During her nine years as a vegetarian, writer Courtney Dunlop says she always had a “nagging feeling” eating plants exclusively wasn’t the absolute best thing for her own health. She felt sluggish, unhealthy, and like her general mood could be improved.
However, with animal welfare as a driving motivator, she continued with the restrictive diet — even choosing to go vegan earlier this year.
Then, she read a vegan diet book that recommended she eat three bowls of oatmeal for breakfast in order to stave off hunger pains. An alarm bell went off in her head. “If you have to eat that much food to not feel hungry, then something is wrong,” she tells Yahoo Health. After doing more research, Dunlop started eating meat again. “Now I’m not hungry all the time — I realized that I’d been hungry for nine years,” she says. “I’m definitely less on edge.”
Vegetarian Katie Forrest also started eating meat again after experiencing health issues. Despite living a healthy lifestyle, the competitive athlete experienced chronic inflammation and pain — and so she decided to adopt a vegan diet. But her health problems persisted, and even became worse. It wasn’t until she and her husband, Taylor Collins — who was also experiencing problems on a vegan diet — started eating meat again, per advice from a health care provider, that their health seemed to improve. They even noticed benefits to their hair, skin, and nails.
The pair, who owned a vegan nutrition bar company at the time, went on to found EPIC, a line of nutritional bars made with nuts, fruit, and meat. Yup, meat.
While the experiences of Dunlop, Forrest, and Collins aren’t necessarily representative of all vegetarians or vegans, the three are not alone in their decision to go from plant-eater to omnivore. According to a large study of American dietary habits funded by animal advocacy group the Humane Research Council, the majority of vegetarians and vegans eventually go back to eating meat. The study also found that just 2 percent of the population is vegetarian or vegan, while 10 percent is made up of former vegetarians or vegans.
What is it about a plant-based diet that doesn’t stick for a lot of people? Collins says he felt like his body was “craving meat on a cellular level” — but is that even possible?
According to experts, yes.
“Our bodies have developed this close working relationship with the bacteria in our gut, and that bacteria can influence what we crave,” says Michael Schmidt, PhD, professor and vice chair of the department of microbiology and immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina. He cites a recent study published in the journal BioEssays that found bacteria in our gut will signal to our brain that we need chocolate in order to proliferate, and theorizes that the same could be true for meat. (He says that we’ll likely see research on that hypothesis soon.) For example, if your body is low in iron and the dominant bacteria in your gut need it to survive, you may experience a craving for red meat.
Schmidt stresses that it’s possible to be healthy on a cellular level on a vegetarian or vegan diet. “The human body and the bacteria in us have been optimized to eat whatever we feed it,” he tells Yahoo Health. However, he notes that many vegetarians and vegans who feel unhealthy or experience meat cravings may not be getting the proper nutrients they need, and can even become malnourished.
New York-based nutritionist Beth Warren, RD, agrees. Vegetarians and vegans are particularly at risk of deficiencies in vitamin B12 (which are mostly available in animal proteins) and protein if their diet isn’t balanced, she tells Yahoo Health. B12 is especially crucial because a deficiency can impact the immune system’s function and even lead to pernicious anemia, a decrease in red blood cells that provide oxygen to the body’s tissues. Warren also points out that fatigue and an overall feeling of weakness can occur for vegans and vegetarians if they don’t get enough iron in their diets.
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However, Warren notes that plant-based foods have a lot of nutrients that work together, like protein, fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. The key for vegans and vegetarians is to be mindful of what they eat and make sure they get their important vitamins and minerals from a variety of plant-based sources. She also recommends vitamin B12 supplementation for non-meat eaters. (The recommended amount for vegetarians is 10 micrograms, but since that’s a lot, she recommends people consult their doctor to see how deficient they are first.)
While it may be difficult to maintain, research has shown there are health benefits to a vegetarian diet, or at least a plant-based diet: According to a study from Loma Linda University in California, the closer people are to being a vegetarian, the lower their risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. The National Institutes of Health also published an article in 2012 that articulated the benefits associated with a low-fat, high-fiber diet rich in nutrients that are often found in the vegetarian diet.
While both experts say there’s nothing wrong, health-wise, with eating meat in moderation, they also agree that there’s nothing wrong with a vegetarian or vegan diet for most people — provided it’s done right.
Says Warren: “As long as adequate supplementation is given and people are consuming a lot of different sources of plant-based proteins at the right quantities, then they don’t ‘need’ meat.”
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