The Vegetarian Diet: The Good, Bad and Ugly
By: Good Looking Dietitian (CNS, ADS) w/ Good Looking Loser
(formerly Good Looking Kangaroo)
Forward by Good Looking Loser
I was a personal trainer and sports nutritionist in Beverly Hills, CA from ~2009-2010.
The nice part to being in Los Angeles (and around people with money) is that there is no lack of motivation to be fit and look good.
The downside to being in Los Angeles is that I'm always having to explain to my clients why a certain "[insert new diet]" doesn't work and in many cases - is unhealthful too.
The diet that I received the most questions about/people were most ignorant about was "The Vegetarian Diet".
Lets set the record straight on this diet.
* if you are following this diet (or vegan diet) or religious or personal reasons - then more power to you. I respect that. For those following or considering it for "health reasons" or "fat loss reasons", there might not be a worse option. There's a lot of "pickup artists" that are vegetarians/vegans, they are always getting sick and usually are severely underweight.
The Vegetarian Food Pyramid
(not the USDA Pyramid)
What's Wrong With the Vegetarian Diet/Lifestyle?
It’s the growing trend that really shouldn’t be.
The trend that some 7.3 million americans follow.
It sits in the same basket as the likes of “gluten free” and “raw energy” and in my opinion it’s the be all and end all for poor dieting.
I’m talking about vegetarian dieting.
I’m not one to hold back my opinion, you should know that by know if you’re an avid reader of my writing on here, and someone needs to be frank about vegetarian dieting.
Like Australia, America is a meat loving country. Ribs, burgers, steak, chicken wings... the list goes on and on.
So why on earth would anyone want to be a vegetarian?
Well it’s quite simple.
It’s trendy and it’s perceived to be a healthful way to eat.
Sure some people turn vegetarian because they don’t believe in the slaughtering of animals for food, but more then ever, people are turning vegetarian in hope that it will make them thin or improve their poor digestion or increase their energy or simply because they heard someone else talk about their recent decision to go vegetarian.
The truth is though, they are doing themselves more harm by trialling this style of dieting then they are doing themselves any good.
The exact definition of vegetarian will vary from one person to the next. But the general consensus is an individual that does not consume meat, particularly red meat, poultry, seafood or any other flesh of an animal. You may have also heard of a relatively new and again “trendy” form of vegetarianism known as semi-vegetarian. This form of dieting allows the consumption of fish or poultry on an infrequent or occasional basis. It’s otherwise known as the “half-assed attempt at vegetarianism” and defeats the moral reasons why some people choose vegetarianism.
Potential Advantages to the Vegetarian Diet?
I have always been a firm believer in giving credit where credit is due. And There are some well earned credits about vegetarianism that deserve to be highlighted.
When it comes to strictly weight loss (not fat loss), there is no denying that vegetarian dieting works.
Vegetarian typically have a lower daily calorie intake then their meat eating counterparts do. I have personally seen numerous individuals shed lots of weight by going vegetarian, however it often comes at the expense of their health. More on this later.
Vegetarians can be quite healthy if they obtain sufficient protein intake from plant based foods.
I mean think about it, it's a diet based solely upon plant based foods. It’s rich in dietary fiber, antioxidants and some micronutrients.
In fact, vegetarians have been shown to have lower levels of blood cholesterol, resting blood pressure and have lower incidences of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. (2)
They also lower levels of mortality, due to their low levels of chronic diseases.
There has also been one study which showed that vegetarianism had lower levels of depression and reported having better mood levels then meat eaters did. (3)
But do these handful of credits really give sufficient justice for the exclusion of protein from our diets? Not in my opinion.
The Primary Problem with the Vegetarian/Vegan Diet
The Vegetarian Diet can be healthful because you aren't eating any "bad foods" such as burgers, buffalo wings, pizza and just about every dessert.
But problem is - the diet lacks a lot of "good foods" too.
Vegetarianism is not the complete package.
If you are going to cut out a complete source of macronutrients (fat and protein from meat/poultry/fish/dairy), then there are going to be consequences.
For one, you will probably not be consuming enough dietary fat and complete proteins that your body can actually use (plant protein is not complete protein).
Remember - you can completely remove carbohydrates from your diet and be just fine (you will lose weight). If you completely remove fat and protein - you will die.
For two, micronutrient deficiencies not only possible - they are the norm.
Three critical nutrients tend to be in short supply among Vegetarians -
Iron deficiency, vitamin B12 deficiency and zinc deficiency are typical to those living the Vegetarian/Vegan lifestyle.
Vitamin B12 is commonly found in animal based foods such as eggs, dairy and meats. A deficiency in vitamin B12 leads to a series of symptoms including anemia, muscle weakness and loss of balance. Vitamin B12 also plays an important role in energy production, your metabolism and even formation of red blood cells.
If you don’t get enough iron you will eventually become anemic. Everyone knows the best source of iron comes from meat, particularly red meat. Iron deficiencies bring a host of symptoms including fatigue, muscle weakness and increased susceptibility to infection. The source of iron found in fruits and vegetables is typically a lot harder for the body to absorb, so even though some fruits and vegetables do contain iron, you may not absorb much of what it contains. Additionally, many common vegetarian foods (whole grains) are high in phytates, a compound that is known to reduce the absorption of iron from foods.
A zinc deficiency will impact on both your ability to taste and to smell and not to mention compromise your immune function. Animal based proteins are a rich source of zinc within our diets whilst fruits and vegetables are a poor source, so exclusion requires supplementation to some capacity.
Then there is the host of other unexplainable symptoms that people tend to experience when they first transition to a vegetarian diet. These symptoms are often unexplainable from a scientific stand point but can include: headaches, altered sense of taste/smell, muscle and joint aches/pains and dizziness. Research has shown that vegetarian diets fail to provide the recommended daily intake for some micronutrients and as such it is medically recognized that anyone following a vegetarian diet should also take a daily supplement to ensure recommended daily intakes are achieved. (4)
How can any diet that requires significant nutritional supplementation to compensate for major micronutrient deficiencies be labelled as “healthy”?
Are Vegetarians Really Less Masculine?
Despite the obvious nutritional inadequacies, many vegetarians, especially among the trendy Los Angeles crowd, consider themselves to be more intelligent and moral than "regular people" who eat meat.
Extroverted Vegetarians that know how to use the Internet love to cite the 2011 study published in the Journal "Appetite", titled "Meat, Morals and Masculinity" where researchers found that the general public regarded vegetarians to have higher intelligence and morals than carnivores (meat-eaters). (1)
Ironically, the same study they also found that general public perceived vegetarians to be far less masculine - a part of the study that they never reference.
While that might be funny to hear, it's not completely a joke.
In reality, the nutritional deficiencies (particularly - zinc) of the lifestyle can limit testosterone production.
Zinc is the most important mineral for testosterone production and a deficiency can result in a significantly lower testosterone levels.
So literally - most male vegetarians are less masculine. Vegans too, obviously.
It's not just public perception, however, it's reality.
Even someone who is unintelligent can realize a diet with multiple nutritional deficiencies is probably not healthful.
The Tony Gonzalez Vegan Experiment
(Good Looking Loser)
Before I tell you about Tony Gonzalez, I want to mention that he is a good guy and his intentions behind his switch to an all-vegetarian (and then later 100% vegan diet) were noble.
He, like even myself at times, saw the disturbing PETA videos and felt extremely guilty about eating animals.
Tony Gonzalez is considered (statistically) to be the very best Tight End in NFL Football history. He is considered to be one of the best football players of all-time and will surely be a 1st ballot hall-of-fame inductee when he is eligible.
In 2008, Gonzalez reported that he became a full-Vegan due to the supposed health benefits of the diet to prolong his football career, his guilty conscious toward supporting corporations that treat animals inhumanely and his mission to prove that the diet could make football players bigger, faster and stronger.
He was highly discouraged by his Kansas City Chiefs' teammates and strength and conditioning coaches.
Still, Tony had made up his mind - he was going Vegan.
In this video for the Wall Street Journal, Tony explains the Vegan diet he has been following - seemingly not appearing overly confident about it.
To make a long story, short - Tony, like everyone else, found that it was IMPOSSIBLE to retain muscle mass and strength with complete proteins in his diet.
He showed up to training camp about 10 pounds underweight and he a hard time releasing (getting off the line of scrimmage) and blocking linebackers because he was so weak.
It was embarrassing for the All-Pro (all star) athlete who was used to completely dominating his competition.
He immediately stopped the diet and scrambled to gain the strength and weight back before the regular season began.
Gonzalez never spoke positively about the diet again.
In a 2014 article in Sports Illustrated, Gonzalez backtracks on his commitment to the Vegan Diet and claims that he actually wasn't that into it -
SI: You’re well known for having a super-healthy diet. What’s in your fridge right now?
Tony: Right now, it’s [primarily] plant-based, but I still eat meat. I was a vegan for about a month but that was it. I eat chicken. I eat beef. I eat pork. I try to stay away from the processed meat like bacon, and then eat it from a good source like grass-fed beef. Sustainable foods — not processed foods. I just try to keep a good balance and be smart and try to listen to my body, what makes me feel good after I eat and what doesn't make me feel good.
Again, Tony's mission was noble.
I wish it didn't work this way but animal/dairy protein is the very best for building and maintaining strength and mass.
After all, smooth muscle tissue is made of protein, not plants and berries.
It would be virtually impossible to excel at a contact sport without it.
- Ruby M, Heine S. Meat, morals, and masculinity. Appetite. 2011;56(2):447-450.
- Rizzo N, Sabate J, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Fraser G. Vegetarian dietary patterns are associated with a lower risk of metabolic syndrome: The Adventist Health Study-2. Diabetes Care. 2011;34(5):1225-1227.
- Beezhold B, Johnston C, Daigle D. Vegetarian diets are associated with healthy mood states: a cross-sectional study in Seventh Day Adventist adults. Nutr Journal. 2010;9:26.
- Waldmann A, Koschizke J, Leitzmann C, Hahn A. Dietary intakes and lifestyle factors of a vegan population in Germany: results from the German Vegan Study. Euro Jour Clin Nutr. 2003:57;947-955.