One of the first questions I’m asked when someone finds out I’m in the nutrition field is “So, you’re a vegetarian?” It’s a loaded question, whether they realize it or not.
The prevailing belief when it comes to our food and health is that the fewer animal products we eat, the better. It’s perceived to be the healthier, the more ethical, the more environmental option.
I was a vegetarian of some shade or another for the better part of 12 years. I started in University for the politics of it, loving how radical it felt, and continued on and off until, ironically, I studied nutrition. I’ll confess right up front that for much of this time I wasn’t particularly good at it – I was the classic junk food vegetarian. I didn’t eat meat, but what I was eating wasn’t all that fabulous. I was more of a carbivore than anything – pasta, bread, cereals – mostly because I could never fill myself up.
During my years as a vegetarian, I had loads of digestive issues and was constantly hungry. Several times I figured this was because I wasn’t being “pure” or radical enough, so I tried my hand at a strictly vegan diet (no eggs, dairy, or anything that came from an animal). All the issues got worse, not better. The “healthier” I ate, the worse I felt. Occasionally I’d cheat and eat a little meat. To my great dismay, I would feel much better: my digestive issues resolved and I was completely satiated after even a small meal. What a predicament.
I see clients in my practice all the time in this same quandary: well-intentioned, following what they’ve been taught is a healthy, plant-based diet, trying to live their values of environmental sustainability and animal welfare through their food choices, and yet their body rebelling. What a horrible choice: feel good in your body but guilty about the impacts of your choices; or feel good ethically and miserable physically.
When I started studying nutrition, one of the concepts that compelled me the most was bio-individuality. Basically it means that what works for you might not work for me, and vice versa. One man’s food is another man’s poison. Bio-individuality is based on everything from physiology, family background, geography, ethnicity, season, blood type, stress levels, personal preferences… it’s a veritable jigsaw puzzle of factors that determine how our body will react to something.
This means that there’s no one diet that works for everyone. In fact, the diet that works for you today might be completely inappropriate five or ten years down the road. This concept of bio-individuality explains why some people thrive on a vegetarian diet while others, like me, really struggle with it.
But explaining why I did well with meat didn’t make me feel better about eating it. In fact, initially it made me feel worse. My biological wiring wasn’t making it easy to live according to the values I set for myself.
With a little more investigation, I learned that there was indeed a way to eat meat and feel good about it on an environmental and ethical level. Perhaps my innate instincts were turning me on to an important lesson in broadening my understanding of the issues at stake.
I, like many people, lumped “animal foods” into one big category. I’d seen the horrifying images from inside feedlots. I’d seen the stomach-turning videos of abusive treatment to animals. I was well aware of the major contribution ruminants make to water pollution and climate change, not to mention the energy intensity of raising them. What I wasn’t aware of was a whole other source of meat, eggs, and dairy, grown by a small but growing group of independent farmers.
These farmers are using traditional farming techniques that not only preserve but enhance their environments by increasing biomass and using minimal, if any, external inputs. They treat the animals humanely, allowing them to engage in their natural behaviors and eat the food they’re biologically designed to eat. One such farmer, Joel Salatin, has become quite famous for the methods he uses on his farm Polyface Farm. Many others are working with similar models throughout the country. Now this is meat you can feel good about!
As a wonderful bonus, not only is this an environmentally responsible choice and makes the health and welfare of its animals a top priority, it also provides meat, dairy and eggs that are far more nutritious. As one example: beef that comes from grass-fed versus feedlot cows is higher in the all-important Omega 3s, lower in fat overall, and contains CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) that promotes healthy weight, lowers triglycerides, and has been linked to cancer prevention. You’ll find similar differences in the nutritional profiles of wild versus farmed fish, eggs from pastured chickens versus those raised conventionally in battery cages, and so on.
I immediately became very selective about what meat we bring into our home. You won’t find standard supermarket fare in our house. Yes, it’s more expensive, so we eat less of it to compensate.
The great news is that when I’m eating this way, I feel fabulous. My energy levels even out, my digestion ticks along like a well-oiled machine, and I feel lean and strong.
And then, every once in a while, hearing the vegetarian model aggressively promoted yet again, I start to question myself. I start weaning out the meat, I eat a few more grains (whole grains now – I’ve moved away from my junk food days) and a few more beans; I increase the veggie content even more than normal (50-70% of all my meals are vegetables regardless), and whaddaya know… the digestive complaints come back, I’m overstuffed but still not satiated after meals, and I start to bloat. Turns out that a plant-based diet really doesn’t work for me after all.
Digestive issues and constant hunger aside, I kind of miss the simplicity of my vegetarian days. It was so easy to just label anything that came from an animal as “bad” and end the conversation there. Unfortunately, the reality is a lot more complicated, and not nearly so black and white. Ultimately it depends on your individual biology and it depends on the source of your meat.
Here are three ways your body could be telling you it needs animal protein:
1) After a plant-based meal you experience great digestive distress.
2) After a plant-based meal you feel excessively full but still hungry and not satiated.
3) You experience powerful sugar cravings in the afternoons and evenings.
What’s your body telling you?
If you’re body is like mine and does better on an omnivorous diet, here’s a starting point for finding quality, pastured meat, dairy and eggs: www.eatwild.com