The basis for this entry: One gal at work, every time she and I are in the break room at the same time on lunch she makes this comment:: “See Rachel, you’re a healthy vegetarian! That’s so awesome.” It’s nice, but it’s gotten me to thinking, because she’s said this on more than one occasion and I find it amusing.

There is a myth about vegetarianism being ‘healthy’ or ‘healthier’. As we were signing *yet more* paperwork at the car dealership, our car salesman made a comment along the lines of how he was thinking of being vegetarian so he could eat healthier, then went on to talk about veggie burgers. And herein lies my thought process about the entire situation.

I won’t bore you with the process of how I became a lacto-ovo vegetarian nor how I am on the brink of becoming a vegan, because it involves a lot of philosophical and spiritual beliefs and opinions and that is not the point of my blog. However, I do want to address the myths and misconceptions—and some concerns—surrounding this form of eating.

An easy explanation of vegetarianism is “not eating anything that has a face” or “not eating anything that has a mother.” Veganism is “not eating anything derived from another creature” including cheese, honey, milk and it often extends into not buying leather or fur.

Americans spend about $142 billion on meat (beef, chicken, veal, lamb, pork) each year (http://www.forbes.com/2009/03/24/eating-red-meat-lifestyle-health-red-meat-study.html). The suggested serving is about 8 grams of protein per pound of body weight; the interesting thing is that you don’t need to eat this all at one time, and in fact your body can only process so much protein at a time anyways (just ask anyone who’s ever tried downing gainer-protein shakes that take 3-5 scoops of protein powder; you don’t want to be in the same room as them once it starts getting digested!).

If you consume a variety of good-portioned fruits, vegetables and whole grains throughout the day, you will easily meet your protein needs; in fact, you can meet your calcium, zinc, iron, omega-3 and certainly fiber needs through veganism or vegetarianism so long as you are eating more than just rice, beans and broccoli. Fat, vitamin D and vitamin B-12 for vegans can be obtained from nuts, the sun, and fortified foods or supplements. (http://www.vrg.org/nutshell/vegan.htm#protein)

It is all too easy, though, for vegetarianism/veganism to become unhealthy, just as any diet plan can. After all, pasta, bread and white rice count as vegetarian/vegan! While carbs are not the enemy—vegetables and fruits are carbs!—too much grains can weigh you down, they are easy to eat in large quantities, and they don’t provide all the nutrients you need.

Also, there is just as much junk food available to vegetarians and vegans as there are for omnivores/carnivores. Fake-meat, which is processed soy to look and taste like chicken nuggets, corn dogs, ground beef and yes, burgers, are not any healthier than the products they imitate, even if they do have less fat. They are still over-processed junk food. And many vegan/vegetarian frozen dinners are extremely caloric and sodium-dense. There are vegan/vegetarian crackers, cookies, fruit snacks….sugar!

The concerning side of veganism/vegetarianism is when people use it as a front for an eating disorder. Just as bulimics can look ‘normal’ from the outside, with a healthy body weight or even being overweight, it can be hard to distinguish if someone is eating only salads out of personal beliefs or to restrict their diet. It is all too easy to have a strict, low-calorie diet in the name of animal rights. It gives restrictive eating a purpose beyond weight and size, but can be ultimately used solely for the purpose of losing weight and maintaining a low body weight. At risk of ‘using’ vegetarianism/veganism for non-religious/spiritual/ethical reasons are teen girls (http://www.nedic.ca/knowthefacts/documents/Vegetarianismanddisorderedeating.pdf), and teenage vegetarians have higher rates of eating disorders than do their non-vegetarian counterparts.

This is not to say that all vegetarians/vegans are hiding an ED, just as not all exercisers are hiding a body image disorder.

The point of all this to show that, without moderation and variety, vegetarianism/veganism can be just as unhealthy or dangerous as anything else in the fitness and nutrition world.

Adding in more fruits and vegetables and whole grains into the American diet is certainly not going to hurt us. Well, as long as those grains and produce aren’t laden with genetically modified organisms…but have I preached enough for today?

Take-home point: Meatless Mondays, non-calorie-bomb salads and other efforts to include more produce and whole grains into your diet is a healthy choice.

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