Although I’ve happily been a vegetarian for twenty-four years, I don’t advocate that lifestyle for most people unless they are a good cook, cook most of what they eat, and really understand food and how the body digests it. For most people this is a big ask and this is why many people who become vegetarian don’t stick with it and possibly even see their health deteriorate while experimenting with vegetarianism. I call these people vegetarian road kill.
The reality is that most people eat very poorly. If you simply take an average diet and subtract the meat and slightly increase the portions of everything that remains, you will most likely end up with a far worse nutritional result. There is this odd perception that vegetarian means healthy which is far from the truth. Chocolate chip cookies, cheese pizza, grilled cheese sandwiches, and a taco bell bean & cheese burritos are all vegetarian but far from being nutritional heavy hitters.
For many newbie vegetarians, their dietary changes equates to a radical drop in protein consumption and significant increase in carbohydrates. Given the carbohydrate excess of most people’s diets already, this is not a good choice.
Being a vegetarian is honestly a pain in the ass a lot of the time. I’m envious of people eating grass fed beef, broccoli, and a sweet potatoes for a relatively healthy, simple to prepare, and tasty to consume dinner with little effort. To get the equivalent protein and nutrition, I end up with a mixture of nuts, greek yogurt, eggs, quinoa, lentils, flax seed, and a random assortment of vegetables of which none has the healthy ratio of amino acids that are present in the beef. I really do enjoy cooking and assembling my meals from a variety of sources, but when I’m pressed for time, it is frustrating how poor the nutrition is of most quick to assemble or pre-made vegetarian options.
I’m also lacto-ova vegetarian so I eat eggs and dairy and admit that I lean heavily on animal based sources (mainly eggs, whey, and Greek yogurt) for a significant percentage of my daily protein consumption. Protein consumption would be significantly harder if I was vegan.
I’ve had numerous friends over the years cease to be vegetarian after developing issues with B vitamin deficiency, anemia, diabetes, and simple loss of energy and muscle tone. All of these are easily avoidable, but you have to know what you are doing and be educated and thoughtful in your food choices.
There is also a social aspect that comes into play. When you have a dietary restriction, you are immediately higher maintenance than someone without the limitation. When people are deciding whether to invite you or another person who will eat anything for the last slot at their dinner party, chances are that you won’t get the invite. You will also have to get used to going to many restaurants and having one to three options to order (and sometimes none) versus the normal thirty. There is also nothing worse than going to a close friend’s family gathering and having to explain to their 80 something grandmother why you won’t try her chicken stew.
There exists a significant association with anorexia and vegetarianism. Many anorexics will claim to be vegetarian because it helps to keep people from questioning their finicky eating habits and provides a bit of a shield. There is such an association with vegetarians and people who have eating disorders, malnutrition, and frail health that I, as a 200lbs+ slab of muscle, get shocked reactions when people find out that I’m a vegetarian. I frequently hear, “but you can’t be vegetarian and have that much muscle.” I get tired of people equating vegetarian with looking like you are two skipped meals away from dying.
Like any decent sized movement, there are also militant factions in the world of vegetarians. Vegans are to vegetarians as the evangelical born again set is to Christianity. Having been vegetarian for two and a half decades, I chuckle to myself in response to newly baptized vegans insisting that I have to give up dairy and eggs and how it will change my life. I’ve explored dropping all of these things (and gluten too) and if anything felt less healthy. In general, I’d advise against taking dietary advice from anyone who has been doing something themselves for less than five years.
I became a vegetarian initially totally based on animal rights reasons. I grew up next to a small, free range family farm with grass fed animals and saw how people who see animals as property and a source of income treat them. The answer is very poorly and I witnessed some horrible things. I was fourteen at the time and switching to become vegetarian was not a good choice for me but I did it anyway. I didn’t like vegetables and really didn’t understand nutrition. Over the years, I have made peace with broccoli and my vegetarianism has evolved.
At this point, I feel like there is enough death and cruelty in the world and I’m happy that there is less involved with getting dinner to my plate. However, I also appreciate having a greener, safer food supply as a result of eating lower on the food chain. I also like that I can’t go on auto-pilot with regards to food. Being a vegetarian can take a lot more time, but it also means I don’t really have the option of eating fast food or even eating at most greasy, comfort food type restaurants. Because dinner isn’t simply some cut of meat and a couple of “sides”, I have to be more thoughtful and deliberate in my food choices.
I also think that as a society, we often focus too much on weight loss / gain and protein consumption as the only metrics when evaluating food. There are other criteria like PH, antioxidants, toxicity, and others that should not be forgotten and are easier to manage with a more plant based diet. Vegetarianism has a lot of upsides for sure. However, a person wanting those upsides doesn’t actually need to become a vegetarian. An omnivore has access to all of the wonderful food options that vegetarians can eat and can choose how much if any meat to consume on top of that.
For many people, becoming a vegetarian is a great option but people should really be aware of that it will involve eating a diet that is substantially different from your average American. It will take more effort to eat a healthy and balanced food regimen. There are a number of great reasons for going vegetarian but people should realize that ceasing to eat meat will not make them any healthier and it could possibly be a negative change.