Oct 102011

While working my former full-time job, food and diet were often a subject of discussion.  As it is true in any workplace, people brought various foods for lunch, talked about nights out at restaurants, and discussed what they ate for breakfast. For the most part, the conversations were lighthearted, lively, and a positive exchange of ideas. That is, until of the day of the Great Meat Debate.

The Great Meat Debate began when I declined a lunch time offering from a new coworker and I felt the need to explain my pass by stating “Oh no thanks, I appreciate it, but I don’t eat meat.” It’s happened on more than one occasion that when I decline an offering with meat, I am met with an eye-roll or an attitude. Friends, family, strangers… and this time was no exception. Not only was there a very present eye-roll, but when asked if anything was wrong, another person in the room threw a bunch of accusations at me all at once:

Vegetarians look weak, they are sick all the time, they are mistreating their children because neither they nor their offspring could be possibly getting enough protein.  It’s wrong to inflict personal choices on children.  My doctor told me vegetarianism doesn’t work and it’s just not healthy to not eat meat.

I was flabbergasted.  Occasional judgement and funny looks, fine.  I accept that you’re judging me and you probably (wrongfully) assume I am judging you.  But a verbal attack? Granted, there was a source for my coworker’s anger. A good friend of hers had changed eating habits substantially over the past two years and has chosen to constantly criticize her friends, which certainly is not the best approach. I have been very cognizant of the people around me and am careful not to preach. If the topic comes up and if anyone asks my opinion, I will offer it. But I don’t jump at the chance. I realize nobody – including myself – likes to be told how to think.

I am not and never was an evangelist vegetarian. I’ve made my choices to consume the food that I do, and I believe everyone has the right to do so as well. I’ve never forced any article, video, image, or book about the food processing industry on anybody. I chose to read, examine, or watch these items myself and everyone has the right to choose not to. And those who do watch or read these materials may come to different conclusions than I do. That’s all to be expected.

Putting all animal welfare and food industry issues aside, I want to take a minute to look at some of the pervasive myths surrounding the healthiness of vegetarianism that my coworker brought to my attention. The fact is, vegetarians can be weak or they can be strong- just as an omnivore can be.  There are a range of people who consider themselves varieties of vegetarian, from raw-vegan, to vegan, to not-100%-vegetarian pescetarians, pollo-vegetarians, and flexitarians. Whether or not your food choices are healthy comes down to whether or not you are eating a balanced diet that provides you the components your body needs to function.

There are nine essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.  They are “essential” because your body cannot make them but they are needed for protein synthesis. Cells can do fabulous things, arranging nitrogen and bits of carbohydrates or fats we consume into the nonessential amino acids if they need to. Unfortunately, they can’t make these nine essentials.  We have to eat them.  So why do a lot of people think meat is superior?

Because meat often provides good amounts of all nine amino acids from one source. They’re all there in your piece of chicken. Vegetarians need to be a little more crafty. Legumes are high in lysine, but most grains aren’t – yet many grains have higher quantities of methionine. Pairing beans with rice, or chili with corn bread, or breads with hummus can give you enough of all nine amino acids in one meal. You don’t have to have complementary proteins all in the same meal as it was once thought, but having a variety of proteins throughout the day helps to keep balance. Soy beans, quinoa, and egg whites if you eat them are pretty awesome, because they already contain good proportions of all nine amino acids. Another point for consideration is that plant proteins are slightly less digestible, but by consuming a few more grams of protein per day, you can offset that difference. There are benefits of plant proteins, including their richer content of many vitamins and minerals (though not all), higher fiber content, and the fact that plants are typically lower in saturated fats.

I used to have a poor immune system, coming down with at least four colds every winter and a couple each summer.  This year and a half I have felt stronger and healthier than ever. I’ve fallen from the ‘overweight’ category to ‘healthy weight’ range – not through protein deficiency but a more sensible caloric intake – and I have more endurance than I used to. It’s anecdotal evidence, sure.  But I’m an instant example to disprove that “all vegetarians are weak and sick.”

As for inflicting personal choices on children, I’m pretty sure that’s the basis of parenting. Guidance and a protection of the child’s welfare should be at the forefront, and there isn’t one 100% right way to do that. A person has to demonstrate what they think is best, and then, when they are able to do so, let the child make their own decisions.

I offered up my thoughts, albeit in timid and less detailed ways at the time. (I’m not the most confrontational person, especially when put on the spot.) There was some back and forth, but for the most part my rebuttal wasn’t going to matter. There were too many external factors and set minds.

I felt the need to share this dispute because protein intake isn’t fully understood by a lot of people, and hopefully this helps.  I would also like to ask that we all practice consideration, compassion, and check facts before deciding to criticize someone. I rest my case.

For further reading, some of my sources: Understanding Nutrtition by Ellie Whitney and Sharon Rady Rolfes, credible articles on WebMD, and journal articles published by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and the Journal of Nutrition.

Reader Comments

  1. This is an issue I struggle with all the time. Just because I don’t eat meat (only fish) I get so much negative feedback from people… it’s really frustrating. I hate to feel as if I’m being “difficult” when eating out or at someone’s house, and often that is the feeling I get when trying to explain my dietary preferences. It’s funny how people assume that you must be protein/iron deficient just because you don’t eat meat!

    1. It’s true – I’ve received a surprising amount of feedback from this post from fellow vegetarians, many of whom have the exact same encounters. It’s tricky having to explain yourself in most social situations, especially around new people or people who don’t accept your decisions.

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