Vegetarianism has become trendy and popular, especially with the list of celebrities endorsing such a diet growing longer and longer (recent additions to the ‘V.gang’ include Will.I.Am). There are plentiful reasons for turning vegetarian, from religious to health-related and concern for the environment. The spectrum of those identifying themselves as vegetarian include vegans, who abstain from all animal products and lacto-ovo vegetarians, who consume some animal products such as dairy and eggs.
Research has been showcasing positive effects of vegetarism – losing weight, reducing risks of diseases like cancer and diabetes and improving life expectancy. But people often turn a blind eye towards the physical and mental downsides of turning green. We explore these side effects a little further.
Mood Changes: Depression and Anxiety
Fresh converts to the vegetarian ‘gang’ might find significant changes in their mood. Studies have shown that initially there is an improvement in mood but many have also reported deterioration. It is more likely that our mood oscillates between highs and lows.
Recent research has also found a link between going meatless and increased risk of serious mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety and even obsessive-compulsive disorder. In fact, some people have reported feeling so anxious, on edge and teary all the time that they eventually cave and revert to an omnivorous diet. These changes in mood can be attributed to the possible deficiencies in Vitamins B12 and iron.
Intense Meat Cravings
Some vegetarians have stated having irresistible urge to taste cooked meat again. Such protein cravings can come on suddenly and regardless of how hard you try, they can be hard to shake off. A red meat craving in particular could signal a need for more iron. The primary reason for this is that our body requires more protein that our body has suddenly stopped getting.
Beans, nuts, tempeh, tofu, peas… all of these are great substitutes for meat. For that real meaty bite, mushrooms, especially Portobello mushrooms, and seitan, work well to give that desired chewiness. Check out our post on Complete Proteins Vegetarians Should Add Into Their Diet for some tips on how you can expand your dietary repertoire. However, dieticians and mental health experts have recommended giving in to these “carnivorous urges” if they start to impinge on your health and functioning. Not only can constant cravings preoccupy your mind and distract your from your daily tasks, it can also cause unnecessary anxiety and constant checking of what you sort of food you are allowed to eat.
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies
While vegetables, fruits, nuts, etc. come with plenty of micronutrients that your body needs to operate. However, important vitamins and minerals such as iodine, zinc, and vitamin B12 can be lacking when you leave proteins like meat and seafood (and for vegans, dairy products) out of your meals. Without these nutrients, you can suffer from goitres, fatigue, a loss of taste and smell, and even neurological damage. A possible solution would be to consume vitamin pills to supplement your diet. A better long-term solution would be to add foods that can replace these micronutrients.
Constipation and Bloat
A sudden increase in fibre intake from fruits, vegetables, and legumes is likely to cause bloat as plant sources have more fibre and (good) bacteria. In worse cases, constipation may result. After years and years of meat consumption, your body is bound to take a hit with the reduced meat intake (and consequent reduction in fat from meat sources).
Vegetarian constipation strikes when the good bacteria in our guts cannot break down the amount of fibre suddenly consumed by the body, thus triggering our systems to back up. This is most likely to be temporary though. Drink more water if you feel uncomfortable, as can keeping away from certain bloat-inducing foods, like broccoli for a while.
With a vegetarian diet, you may notice yourself becoming more fatigued and worn out than usual. Meat sources are high in iron, which helps in forming haemoglobin that transports oxygen to different parts of your body. Cutting them out could lead to a deficiency in iron. When switching to a vegetarian diet, include alternative plant-based iron sources like beans and lentils, dark leafy greens, dried fruit, and fortified breads and cereal. It is also necessary to consume foods rich in vitamin C, which is necessary to absorb the type of iron found in plant foods.
Even with the exclusion of hormones from animal sources, vegetarian diets can actually stimulate the production of progesterone, oestrogen, and testosterone, if you consume vegetarian sources of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, such as coconut oil, olive oil, chia seeds, and avocados. The reason for this is that these sources actually increase the levels of your ‘good cholesterol’ (HDL), which is essential in maintaining healthy and balanced hormone levels in the body.
However, loading up on too much soy (as many vegetarians tend to do) can be problematic as it may disrupt your hormones in a negative way. Isoflavones found in soy contain oestrogen mimickers that elevate oestrogenic activity, meaning that too much soy can create excess oestrogen in the body, which then physically manifests with symptoms like heavy periods, bloating, headaches, acne, and mood swings, so this should be consumed in moderation.
Changes in your Taste Bud
Turning vegetarian might result in changes in your palette, disliking the tastes of some foods while starting to taste to other foods, like spices and herbs, more fully. This could be due to low levels of zinc (found more commonly in meat sources), which is a necessary mineral when it comes to tasting food, and one that is often deficient in vegetarians. To ensure a sufficient amount of zinc in your diet, increase your consumption of zinc-rich foods, like whole grains, spinach, chickpeas, and yoghurt.
Changes in your Social Circle
In addition to physical and mental changes, becoming vegetarian might result in changes to your social life. Having to peruse the menu carefully to determine what fits your vegetarian requirements, watching others eat meat, and at times even little jokes from friends and acquaintances, being vegetarian isn’t a piece of cake.
A possible consequence of this is increased social awkwardness and anxiety. You might start to feel stigmatised for your lifestyle choice and stay away from social situations so as to prevent the possibility of having to justify yourself. The best way to deal with this: be upfront of your choices. Real friends will understand and try to accommodate your dietary requirement in most situations.
On the Plus Side…
Some choose to go meatless for the promise of weight loss and of saving the planet (though these two arguments have come under a lot of debate), but most converts are swayed by the health advantages. Having naturally low in saturated fat and cholesterol, high in fibre, and chockfull of phytochemicals, plant-based foods have been associated with numerous health benefits. Lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, prevention of cancer, and improvement in cardiovascular health, better-controlled diabetes these advantages have been exalted by proponents of a vegetarian diet for decades now.
The American Dietetic Association have stated that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” This might send some of you heading straight for the vegetarian bandwagon, but the key operative words here are “appropriately planned”. Without proper planning, a vegetarian diet might not result in these benefits.
Take-Home Message: Don’t Go Cold Turkey
Before turning vegetarian, take some time to understand why you are taking this decision. When it comes to food, take baby steps. Wean off meat gradually. For example, start with two or three meat-free days in the week for a few months, then perhaps try flexitarianism for while, where you eat meat only occasionally, or stop meat but still consume dairy, eggs, and fish.
If you have a history of mood disorders in your family, consult a dietician or therapist before embarking on such a major dietary change. Finally, if you find yourself being unable to cope with your new lifestyle choice, remember that not everyone is suited for a meat-free life.
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