In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on the vegan/vegetarian diet.
I’ll list it’s pros and cons and exactly what to do to optimize your health, looks and performance if you choose to live without eating meat.
A few notes before we begin:
-I myself am not a fan of this approach, as I consider it an extreme one. I tend to avoid nutritional extremism and always end up in the “moderation” camp, as unsexy as that is.
-It seems there are fewer vegetarians/vegans who are obese compared to meat-eaters. This might be true but it’s a very flawed argument against meat.
Grass-fed, locally sourced meat, fish and eggs are by far the best sources of protein and dietary fat – both of which are essential nutrients we need to survive.
It isn’t meat alone that is making people obese. As a matter of fact, data shows people overeat in carbs first, and fats second.
That’s why everyone is fat.
Not because of meat.
And being overweight then leads to all the modern diseases, cancer included.
For the record: meat does NOT cause cancer.
Again – meat, fish and eggs all provide protein and fats.
Protein is 100% safe with virtually zero side effects.
Fats on the other hand can be problematic based on their type.
The most problematic are trans fats, which are processed ones, NOT found in meat or any natural food.
Saturated fats (found in meat) can be a problem for overweight, sedentary individuals. For healthy, active ones – saturated fat intake has no negative effects and a lot of good ones (produce hormones, taste good etc)
So anyone not eating meat “because it’s unhealthy” is simply misguided (to put it nicely). Yes, you should opt for grass-fed, locally sourced ones as the antibiotic and steroid-filled, mass produced meats are no better than soy-based crap (this is due to the chemicals and steroids in them, NOT due to meat itself.)
-It’s been my observation that vegans/vegetarians tend to display the highest level of zealotry among all dieting approaches. As such, it would be immoral and unethical of me not to make fun of them.
In all seriousness, when coaching/ sharing advice to people, I do my best to take my emotions or personal biases out. I look for the science-based, common-sense stance on any given approach.
-I don’t give a shit if someone is vegan because they “care for poor animals”, think it’s “better for the world” or because they enjoy getting high with some cult, all of whom are vegan so they want to belong.
Nor do I care about the meat-eating, brainless bros who shit all of over vegan diets saying stupidities like “just eat stakes al lday long bro” or “there are no vegan body builders” (they are rare, but they do exist).
Thus, the rest of this post will focus only on the health/weight loss/performance outcomes of a vegan diet, and NOT on moral or ethical judgements about eating/not eating meat or meat products.
Cool. Let’s dive right in.
First, some vegetarians do eat meat occasionally. Some eat fish, some eat eggs. Others don/t.
But generally, a vegan/vegetarian diet is a low fat, low protein, high carb approach.
Of course, there can be exceptions as one can get enough protein and fat on a vegan diet, but for the most part, it’s low fat, low protein, high carb.
As I mentioned, since both protein and fats are essential for life (go without them for long enough and you die), and carbs are not- you can see the potential for things to go wrong as a vegan.
You are eating the most of the one nutrient you don’t need to survive and cutting out the other two that you absolutely do need.
Because of this, veganism IS an extreme approach as it cuts complete food groups. And I am yet to find ANY extreme approach in any field of life – that produces anything but bad outcomes.
Veganism is no exception. In high-end fitness circles (fitness professionals who actually know what they are talking about), veganism is known as “when you want to have ALL the deficiencies” approach.
So let’s cover a few major problems of the no-meat approach.
1.Low protein and low fat intake. Since animal meal is the best and main source of both protein and dietary fats, most vegans tend to consume “sub-optimal” levels of both.
Of course, one could debate endlessly about the “optimal” amount of protein and fats one should consume.
I will define it here as optimal from the science based, and evidence-based perspective. Meaning what the current research says + what I’ve seen working 101 with 350+ clients in the last 10 years.
Protein: current RDA is 0.4gr/ pound of body weight. This is decades old data that is highly unlikely to be sufficient for anyone other than a sedentary, morbidly obese individuals.
On the other hand, the sum of all current research puts the minimum at 0.7gr/lb of body weight, going up to 1gr/lb for dieting or weight-lifting individuals (or anyone who wants to get ripped).
So a 100 lb dieter would need a min of 70gr of protein, a 200lb would need a min of 140gr of protein per day. This alone shows that getting enough protein from plant-based sources is rather difficult.
However, it is possible with extensive whole foods or supplements.
One of the bigger problems is that most vegans/vegetarians resort to soy as their “main” protein source.
This is generally a bad idea.
First, soy is one of the most processed grains, period. Some studies show that over 90% of all soy (and its endless derivatives) is GMOed. Yes, you can opt in for healthier/more natural/less processed versions of soy but are most vegans doing that?
Second, soy is known to have a high level of what’s known as phytoestrogens, also called isoflavones.
Here’s a study reviewing the impact of soy isoflavones on breast cancer risk:
And here’s a study showing isoflavones to cause increased risk of prostate cancer.
There is much more but in general, these are pretty bad for both men and women.
Since they increase estrogen (which kills testosterone), I’d simply say men should avoid soy, period (lets skip the man boobs, mkay?)
For women – “the poison is in the dose” rule applies. It’s how much of it you consume that makes it ok or extremely negative.
Studies actually show a number of positive effects of soy consumption IF isoflavones are kept under 50mg (about 15-30gr of soy per day.)
To close the soy part, here’s a good review of the pros and cons of phytoestrogens:
Summary: Unless you’re aiming for infertility, eat soy in small amounts (not more than 30gr/day.)
2. Anti-nutrients: while eating more veggies is good most of the time, eating too much can become a problem. This is because plants have what’s known as anti-nutrients.
These prevent absorption of other nutrients, like essential minerals. For example, phytic acid (found in spinach and other green leafy veggies) interferes with the absorption of Calcium, Zinc and Copper).
Another type of anti-nutrients are lectins which inhibit certain enzymes, disturb normal digestion and cause bloating (can also lead to leaky guy syndrome).
This is one of the reasons vegans can eat a LOT of veggies and think they have a perfect diet, yet be nutritionally deficient.
3. Infertility – there is not a single population in the history of human kind that was 100% vegan. Some tribes thrived on a low animal products diet, but there was always some meat consumed.
Human evolution tends to hint on the fact that some amount of animal product is likely necessary for the proper hormone production and optimal health (which impact reproductive abilities).
Cholesterol (dietary fat) from meats, fish and eggs literally produces hormones. This is likely related to numerous examples of former-vegan mothers-to-be who had miscarriage after miscarriage, who were then able to get pregnant after re-introducing animal products in their diets.
It could be that problems are caused by the lack of healthy fats OR excess of vegetarian staples like soy…Or likely- some combination of the two.
Simply put – fertility requires healthy fats that you will not get from plants.
Yes, you can get monounsaturated fats from avocado and saturated fats from coconut milk/oil, but animal products are by far the best and the healthiest sources.
4. Micronutrient deficiencies: while cutting all meats, fish and eggs could result in a huge deficit and help you lose weight, it’s often also leaving you nutrient deficient.
Some of the most known deficiencies that occur on a vegan diet are:
-Vitamin K, Vitamin E
-Creatine (found in protein)
-Saturated fats (needed for hormone production)
-Calcium (if not consuming any dairy)
-Vit D (I suggest using liquid supplement, 5000IU/day for a month, then 2000IU/daily after that)
You HAVE TO supplement with all of these because there is no other ways to get them.
Note: Even though eating lots of green, leafy veggies provides a good amount of Mg, it’s possible to be deficient in it due to phytic acid (mentioned in point 2) – I suggest supplementing with 400mg of Mg/day anyway.
It’ll help you sleep and recover better, and enhance your lifting ability so why not?
Bottom line: the stupidest thing one can do is just drop all meat from their diet and load up on processed, soy-based junk foods labeled as “health foods”.
Yet, that’s exactly what many vegetarians do.
No wonder most end up deficient in almost everything.
Having said that, it IS possible to make it work and be healthy on a vegan diet. It just requires a good amount of time, effort, education and organizing to get all your bases covered.
A good thing here is that vegans/vegetarians generally tend to be more health-conscious and as such – devote more time to learning about all this.
Hope this post helped you on that journey.
P.S. one of the brightest examples of a high performing vegetarian was Dave Scott, 6-time winner of Hawaii Ironman and an icon in triathlon world.
He went back to eating meat after decades of being a vegetarian. He doesn’t eat red meat, but consumes fish, chicken and turkey.
His quote: “The irony of the whole situation is that when I switched back to chicken and fish, I was far leaner and felt more powerful. I mean, I was in better shape in my 40s as a meat eater than I ever was on a strictly plant-based diet…”