My name is Lily Schaefer, and I am a college student at Ohio University, as well as an intern with Simply Living. I am working on this blog to further my knowledge and share my experience with eating as a vegetarian! If you have questions, or would like to chat, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this series, I have discussed at length the environmental impacts of the factory farming industry and eating meat, animal welfare concerns about factory farm practices, and how the factory farming industry holds influence on other parts of American society. In this final piece, I plan to share ways to continue to eat a healthy affordable diet without factory-farmed meats. I am also providing photos throughout this blog on some new vegetarian meals I have had lately!
In 1917, America saw the creation of the American Dietetic Association (ADA), a group of highly esteemed health and nutritional professionals. The ADA has a summary of scientific literature on the benefits of eating a vegetarian diet. Three key takeaways from this summary of research, which I am taking from Jonathan Safran-Foer’s book Eating Animals, include firstly:
“Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for all individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, and adolescence, and for athletes.”
This disproves any of the excuses one might use in defense of needing to eat meat, such as being an athlete or being pregnant, as long as the diet is well-planned. Secondly:
“Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and have higher levels of dietary fiber, magnesium and potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids, and other phytochemicals.”
You are likely familiar with the negative connotations of saturated fats and cholesterol, as the build up of these compounds in the body is detrimental to heart function. You may also be familiar with fiber from foods, magnesium, potassium and vitamins E and C, as these are all beneficial nutrients we find and use from foods. The rest of the terms were unknown to me, so I did brief research on these terms. Some definitions; Carotenoids are pigments in plants, algae, and photosynthetic bacteria that produce the bright yellow, red, and orange colors in plants, vegetables, and fruits (https://www.healthline.com/health/carotenoids). Carotenoids act as an antioxidant for humans, which have a protective effect on our cells, reducing the risk of many diseases. Folate is a type of vitamin B that the human body needs to make DNA and other genetic material. The human body also needs folate for our cells to divide. A form of folate, called folic acid, is used in fortified foods and most dietary supplements (National Institute of Health, NIH). Flavonoid “possess a number of medicinal benefits, including anticancer, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties. They also have neuroprotective and cardio-protective effects” (NIH). Therefore, vegetarian diets contain less of the compounds we should try to avoid, and more of the compounds that are beneficial to our bodies. A third key takeaway:
“Vegetarian diets are often associated with a number of health advantages, including lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease [which alone accounts for more than 25 percent of all annual deaths in the nation], lower blood pressure levels, and lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Vegetarians tend to have lower Body Mass Index (BMI) [that is, they are not as fat] and lower overall cancer rates [cancers account for nearly another 25 percent of all annual deaths in the nation].”
(Inserts from Jonathan Safran-Foer). This information shows there are a number of characteristics that stand to make vegetarian diets healthier than omnivorous diets, or diets that include meat.
In high school, I was a vegetarian for about a six month span. While I enjoyed it, I ended up having to stop for a few reasons. I felt guilty having my mom make two separate dinners many nights of the week to support my diet while still feeding the rest of my family on an omnivorous diet. Also, I was preparing to leave the States to travel to Spain for a few weeks and wanted to be able to fully enjoy the culture and local, traditional foods. The biggest reason I chose to eat meat again is because I was not getting enough protein and iron to support my active, 16 year-old lifestyle. I was a big runner and soccer player at the time, and was exhausting a lot of my daily energy without fully replenishing my body of those lost nutrients. This is a common concern in regards to giving up meat, however, it is very much possible to enjoy a well-balanced, vegetarian diet and remain a healthy individual.
Absorbing protein from foods is no doubt extremely important, but it does not have to come from meat. Some foods that are high in protein include rice, beans, quinoa, soybean products such as tofu and tempeh or other lentils, and nuts and nut products such as peanut (or any nut) butter. Another source of protein is fish. There is a distinction between vegetarians who eat fish (a diet called pescatarian), and those who do not (vegetarian). I might call myself pescatarian; I do love fish and other seafood and will likely order it at restaurants if it is an option, though I don’t buy fish to cook for myself. There is an importance of eating “complete proteins”, which are sources of protein that contain all nine amino acids our bodies need and get from eating food. These complete proteins include soy products mentioned above, as well as edamame and miso, seeds such as chia and hemp, and buckwheat. A quick google search of these foods will give many more facts and simple recipes to incorporate them into your diet! While rice has a good amount of protein, I am going to start substituting it for quinoa in my meals whenever possible to get that complete protein.
Another concern is getting enough iron. A sufficient amount of iron is needed for growth and development as an adolescent, but also for all ages for the continued creation of red blood cell proteins that run the body’s circulatory system, as well as aid in muscle creation. The most common way to get iron is through eating red meat, but it is very common to have a low iron content in the body whether one eats meat or not. The best source of iron, however, is in vegetables – specifically dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, collard greens, chard, and kale. Other vegetables high in iron include broccoli, peas, string beans, sweet potatoes, and beets. Ensuring your body gets those complete proteins and finds iron from the many vegetables available makes a perfectly healthy substitution for meat. Another fun fact, vegetables of different colors provide different vitamins and nutrients. An easy rule of thumb is to “eat the rainbow”!
Back in January, at the start of this blog journey, I had a long and fulfilling conversation with Debbi Wolfarth, the creator of EAT Local CSRA in Augusta, Georgia. She is very knowledgeable on food systems, gut health, and food in general! (https://eatlocalcsra.com/). She shared much of the following information with me.
Another common misconception of vegetarian diets is that they are expensive. The cheapest and most sustainable way to source produce (all foods, really), is to do so locally. Produce gets expensive when it has to be shipped long distances and is treated with chemicals or packaging to ensure it makes it to its destination “fresh”. The cost of transporting and treating the produce is reflected in its purchase price. Buying locally reduces transportation costs, as well as keeps money and capital circulating within the local economy. Money that stays within the local economy directly benefits the local community members who contribute to that economy. Buying locally also benefits the planet by reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are created by transporting foods any distance. One of the best ways to get locally produced food and products is visiting a farmers market. This gives you the opportunity to purchase food grown locally, as well as meet and get to know your local farmers.
Even if you are not wanting to give up meat, just buying locally sourced meat helps lessen the dangerous, exploitative impacts of the factory farming industry. Market Wagon is an online farmers market that partners with Kroger to deliver fresh, locally grown foods to many communities across the States. Market Wagon is available for all of Franklin County, as well as many neighboring counties (Licking, Fairfield, Pickaway, Fayette, Ross, Madison, Union, Delaware, Morrow, Marion, Hardin, Logan, Champaign, and Clark!) There are deliveries on Tuesdays and Thursdays for a flat fee of just $7.95 (https://shop.marketwagon.com/hubs/80)! Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a subscription system that connects farmers to consumers that allows them to become more familiar with their local food system. LocalHarvest provides more information on the workings of CSA and a tool to help you find local farmers to subscribe to based on your city or zipcode, or based on the type of products you are looking for (https://www.localharvest.org/csa/).
It is perfectly acceptable to continue to eat meat if you wish. But if you are looking for a simple way to reduce your carbon footprint or benefit the environment in some way, sourcing your meat locally is a simple way to avoid the factory farming industry. And if you want to take the leap to becoming a vegetarian, check out the resources I have provided above for how to do so healthily and affordably. Best of luck to you if you do decide to make either of these changes, and know you are making a difference!