The number of vegetarians in the United States is 7.3 million, according to the Statistics Brain Research Institute. One million Americans are vegans. In addition, 22.8 million Americans said they follow a vegetarian-inclined diet. Although the reasons to become a vegetarian range from ecological reasons to animal welfare, 53 percent of all vegetarians and vegans say they chose this diet to improve overall health. Nutrition is becoming increasingly important to consumers and some see excluding animal products from their diet to be the prime way to achieve a healthy lifestyle.
Jennifer Bean is an assistant teaching professor at MU’s Nutrition and Exercise Physiology department. She is also a registered dietitian nutritionist and licensed dietitian. Bean’s advice for beginner vegans or vegetarians is to be knowledgeable about the subject.
“What you have to be aware of if you’re choosing to be a vegan is going to be [how to get] your essential fatty acids because we mostly get those from meats,” Bean said. “You can get them from nuts and seeds, but you have to know that it’s an issue and go out and seek a solution.”
Bean said that if you are looking to find nutritional information, to always look for sources that are written by people with registered dietitian, RD, after their name. Bean also said to watch out for CRAAP when searching for information online.
CRAAP stands for:
- Currency – When was it posted?
- Relevance – Does the information apply to your situation?
- Authority – Is the author qualified to speak on the topic?
- Accuracy – Check for citations, bibliographies, and typographical errors.
- Purpose – Is it propaganda or did the person writing it have an agenda?
Lauren Jackson said she doesn’t eat anything that had parents. Jackson works for an extension of MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources as a business support specialist for the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute. Jackson has been a vegetarian for almost 20 years. After seeing a horrifying image from a documentary about how people treat animals, Jackson said she has not had a taste for meat since then.
Jackson said that when she was 17, she viewed a short film that included a segment on how a Chinese chef prepared to eat a cat. The image of the man boiling the cat’s skin and then drowning it in cold water made Jackson decide to stop eating meat altogether.
Jackson is an ovo-lacto vegetarian. She excludes all meat from her diet including fish, beef, pork and chicken but can eat dairy products and eggs. A normal day for Jackson involves incorporating fruits and vegetables with cereal and milk for breakfast. For lunch, she splurges with cheese and bread, and for supper, she tries to eat only fruits and vegetables.
“You have to be a little more thoughtful in what you are eating,” Jackson said. “I would hope that most vegetarians eat more fruits and vegetables than most other people do.”
Jackson said she will never eat red meat again, but she said she hopes to incorporate chicken back into her diet because of the additional protein and meal options. Although many vegetarians do have trouble finding sources of protein, it is possible to get these from other food sources. Almost all beans, vegetables, grains, seeds and nuts provide some protein. A diet high in these components should be sufficient in protein intake.
Although Jackson is working to incorporate more animal protein in her diet, raw vegan Jane Smith is pushing at the other end of the spectrum. A vegan abstains from all animal products and a raw vegan avoids animal products and does not cook any food. Her vegan diet includes zero animal products and uncooked foods. Smith is the founder and organizer of the Columbia Raw Food Feasters and has been a raw vegan since December 2006. She is a trained health coach, a certified raw food chef and teacher at Lucky’s Market.
Smith became a raw vegan after she learned about the practice from her 15-year-old granddaughter, Leah. She had been a vegetarian since 1994, but after reading several books that Leah gave her, Smith decided to go raw.
“There were a lot of testimonies in there about people getting better from all manner of things like arthritis, diabetes … well, you read 20 of those stories, and then I start to pay attention,” said Smith.
After switching to a raw diet Smith saw quick positive results to her health. During the first three months of raw veganism, Smith lost 30 pounds. She also said she required much less sleep than before she went raw and has an increase of energy throughout the day. On top of this, she and her husband ride bikes on occasion. Before going raw, Smith said her knees used to ache throughout the entire ride but now she feels almost no pain at all during or after the rides.
However, is this raw food diet scientifically proven to increase health?
“There is some truth to enzymes being deactivated at higher temperatures, but as humans, we make our own digestive enzymes and so they exist at body temperature,” Bean said. “In truth, you do actually need a little bit of heat to help denature proteins.”
Bean said that she would attribute most of Smith’s weight loss to water weight. As far as the benefits Smith saw, such as energy increase and decrease of arthritis pain, Bean said she would attribute most of that to weight loss rather than food choice. For example, weight loss means less pressure on Smith’s joints.
Although Smith is an advocate for raw veganism, she is careful when working as a health coach not to push people into doing so if they aren’t comfortable with it.
“Not everyone who comes to me is interested in being raw,” Jane said. “But I work really hard to get to the diet that’s right for them.”
Smith said that in health-coaching school, she learned 132 dietary theories. She said that the staple to all effective diets is to eat more fruits and vegetables and to avoid overcooking them.