteins and introducing sources of iron,” insists Meagher.
While much of the nutritional advice today promotes eating more fruit and vegetables and less meat, other nutritional approaches are not as quick to recommend a diet low in or without meat, warning about the potential risks involved.
One particular nutritional discipline – known as “metabolic typing” – argues against a “one-size-fits-all” type diet, explaining that what may work well for one person or culture may be detrimental for another as we are all different in the way our bodies process foods and use nutrients.
The foundations of metabolic typing are rooted in the studies of forerunners such as Dr Weston A Price, whose research in the 1930s consistently found that people who adhered to their native diets were free of disease and physical degeneration. Against this background, changing to a diet that is vastly different from the native diet may not always be wise – which may raise questions about the suitability of a purely vegetarian diet for a country like Ireland that has traditionally had a big meat-eating population.
Dublin-based advanced metabolic typing adviser Siobhán O’Reilly says many of her clients – including meat-eaters – are consuming way too many carbohydrates and not enough good quality protein, such as that found in quality organic meat.
Also a former vegetarian, O’Reilly concedes that vegetarians are particularly at risk of developing serious health problems if they don’t maintain a properly balanced diet – that is, a diet with the right proportion of proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
She adds that cultural factors are also important and that the diet of our ancestors can provide important clues as to what we should be eating today.
“The earth has provided us with the correct foods that are available to us in our indigenous environment to keep us healthy and to survive,” explains O’Reilly.
“While it’s important not to generalise too much, I would guess that Irish people might function better on a diet that is higher in protein and fat, with some lower-starch vegetables and less of an emphasis on the higher-starch carbohydrates that are so prevalent in today’s diet,” she says.
Despite the arguments in favour of a meat-based diet, the Vegetarian Society of Ireland points to the growing body of evidence which shows that vegetarians tend to have lower overall cancer rates, a lower risk of death from heart disease, along with lower hypertension and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
“As with any diet, of course, it’s important that vegetarian diets are appropriately planned,” says Colm O’Brien, a spokesman for the society.
“Nonetheless, with a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet, a person can receive virtually all of their required intake of essential vitamins and minerals,” he insists.
Dublin-based nutritional therapist Helen Corrigan agrees that the real emphasis should be on a properly balanced diet rather than on extolling the benefits of either a solely vegetarian diet or a meat-based diet.
“It’s impossible to say whether a vegetarian diet is healthier than a meat-based diet – really it’s about how balanced and healthy the particular diet is,” she insists.
One reason why vegetarians may have the reputation of being healthier, Corrigan surmises, is that they usually have to be more creative about where they get all their nutrients and so tend to use a greater variety of foods than meat-eaters. Also, many of those who switch to vegetarianism often do so for ethical or health reasons, and so tend to be more health-conscious than the average person.
“However, if a vegetarian diet isn’t properly planned and well balanced, then health problems may begin to emerge at a later stage,” warns Corrigan.
“At the end of the day, the most important focus for me is, firstly, that the person is getting the right balance of nutrients and, secondly, that they are getting the best quality of food, which is not overly processed or intensively reared. Once these two elements are addressed, then the person will be on their way to achieving a healthy diet, whether it is a vegetarian or meat-based diet,” says Corrigan.
VEGETARIANS: WATCH OUT FOR . . .
PROTEIN– Most plant foods contain “incomplete proteins”, therefore, vegetarians need to ensure they have the right combination of plant-based proteins to get their complete protein.
IRON– Iron from plant sources is not as easily absorbed as iron from meat, so vegetarians should take a number of precautions, such as: increase their intake of legumes; avoid coffee or black/green tea at mealtimes; add a source of vitamin C at meals as it improves iron absorption.
VITAMIN B12– Although dairy products and eggs contain B12, vegetarians still often have low levels and so may benefit from taking a B12 supplement.
VITAMIN D– Vegetarian diets offer a poor source of vitamin D so vegetarians should consider taking vitamin D supplements during the winter months.
CALCIUM– Vegetarians who don’t eat much or any dairy products risk becoming calcium deficient and should consider taking calcium supplements.
OMEGA-3– As there is no plant source of the essential fatty acid omega-3 DHA, vegetarians should consider taking vegan DHA capsules derived from algae.
IODINE– Iodine can be increased by eating sea vegetables and dairy products. Supplements should be taken if these foods are not eaten regularly.
ZINC– Vegetarians need to eat plenty of foods that are rich in zinc, such as dairy products, eggs, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, brewer’s yeast, green vegetables, wheatgerm and wholegrain cereals.