Would you like meat or veg?
December 11, 2012 1:10 PM   Subscribe

Hey Ask, I don't know whether to continue in my vegetarianism. Advice?

I've been vegetarian for about 4 and a half years. The reasons being multi-faceted over that time, ranging from an attempt to control my neuroses via the food that I eat to trying to always feel good. The current reason, maybe the last reason, I'm vegetarian is in objection to the crappy factory farming practices in my country (USA). The fact that "Free Range" and "Organic" mean almost nothing when it comes to meat is bothersome. I've never been a bleeding heart save the animals type, but I've never been a craver of meat. I've taken short breaks from vegetarianism (thanksgiving and the like), and I feel no strong pull towards eating meat again or remaining vegetarian.

The problem comes when I consider how much junk is in most vegetables and grains I eat. It feels hypocritical to denounce meat when vegetables I eat can be even more drugged.

Also, it feels like nutrition facts keep on changing in regards to vegetarianism, to the point where citing nutrition science becomes futile because for every study there are three that contradict it.

Another aspect of this is the recent advent of my family getting heavy into the "Paleo" diet. It consists of eating plenty of meat, fruits, and vegetables, but absolutely no grains or dairy. And it's working very well for them, they claim to feel great and energized. I can't tell if it's legitimate or diet-cult propoganda, due to multiple family members losing tons of weight. If they're in the right, then vegetarianism would be a very silly thing to do. So I ask you metafilter, is there any science left behind vegetarianism? Is it hypocritical to pursue? Is there anything behind the "Paleo" way?
posted by Philipschall to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not a nutritionist or a dietician or anybody who knows anything about food. I am a vegetarian, but it's because I'm a bleeding heart save the animals type.

That said, my understanding of the current state of nutrition science is that if you're eating whole foods rather than processed foods you're generally doing ok.

A few phrasings from your question make me wonder if you get a lot of criticism about your food choices ("It feels hypocritical to denounce meat," "citing nutrition science becomes futile," etc.) and feel like you have to defend yourself. FWIW, I've found that it's really never worth arguing with people about what you eat; people are going to hassle you no matter what. So if you feel like staying a vegetarian, or if you feel like going Paleo for a while, or whatever, go for it and don't worry about having to defend your choices.
posted by JuliaJellicoe at 1:31 PM on December 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

I am a vegetarian. To me, the only reason that really makes sense is personal. The idea of killing another being is too much for me. Other people have no problem with it. I make no judgements.

If you feel no strong pull either way, do whatever you want. Nobody is making you do anything.
posted by kpmcguire at 1:33 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure what you mean by vegetables and grains being "drugged" so I will leave that alone.

Vegetarianism, done right, is a very healthy diet. There are many, many studies that have shown the long-term health benefits of a plant-based diet. None of that has been refuted by this latest Paleo fad, as far as I know. If Paleo works for some people, that's great, but it doesn't make vegetarianism wrong. It's not a dichotomy. Different things work for different people, and there are a lot of ways to be healthy and a lot of ways to be not so healthy. We don't know nearly enough about food science to say definitively that specific things are right or wrong.

So, you should do whatever you feel comfortable with. I'm a vegetarian but there's no way I could do it if it was only for health reasons. I think you can probably be just as healthy eating a limited amount of high quality meat. Just make sure what you put in your body is as close to its natural form as possible and you will be fine.
posted by something something at 1:38 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

It seems like the answer to this question really depends a whole lot on you and your personal reasons for being a vegetarian. It sounds like you're having trouble making a choice (and taking a stand) in part because you haven't thought it through -- it sounds like you're just kind of worried about food. One possible way to approach it is to think through the ethical, health, and social/lifestyle criteria that factor into your choice, approaching each one separately. So ...

Ethical: it seems like you don't want to support factory farming. There are many ways to address this, depending on your exact concerns. Here are a few options, from most stringent to least stringent:
- eat vegan
- eat vegetarian
- eat "modified vegetarian" -- veg plus fish and shellfish
- only eat meat that you know has not been factory farmed (ie, get it at the farmer's market from a farmer who raises animals in decent free-range conditions)
- eat mass-market meat that is labeled "Free Range", "Organic", or some other certification (not much, but presumably better than nothing)

Health: this is hard to puzzle out because, as you noted, it's a complex issue and new studies come out all the time. However, it might be easier for you to identify possible courses of action if you focus in on specific health criteria, instead of a general idea of "healthiness". Do you want to lose weight? To avoid antibiotics in your food supply? To lower or maintain your cholesterol? To build muscle? To "feel good" (whatever that means to you -- more energy, GI system happy, etc)? Once you figure that out, you may have an easier time identifying courses of action that accomplish your desired goals.

Social/lifestyle: I suspect this is the most flexible part of the equation. Once you've figured out your ethical and the health criteria, I think you can arrange your social life to support your choices, whether that means finding a good way to explain yourself to your family, or simply finding a different group of people to hang around.

If thinking about all these makes you feel anxious and unhappy -- in other words, if breaking it down takes you farther away from making a decision you feel good about -- then I'd say keep it super-simple. In that case, I'd recommend Michael Pollan's Food Rules. His approach is practical and sensible and will probably get you 80-90% of where you want to go without having to worry about it too much.
posted by ourobouros at 1:42 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Historically, our human ancestors were healthier when they were hunter/gatherers than when they were farmers. Agricultural societies generally did not get enough nutrition, for a combination reasons from limited food types (because they were specializing in a couple, and did not get the variety) to the fact that the non-mobile society was able to support a larger group, but then overpopulation compared to ability to produce. The lesson I take from this is variety is key. Hunter-gatherer types had a large variety of unprocessed foods, and that is what our bodies are used to in terms of evolution. However, evolution is a continuing process, so just because our ancestors were best adapted to a certain diet, that doesn't mean the modern human will be. The reason paleo diets tend to be so successful is because the current American diet is crap -- a ton of overprocessed foods and too large potions, etc, etc, etc. Paleo cuts out the processed foods, which is probably the single healthiest thing a person can do in today's society.

Now, you sound like you care more about pesticides, hormones, sustainable farming, and the like. What you should do is buy locally sourced foods, preferably straight from the farm if possible. This might not be possible, but even in a lot of urban centers, you can find them because farmers will sell directly in the city. You can find out directly what they do/don't put on the vegetables/feed the meat. Whether or not you want to eat meat is a personal decision; personally, I'm not a good vegetarian because I get anemic, but I still try to keep my meat intake low. (Also, as a note, there are a lot of versions of paleo. Personally, the one that seems most right is vegetarian with a little bit of meat; historically, meat was not readily available like it is today and the diet was supplemented with meat, not based on it.)
posted by DoubleLune at 1:45 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

To me, it sounds more like you have a problem with trusting your food sources - and that you're reading a lot of different 'studies' about where those foods come from. There's some plenty reputable sources out there, but they won't end up on forums or in newspapers because they aren't dramatic enough. You could try asking a nutritionist for advice on some texts, and to check if your current diet is balanced enough.
posted by The River Ivel at 1:50 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was in the middle of typing out basically what Ouroborous said above about the ethical concerns of food. That sounds like THAT is what you are more concerned about, above everything else - the reluctance to support factory farming. This is valid; however, there are ways to handle that without going 100% vegetarian or vegan. So let's set that aside for now and handle the health part.

Part of why a lot of the nutrition advice may seem confusing is because the articles you're reading are trying to appeal to the world in general; but what is true for the world in general is not always 100% exactly true for you specifically. Yes, it's a good idea for people to have X amount of protein and Y amount of green vegetables and Z amount of beta-carotene - but if you are one of the rare percentage of people that can't handle the normal amount of beta-carotene, then that doesn't help you. So the best way to cut through the health question is to go to your doctor and ask "okay, all the food articles are confusing the crap out of me - can you run a few tests on me and advise me on what I specifically should be doing?" Talk through your other concerns with your doctor as well; so in case you do ultimately decide you want to stay vegetarian, your doctor can advise you what foods you should be eating instead. And then, once you have your marching orders about what kind of foods you should be emphasizing, then you're personally free to concentrate on purchasing those foods from ethical companies.

But speaking with your doctor about your own specific needs can help you sort through a lot of conflicting info. And whatever you decide you can also be sure you're doing it right.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:51 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think what seems to matter to you is personal health and not supporting corrupt farming practices. For me, being vegetarian is about that, too, plus my complete unwillingness to eat animals. (I admit that eating sustainably caught fish and seafood does not bother me a bit.)

Rather than going paleo, you might want to look into the "nutritarian" diet. You can check it out via Eat for Life and drfuhrman.com. It's your option whether to eat meat or not on this diet, though meat is a very small part of the picture if you do choose it. I can assure you that it will enhance your health dramatically, cause excess weight to fall off, and send you in the direction of whole, non-factory food foods.

I also strongly suggest buying fruits and vegetables seasonally and locally. That's the best way to make sure your food wasn't produced in a way that loads it with poisons.
posted by bearwife at 1:56 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is a very personal issue, and I don't think a vegetarian diet is less healthy than a paleo diet. And I'm not sure what you mean by "drugged" vegetables, but if you're talking about pesticides, shop at farmer's markets or something. Not too difficult.

I was a vegetarian for about ten years. I am no longer a vegetarian because I have a really awful digestive system, and I cannot eat a lot of things that are important to a vegetarian diet. I also like learning how to cook new things and have new experiences, and I've spent the last year learning how to cook and enjoy meat. I try to eat less meat than the average American, and if I could eat more vegetarian sources of protein, I would. I also try to eat responsibly farmed and sourced meat and poultry because I am comfortable with the idea of eating animals but not with factory farming.

If you want to see a nutritionist, that might be a good idea, but I don't think that the Paleo diet is the be all end all, and if what you're doing is working for you, keep on keeping on! You don't really talk about your reasons for sticking to a vegetarian diet, but if you don't want to be a veg anymore, you don't need to justify your decision to anyone.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 2:04 PM on December 11, 2012

IANA vegetarian, but my partner is. So I am at home.

So I ask you metafilter, is there any science left behind vegetarianism?

I think there's science behind eating healthy, home-cooked meals, which is how we approach it. This is more about eating locally farmed organic foods (even if it doesn't mean as much as it should) and generally knowing what your food is made out of. This means not buying prepackaged foods. And this means food is more expensive, but we eat less of it, and we eat the good stuff.

Is it hypocritical to pursue?

If it makes you feel good, I wouldn't worry about it. Just don't preach it.

Is there anything behind the "Paleo" way?

I think paleo is totally viable. IANA doctor or a nutritionist, but most of the stuff that's cut out of "paleo" is simple sugar, which is what wrecks havoc on your metabolism and gives you highs and lows in energy, throughout the day. If what you're trying to do is to have more energy, then paleo might work for you.
posted by ethidda at 2:06 PM on December 11, 2012

The reasons being multi-faceted over that time, ranging from an attempt to control my neuroses via the food that I eat to trying to always feel good

You should research orthorexia.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:34 PM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Like others have said, I think it depends on your own personal reasons for wanting to be vegetarian. For example, as far as the ethical concerns and purity concerns of your food, what matters most to you? Even though the terms like free-range and organic have become meaningless, there are still plenty of companies that try to raise their animals as humanely as possible.

There are even many local farms these days, where you can tour them to check how well the animals are being treated- a sort of ethical vegetarianism, I guess, where they don't eat meat unless they're sure the animals were treated humanely. Same with organic- it's possible to buy organic, fresh produce from local farmers that you can verify wasn't sprayed and so on. Does this matter to you?

I think it boils down to what's important to you, and whether going the extra mile is something that would enrich your life, or not.
posted by Aliera at 2:35 PM on December 11, 2012

> I feel no strong pull towards eating meat again or remaining vegetarian

So don't label yourself. You don't have to be vegan or Paleo or anything in particular. Just eat one meal at a time, based on what makes you feel healthy, and don't worry about what box you would check off on a survey.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:06 PM on December 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Go to the many farmer's markets in your area, get your veg (and meat, if you want to eat that) from the farmers, directly.

There is no other solution for you if you are concerned about factory farming and humane treatmeant of livestock.
posted by jbenben at 3:21 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are, to my mind, three major reasons that people choose vegetarianism.
1) Ethics: Some people find it hard to justify killing animals / making animals suffer when it is not strictly necessary.
2) Environment: Meat-producing practices can impact the environment negatively and it takes far less water/land/resources to support growing non-meat sources of food.
3) Health.

I have been a vegetarian for decades and it is mostly for the first reason, a bit for the second and not at all for the third. (I eat junk and would eat junk if I ate meat, as well.) But that is just me.

I think you need to discover what your own motivations are by examining them more closely. When I was making this decision originally, I read several books that would probably be considered naive today. But there have been a slew of books released in the past few years that seek to puzzle out eating choices. I'm thinking of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals by Hal Herzog, and others. If you do ultimately decide to stay with vegetarianism, you will be easier in your own mind if you know why. I think you probably would benefit from book-length examinations of this question.

If it is all about health for you, your research will be more difficult as so many players have vested interests in selling their viewpoints.

Ultimately, I think you are not doing yourself or anyone else a favor by depriving yourself. If you feel that you would be possibly well-served by exploring the paleo diet, go for it. It will either convert you or leave you more committed to vegetarianism; at least you will know.
posted by Morrigan at 4:08 PM on December 11, 2012

If it's about health, focus on how you feel, not what is the "better" diet - there is no one best diet. If you have personal health issues you're concerned about, like weight or energy level, then maybe changing your diet can improve those. But if you feel fine on a vegetarian diet, you may be well-adapted to it. There are plenty of healthy people on both the vegetarian and carnivorous sides of the aisle.
posted by decathexis at 5:53 PM on December 11, 2012

Historically, our human ancestors were healthier when they were hunter/gatherers than when they were farmers.
Is this true? Seems like a ridiculous claim, especially since the state of 'health' is almost impossible to define.
Also seems like it would technically be pre-historically.

OP, you describe yourself as not really caring either way... so why do you need to define this for yourself? Would it reduce this stress if you just forgot about labelling yourself as a vegetarian who takes 'meat breaks' and just ate what feels good and healthy, and if that is mostly veggies so be it?

The thing about being a 'hypocritical' (to use your word) vegetarian is that you can argue yourself into a diet consisting entirely out of the one lonely carrot grown in your backyard in a demilitarised zone where no living creature has ever died. But mice die in wheat harvesters! What about the bee labour in fertilising fruit trees? Are strawberries not impossible to grow commercially without pesticides?

If you're making these kinds of personal choices, you just have to draw a line somewhere and say, 'This is how far my internal consistency goes, fuck it, I will eat cheese.'* There's always going to be some prick who tries to argue with you about your food choices.

Also science can be good, but sometimes nutrition studies miss the forest for the trees. You seem relatively well informed about the food you eat.

* (but not cheese made with animal guts rennet)
posted by chiquitita at 6:20 PM on December 11, 2012

IMHO, Paleo is just a trendy way of saying "I eat lean meats and avoid processed crap." No wonder people feel healthier on Paleo – it's a straightforward method of cutting low-nutrition foods out of your life. If every American went Paleo we'd be a healthier people, but only because we eat so much garbage as it is.

If you need science to convince you to stay vegetarian, it's been established that eating red meat lowers life expectancy. If you want to stay veggie, you could try doing a Paleo diet and just drop the meat.

Either way you go, if you feel that your current diet is lacking somehow, skip the hype and visit a dietician to get a professional opinion.
posted by deathpanels at 9:11 PM on December 11, 2012

"human ancestors were healthier" - I agree with some of the above posters - this makes no sense. Our ancestors also had a lifetime expectancy of...what, thirty? That doesn't sound healthier to me.

I grew up surrounded by big agribusiness, and spent a couple years working on small organic farms. Here's my take:

There's waaay more crap in meat than in your veg; also more ethical issues, regarding both the animal and the employees. You can wash fruit/veg, you cannot wash the hormones and antibiotics out of conventionally processed meat.

Shopping at the farmers market for veg and/or meat will address any qualms you have, you can talk to the farmer, and you support local business.

After working on small, family-run, organic farms with animals?
If you're not vegan, you might as well eat meat. If you're breeding animals for any reason at all - including dairy, cheese, unfertilized eggs, whatever - half those animals are going to be male. A select few may be kept for breeding for a few years, but most of them (and all of them eventually) are meat. There's simply nothing reasonable and affordable to do with what are essentially moochers. Farmers' market meat - where you can ask about their practices, is the best way to go if you're concerned. Now, if you just don't like meat - who cares? But if it's about ethics...think carefully about the practical aspects.

Personally, I FEEL best on a well-balanced vegan diet - but this is so hard to do I eat pretty normally... really really healthy, but "normal". I think it depends on what works for YOU. (Also, I tend to be anemic - complete iron-deficiency anemia, as in, my doctor once offered me a blood transfusion. I eat meat 1-2 wk AND take iron now. I feel WAY better. I'm female, so I have due cause (menstruation) whereas it's more uncommon for men to be anemic... though who knows? Try it and see if you feel better?)
posted by jrobin276 at 12:06 AM on December 12, 2012

What always happens whenever people talk about what kind of diet is best is that people pull out whatever study backs up what they want to believe (or, in some cases, including in this thread, they'll just vaguely refer to "many, many studies" that ostensibly back up their own beliefs). So, poster, when you ask for science, you'll get it, but it won't necessarily make things less confusing. If anything, it can make it more so.

Take this for example: "If you need science to convince you to stay vegetarian, it's been established that eating red meat lowers life expectancy."

No, it hasn't been established. The linked study finds a *correlation* between eating red meat and higher mortality. Hopefully all us smartie-pants mefites know by now that correlation does not equal causation. Even if we could say that eating red meat *caused* higher mortality, we'd have to then ask why--was it simply because it was "red meat" per se? or was it because it was meat from animals fed an unnatural diet, kept in filthy lots, and then hopped up on antibiotics? Was it because the meat was cooked improperly (as in charred on a grill)?

It does not make sense to make a decision not to eat local, organic, grass-fed, properly-cooked red meat because of a study that found increased mortality in red meat eaters.

I'd also like to comment about the "ethical" reason for being a vegetarian. Animals die in getting food to our plates, even when that food is strictly plant matter. Animals are killed by combines, killed on the roads by trucks carrying the food, killed by pollution from the plants that process the food, etc.

Some vegetarians seem to think this dietary choice gives them a "get out of karma free" card. If you're here, you're participating in the web of life and death, suffering and joy, period. You can't opt out of the suffering part. You are not pure and virtuous because you (think you) avoid directly consuming animal products.
posted by parrot_person at 2:16 AM on December 12, 2012

If you want to start eating meat, you can order your meat from humane farms. Some people feel a lot better with some meat in their diet, for whatever reason. I don't think there is a cookie cutter answer to this.
posted by kellybird at 5:17 AM on December 12, 2012

Try harvesting some of your food. If you have land, garden. If you don't have land, guerrilla garden. Get a fishing/hunting license or raise some animals and experience the act of killing your food. These experiences will help you educate yourself in regards to making good eating choices. I strive to eat organisms that lived and died with dignity.
posted by surfgator at 7:41 AM on December 12, 2012

I'm a doctor and I'm a sort of flexible vegetarian (eat fish and sometimes local/organic/grain or grassfed meat) for the same reasons as you.

I agree with the above that if you want opinions on nutrition, go to a registered dietician (have more/better standardized training than a nutritionist). Doctors: 1. don't know THAT much about nutrition science and 2. don't have time to talk to you about it in depth.

That being said, I think Paleo is just a trendy way of doing a low-carb diet and that it really does work for weight loss for a lot of people (it worked for me, although doing vegetarian low-carb is a true challenge, it can be done), but the question of what the long term effects are on, say, your cardiovascular risk, especially if you are doing a high fat low carb diet or eating a lot of red meat, are controversial. Our ancestors did not live long enough to care about heart attacks or cancer.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:44 AM on December 12, 2012

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