Many people have asked me about the benefits of eating meat vs eating as a vegetarian/vegan. So, I wanted to feature an expert who has personal and professional experience on this important topic. I’d like you to meet my close friend, Jodell Dragon and she is this week’s “Real People, Real Fitness” feature. Aside from having an amazing rock star name (it’s her real birth name), she is an ICU/Clinical Registered Dietitian and devoted vegetarian. She’s extremely research driven and is probably the most up-to-date RD I know (I often turn to her)! Check out her take on eating a plant-based diet and read the truth on the many misconceptions of vegetarianism (such as “Vegetarians are malnourished” and “Our bodies aren’t meant to process only plant-based foods”).
(1) Tell us a little bit about yourself and your RD background?
My father was very much into fitness and was a personal trainer. Therefore growing up my sisters and I were always very active, though we did not always eat the most healthily. It wasn’t until my father was diagnosed at the age of 48 with stage IV renal cancer where I realized the utmost important link between physical activity and nutrition in order to sustain a healthy well-being. Seeing my father endure such a ruthless disease was very traumatic. I saw my father as someone who was invincible, and when his passing shattered this belief, it completely changed what I valued in life. My first and foremost important value is HEALTH. Without health you literally have NO wealth! What is life worth, or what quality of life does someone have if they are chronically ill/diseased? So I put two and two together and the magic happened. I realized my special love for food and newfound passion for health, made it inevitable that my calling was to be a registered dietitian. I had no doubt that becoming a registered dietitian would be the perfect outlet for me to express my passions.
It always amuses me when I tell people I am a dietitian. They automatically think, “Oh! She can help me lose weight!” or “She can provide a diet plan for me to eat right.” Now, while these two assumptions are correct, this is not where my fervor lies the nutrition world as a dietitian. My absolute true passion where I flourish and feel the most connected as a dietitian is in clinical nutrition. Clinical nutrition is ultimately helping to manage ones diseased state with the proper medical nutrition therapy. Though I work with a multitude of patient populations, such as those who have diabetes, cancer, heart disease, chronic kidney disease, and gastrointestinal disorders, I specialize in critical care. YUP, I’m a science geek!
(2) How was it growing up being a vegetarian?
I actually did not grow up vegetarian. My family is of Filipino descent so meat was always a staple in our diets. It wasn’t until shortly after high school that I had made the ultimate decision to be vegetarian. As I was becoming more and more intrigued with nutrition I kept seeing research of plant-based diets significantly lowering the chances for many chronic disease such as diabetes and cancer. I also became aware of the treatment and harsh conditions our fellow animal buddies must go through when being prepared as our next meal. This did not sit well with me since I have always been a HUGE animal lover. I think I even had 12 pets total at one point in time as a child. I made the conscious decision to not consume anything that required the “killing” of animals, so basically nothing containing any kind of flesh.
The actual transition after making the decision to become vegetarian was surprisingly not difficult. The only difficult part was learning how to step away from the “fake” or “mock” meat products and cook all my vegetarian meals from scratch. I even have come so far to transform some of my favorite meat-filled Filipino dishes such as adobo, sinigang, afritada, and arroz caldo into vegetarian versions. And in case you’re wondering, my non-vegetarian family members and friends all love the vegetarian versions of these dishes and always ask for recipes! Becoming vegetarian is all about experimenting with different flavors and foods that may not have once been familiar, though this can be the fun and exciting part.
(3) What are some misconceptions about being vegetarian? Do you think people can sustain a healthy diet on plant based foods only? How does it differ from a meat-based diet?
Oh my goodness there are sooooo many misconceptions about being vegetarian. The one that REALLY irritates me is people often think vegetarians are “malnourished” and cannot possibly consume all necessary nutrients without meat. Yet, what I don’t understand is when did eating plentiful amounts of fruits and vegetables equate with malnourishment? Since when did meat become synonymous with strong muscles? Did you know that many elite athletes, MMA fighters, football players, etc. are vegan/vegetarian! I think a lot of these misconceptions come from the way our culture has been shaped in this country. We are a meat and potatoes society. I also want to mention that plant-based diets do not necessarily mean vegetarian/vegan diets. Plant-based just means the primary makeup of your diet is from plant foods and very little meat. Meat is perfectly healthy to eat as long as it is in moderate amounts and accompanied by fruits and vegetables.
Another misconception is the whole protein thing. Many almost assume there is no possible way they are consuming protein without meat. The truth is, protein is a ubiquitous nutrient. It can be found in not only meat, but in beans (this includes peas as well), whole grains, vegetables, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, yogurt, lite cheese, fat free milk and milk substitutes (soy milk in particular). Just by that list you can already see eating a balanced diet would ensure adequate protein consumption. In general, people think they need much more protein that what is actually required for proper growth and repair. There is even some research to suggest body builders and athletes may not need more than your average sedentary person.
There is a difference in quality of proteins where it is said meats and eggs contain the highest quality since all amino acids are present in high amounts, where as vegetarian sources such as beans and whole grains are often limiting in one amino acid. However this still presents no protein issues because when vegetarians eat beans/legumes and grains through out the day they are receiving adequate amounts of all amino acids. Soybeans in particular, or any soy derivative such as tofu and tempeh, are the only plant sources of protein that have a quality as high as meat. Vegetarians who most often still consume eggs and dairy products will have no issues with protein. It is the vegan population, who eats no animal products of any kind who need to be more aware of eating a balanced diet to ensure they are consuming the proper protein amount. Yet, even protein in this population is rarely an issue.
Now somewhere out there, there is something/someone saying “our bodies just aren’t made to eat vegetarian.” Yet, isn’t it obvious by the obesity and cardiovascular disease epidemic that our bodies aren’t meant to eat all those double cheeseburgers and steaks? Meat is primarily just FAT and protein, and the fat meat contains is primarily saturated, which is not so beneficial for us. There are many people, and even health clinicians such as doctors touting many ideas about health and diet, though I ask you to put down the book and head to the research articles where you can find real evidence and make sound decisions about your health.
Yet, despite the many misconceptions about vegetarians, a vegetarian lifestyle can be extremely healthy since they tend to be lower in fat, higher in fruit/vegetable consumption, and high in fiber. Again, there continues to be research about plant-based diets and how beneficial it is for our health. The evidence is out there and hopefully will continue to debunk the belief that meat is necessary. Plant foods can provide us with all the necessary nutrients to keep us healthy, including antioxidants and many other phytochemicals.
Oh and one more thing, some vitamins and minerals that vegetarians/vegans may be at risk for developing deficiencies is calcium, iron, and vitamin B-12. Though vegetarians who eat a variety of plant based foods and still consume eggs and dairy products will adequately meet these specific nutrient needs easily, vegans will need to be more conscious. Since B-12 is only found in animal products it can be more difficult for vegans to find sources of this nutrient, luckily there are fortified milk substitutes, and cereals containing B-12, or nutritional yeast which is very popular amongst vegans.
(4) What is your favorite exercise? How do you make the time with your busy schedule?
My absolute favorite exercise is running! There is something so therapeutic and free about running. I love that running is very low maintenance and yet so amazingly healthy for us! It does not require a monthly gym membership or highly specialized equipment, which can rack up the dollars. It only requires a pair of good comfortable shoes and it can virtually be done anywhere. How cool is that?! My love for running developed about five years ago when I got tired of being caged in a gym. I wanted a challenging exercise that I could feel was also an adventure, something I knew I could never get bored or tired of. Being a runner is meditative for me, it allows me to be more in tuned with my body and mind. Of course not every day I want to get my butt up and run especially after a busy mind boggling day at work or when PMS has hit me hard, but for the most part I look forward to and get excited to run. On average, I run about 20-30miles per week, and I have only made this consistent by finding what time works for me and having the best jams on my ipod shuffle! Feeling motivated can always be difficult in the midst of busy daily life, however again, for me personally, it is the value I put on health and wellness that allows me to MAKE time for running and keep going. Run baby run!!!
(5) What are your top 3 health tips for people.
- Skip the “quick fix” and focus on proper nutrition and physical activity. If you see or hear any information touting a “cure”, “cleanse”, supplement, or outrageous diet, steer clear of it, it is most likely dangerous for your health and for your pockets ($$$)! If it sounds too good to be true…IT IS. We cannot escape proper nutrition and physical exercise, most importantly along with a healthy mind. You cannot have optimal health without the three.
- Don’t think of maintaining health as a task, treat it as a lifestyle because it is certainly an investment. We may not always see or feel the wrath of improper nutrition or lack of physical activity until one day a heart attack strikes, or cancer has hit. Do not wait until disease has appeared to make lifestyle changes because by that point, its almost always too late.
- JUST GET MOVING! The number one thing I hear from my patients/clients is “I have no time to workout.” Yet, I like to counter them with “do you watch TV, are you on your computer or cell phone surfing the internet or social media?” Usually this gets them to realize they definitely can spare at least 30 minutes out of their day for some kind of physical activity. And for those who just can’t give up the tuner, I recommend doing exercises during commercial break or while watching TV.
Living a healthy lifestyle is not the easiest when we live in a society that works against us, however it is not impossible and it is our very own choice if we choose to let societies bad habits take over us. Take responsibility and be your own advocate for good health, you owe it to yourself and you’re certainly worth it! HAPPY HEALTHINESS!
Special Thanks to Jodell for sharing her undeniable passion and expertise on plant-based diets. I hope that you can see the benefit of incorporating more plant-based foods in your diet. This is not to shame those who eat me (I love cheeseburgers and cannot resist them!), but with all things nutrition, individualize your lifestyle diet accordingly. Hopefully, you better understand vegetarians/vegans now and will be open to eating less meat (excessively) and eating more fruits, vegetables, and grains.
As always, eat healthfully and live happily, friends.