At first, being vegetarian was great, and when I say great at first, I’m really referring to the time between making the conscious decision to forever swear off meat and the 22 hours thereafter that I’d allowed myself to remain among the carnivores. My utopian bliss was short-lived. Maybe we should start at the beginning.
When Robert Kenner’s Oscar-nominated documentary, Food, Inc., went mainstream in early 2010, the lives of millions — human and animal alike — were forever changed; mine was no exception. Truth be told, I didn’t want to see this film. I loved meat! But then, the night before Thanksgiving, a DVD copy arrived in the mail with a note that ironically and simply read, “You’ve got to see this, honey.” And as she’d been so many times before, Mom was right. Ninety-four minutes later, without even having a chance to process what I’d just seen, I was a vegetarian.
Everything made sense. The wild-eyed mummer of those around me who’d already seen the film multiple times; their ability to recall the film’s facts, scenes, and long dialogues; the bizarre expressions they made while attempting to reenact the horrors they’d witnessed. It was more than just run-of-the-mill chitchat. These people were affected to the core. Just as I did now, they cherished the film’s message yet wanted desperately to purge the images of torture and slaughter and absolute disregard for the lives of what we now know to be sensitive and highly intelligent animals. Anyone who has seen the film will back me when I say that it is humanly impossible to un-watch assembly line of baby chicks having their spinal cords systematically punctured, cows so bulked-up from steroids that their legs snap under the weight, or a terrified, trembling 650-pound hog being shoved head-first into an elevator-like death machine that electrocutes on contact. No, these images are now permanent fixtures in my mind and the minds of everyone else brave enough to stand firm in the face of utter grotesqueness. What you can do, what so many others before me have done, is boycott.
Beyond the Pale
Make no mistake; this is not an article about movies or some shameless endorsement for the vegetarian or supplement industries. It’s about what happens to the body when its overabundant supply of protein-rich meat suddenly goes extinct. The human body has the remarkable ability to adapt to virtually any scenario life can throw at it. As I learned the hard way, the body also has a twisted sense of humor when it comes to the actual adapting part. My vegetarian colleagues had raved for years about the benefits of going meatless. They claimed to be healthier, lighter, and sleeping better and longer.
This never quite registered with me, as their outward appearance sometimes told a different story. Many seemed pale and less energetic. Their hair looked lifeless and greasy. A few were admittedly eating Advil by the handful; others were breaking out in blemishes and patchy skin. It was all so confusing. Because really, what’s the point of going vegetarian if you end up resembling one of the bad guys from Zombieland? Less than a week later, I had my answer. In my line of work (writing about dietary supplements), I spend an obnoxious amount of time learning how and why the body does what it does. So when my own system began falling apart only a week after waving farewell to meat products, I wanted to know why. Wasn’t there some unspoken clause in the vegetarian code that guarantees something about feeling better? The answer, I’ve since learned, is simple, and not so simple. If you look at the earliest documented accounts of human beings, it is clear we evolved from meat-eating hunters. Specifically, we were omnivores who ate meat whenever we could get it. And there’s a reason for this. Meat is teeming with many of the core compounds needed to do the body’s work. Over thousands of generations, these specialized proteins have been instrumental in shaping the genetic assembly that makes us what we are today. As the complexity of our species intensified, however, millions of cellular processes eventually became dependent upon the enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and other naturally occurring constituents in animal protein. Without them, the body is rendered unable to carry out a massive list of biological tasks. This includes relaying messages to and from the brain, countering the effects of inflammation, commanding the metabolic system to use fat for energy, dispatching natural killer (NK-) and T-cells upon detecting foreign invaders, and trillions of other tasks. Of course, we can adapt to a no-meat diet — and become healthier as a result.
But there is one very simple and well-documented nutritional dilemma: The body relies on a complex network of biological compounds, nutrients, processes, and precursors to function in an optimal, balanced state. When you remove even one key macronutrient from the biological human pyramid — such as those found in animal proteins — things crumble. The effects are immeasurably magnified for new vegetarians. Your body doesn’t know that a documentary freaked you out to the point of giving up meat; it may think you’re starving and shut down to conserve energy, even as you gain weight. To help convey how horribly wrong things can go if you’re not nutritionally prepped to make the transition, I want to share some excerpts from the journal I was keeping at the time of my vegetarian metamorphosis.
Diary of a Disaster
Day 1, Thursday: Happy Thanksgiving, I guess. I’m seriously questioning why I ever decided to attempt becoming a vegetarian. This sucks on so many unforeseen levels. The worst part is the food. Not the cooking (Mom and Sis outdid themselves again), but I heard myself muttering something I never imagined I would: “No turkey for me, thanks.” This year’s bounty consisted of corn, stuffing, potatoes, and a colorful spectrum of non-meat side dishes and desserts. Couldn’t stop thinking about the movie. Why didn’t anyone warn me about watching this before a major food holiday? Entire family passed out to the muffled background noise of Detroit upsetting the Colts. I sacked out too, but it wasn’t tryptophan-induced. I just feel rotten.
Day 4, Sunday: Took the day off. Nothing good can come from the brain of someone who feels a lot like what Hunter Thompson probably felt like after one of his heroic Vegas benders — but without the satisfaction of any fear, loathing, or fun. It’s been nothing but veggies, boxed pasta, and whole grain cereal for days now … feeling weak, hideous … resentful of people out doing yardwork on this unseasonably warm, late- November afternoon. I’m the complete opposite of anything close to productive or inspired. Is this strange bout of lethargy something that I’ve yet to read about? Some untapped phenomenon that immediately precedes total physical and mental collapse?
Day 9, Sunday: Freaking out. Gained nine pounds and it shows, damn it! This might have been a big mistake. Still debating whether to overdose on black Angus beef or high-powered men’s multivitamins. This is not living. The only positive in all of this is that writers can do their job from home. Wouldn’t last 10 minutes in a civilized office environment in this state. More later. F**k that movie.
Defeating the Blahs
And then, as if in response to a prayer that had been muttered under the breath of a passerby who took pity on my anemic appearance, two things happened around day 12. Despite the chronic temptation to hit the local steakhouse and gorge on huge slabs of beef, I went the mega-dose vitamin route. In all fairness, it wasn’t a true “mega” dose. I just doubled and sometimes tripled my intake for a few days, while incorporating more divided doses. This required some serious rearranging of the diet to ensure that the vitamins, minerals, and co-factors I was taking would not be blocked by fiber. (Never take your vitamins and fiber supplements at the same time.)
The result? I felt great! My lethargy left me, and I began to experience the ease and energy I had read about. I may still salivate at the smell of meat, but I haven’t looked back. Taking supplements is a complex issue. Explaining the science behind each at-risk nutrient would be exhausting. So in the spirit of getting right to the heart of the matter, let’s review the most common nutrient deficiencies facing vegans and vegetarians today (see page 58). The specifics of each person’s deficiency obviously will vary from person to person and lifestyle to lifestyle. Just keep in mind that the following reflects the most crucial of the crucial. If you are antipills, you can create a wholefood diet that will give you everything your body needs, but it is far easier to ease your transition with a trip to the health food store. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, a lot of this might sound eerily familiar. If you’re new to the lifestyle, there’s a good chance that you’re in the depths of the transition right now. Since so many culinary combinations exist, it’s important to do your homework after honestly assessing your situation. Make an inventory of everything you eat, and everything you gave up. Look up the nutrient profiles of foods you no longer consume, and if they contain several of the nutrients we reviewed (on page 58), there’s a good chance you’re dealing with any number of common deficiencies. Fortunately, there’s no need to wander through the wild in the hopes of hunting and killing a remedy.
Nutritional Guidelines to Ease the Vegan/Vegetarian Transition
B-complex vitamins. Many of the foods common to vegetarians provide ample amounts of vitamins A, C, and E, as well as selenium, soluble fiber, and others. When it comes to the spectrum of B vitamins, vegetables like bell peppers, spinach, green peas, yams, broccoli, and turnip greens are loaded with vitamin B6, while mushrooms, seeds, and broccoli pick up the B2 and B5 slack. (Meat, on the other hand, is loaded with protein and a full spectrum of B vitamins, including the ultra-important B12.) As a rule of thumb, all practicing vegans should consider supplementing their diet with B12 or a high potency (50-100 mg) B-complex formula to assure they receive a steady dose of B12, the one essential nutrient only found in animal products. Vegetarians who eat yogurt, milk, and eggs are not to worry, though they too may benefit from a B-complex formula. They’re available everywhere.
Iron. This mineral is most important for women, especially younger women, as they require an ongoing supply to replenish the 15–20 mg that’s lost during menstruation. Iron deficiency is extremely common among new vegetarians and manifests quickly. On the plus side, it’s easy to spot. Telltale signs of iron deficiency are headaches, extreme fatigue, pale skin, cold hands and feet, restless legs, and inflammation of the tongue. Fortunately, there is a simple fix. If you prefer supplementation, try taking a 15–20 mg tablet each day with a morning meal. If you’re avoiding pills, you can bolster the amount of iron in your diet with soybeans, molasses, kale, mustard greens, spinach, nuts, legumes, and potatoes; all are excellent sources of iron.
Protein. The body uses protein in more ways than most people can comprehend. Some of the most essential include the building, maintenance, and repair of muscle tissues; supporting the growth of healthy hair, skin, and nails; replenishing the body’s glycogen reserves (a key source of energy); enhancing metabolic potential; regulating appetite; and many others. For those who don’t eat eggs or fish or other animal products, acquiring a sufficient amount protein should not be a problem if you maintain a balanced vegetarian (and even vegan) diet accentuated by whole grains, beans, lentils, and legumes. To be doubly sure, you can also incorporate a vegetarian protein shake into your regimen.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs). Since the first studies of the remarkable health of the Inuit Eskimos in the 1970s, we’ve known that the fatty acids EPA and DHA play a significant role in human health, most notably in cardiovascular function. Four decades later, it’s been all but proven that EFA has a direct and positive effect on everything from cognitive function and mood balance to healthy body weight and blood lipid levels. There has been — and likely will continue to be — an ongoing debate over proper dosages. To be on the safe side (as many tend to do), most manufacturers suggest taking 3,000 mg daily.
L-carnitine. Found almost exclusively in red meat, L-carnitine (a natural amino acid-like compound) plays one of the most important roles in the fat-burning process. Inside each cell there is a factory-like region called the mitochondria. In the simplest of terms, L-carnitine transfers fat (including stored fat, dietary fat, and arterial plaque) into the mitochondria, where it can easily be converted to usable energy. When carnitine is missing from the diet, it has been estimated that a person’s metabolic prowess is reduced by as much as half. For vegans and vegetarians, L-carnitine supplements are highly recommended.
Calcium and vitamin D. Legendary for promoting healthy, rock-solid bones and teeth, this dynamic duo is responsible for so much more than simply structural integrity. Calcium is vital in regulating hormonal balance and assisting the body in absorbing magnesium, a key energy-unlocking electrolyte. One of the lesser known perks of calcium is that it expedites weight loss. While the exact mechanisms remain a mystery to researchers, it is now well known that calcium encourages the use of stored fat as a preferred energy source. Consequently, this is one of the main reasons why new vegetarians often struggle to shed excess weight following their transition to going V. On the other hand, dark leafy green are calcium rich, and vegans can reach for nondairy milk products that are fortified with calcium. Of course, sunshine is the best source of vitamin D.
Raw foods? Beyond vegan is a further extreme of eating only raw foods, and that can create some serious difficulties for some people. Why? Because it now seems that we humans took a giant evolutionary leap forward by cooking, which dramatically increases the efficiency of our digestion and the availability of many nutrients. The raw-food movement has produced some delicious meals. Going raw, however, increases your risk of becoming seriously undernourished.