I witnessed a heated debate in one of my Facebook groups where one of the health practitioners argued that vegetarianism was the best diet and her main evidence for this was that it has been shown to reverse diabetes. The vast majority of the other practitioners argued back that vegetarian diets may work for some in the short-term, but can create lots of problems in the long-run. And, if you are already diabetic, prediabetic or are neither but just plain have erratic blood sugars (highs and lows), you no longer have “normal” physiology, your body needs help and the best help you can provide is leaning on the most blood sugar balancing macronutrients – fat and protein.
Near the very end of the debate, that same vegetarian practitioner said that her reason for being vegetarian really had to do with her religious faith. I get that and I support anyone’s right to choose how to eat and live. However, it either needs to be a religious conversation or a biological one, the two do not intersect. Just because you feel strongly that you should not eat meat for whatever philosophical reason, that does not mean that it must therefore also be true that meat is not good or natural for the human body. In essence, there’s a difference between moral and religious ideals and actual biochemistry.
Leaving religion and morality aside (please?), let’s explore some of the common misconceptions that often lead us to talk past each other when we’re weighing the pros and cons of meat vs. plants, shall we?
Common Misconceptions About Meat-Eating
#1: Eating meat means your diet is not plant-based. Actually, a healthy omnivorous diet is plant-based. I believe your plate should be at least half vegetables if not 2/3 vegetables. They are critical for gut health, weight loss, liver function and so much more.
It’s not all about the meat.
Yet, there are a number of societies who historically ate almost no vegetable matter, ate almost entirely animal products and thrived, free of disease. That had a lot to do with the fact that very little plant foods were available to them, but it does challenge the idea that meat contributes to disease. Yet, in our modern world and with all that we have available to us, we can also thrive and benefit greatly from plants. These things are not mutually exclusive.
#2: Eating meat means you eat a lot of it, all day. That totally depends. If your body and brain are starved for the nutrients, minerals and building blocks in meat, you may feel the urge to eat it more frequently and more of it in one sitting than you will a few weeks or months from now. Or, say you’re a stressed out mom who’s also trying to manage a career and has a history of blood sugar dysregulation (ok, I’m talking about me, but maybe you too) and you feel your best and most energetic when you eat meat at each meal. Go for it! Every once in a while, I’ll go vegetarian if I feel like it. And, where my body is right now, I only need the amount of meat that fits into the palm portion of my hand, which is always a good guideline. Sometimes, I need even less than that. This is hugely individual.
#3: Anytime someone advocates meat or fat, they mean the grease must be dripping out the sides of your mouth. Ok, this is kind of similar to the previous misconception, but I cannot get over how many people judge meat or butter advocates to be gluttonous slobs. People literally assume that half a stick of butter goes into my food. Not that there’s anything wrong with that 🙂 But, I invite you to look at the pictures of some of my meals in this post, which contain good amounts of fat and protein and tell me if you see an excess of anything.
#4: All meat is the same and is inherently unhealthy. I guarantee those societies who thrived on meat were not eating genetically modified, hormone-injected, pesticide-laden and corn-fed meat. Much of the meat was wild or raised on grass. So, when you catch your subconscious mind telling you that meat is bad, just keep in mind that it’s not ALL bad. And, in many cases, eating lower quality meat is better than not eating it at all. It depends on your priorities, but for me not getting to the point of an irrational, angry outburst directed at my son due to a blood sugar episode I had because I didn’t eat the meat is priority #1. My second priority is my own health and sanity, so…. I eat the meat. I’ve explained why science shows that meat is not inherently unhealthy in a previous post.
One major reason for these misconceptions is that the low-fat, low-calorie, low-meat craze is something that most of us were raised on. So, the more we can work on ourselves to remove all that judgement we were raised with when it comes to food, the easier it will be to adopt a more nourishing and balanced diet.
Meat May Not Be the Devil, But Does Vegetarianism Give You an Advantage?
The basics: can you be vegetarian and be healthy? Absolutely. It’s possible. We could debate exactly what that looks like and what precautions and supplements you’d need to take (because your health will likely suffer otherwise), but I’m not here today to do that. I don’t advocate vegetarianism (been there, done that, big mistake for me personally), even though I respect those who choose that lifestyle.
For the sake of staying on task, let’s narrow this question further down to folks who need to balance their blood sugars (which is ALL OF US), but especially diabetics.
Is vegetarianism necessary for reversal or prevention of diabetes? Absolutely not. You could prevent or reverse diabetes by starving yourself. It would totally work. But, that’s not necessary either. Just because something works, doesn’t mean it’s ideal or beneficial.
Still, I would argue that for something to really work, it better not deplete you of nutrients or basic building blocks of life.
Besides the fact that vegetarianism isn’t necessary for reversing disease, it’s also more likely to cause deficiencies in nutrients like B12, vitamins A and D, iron, zinc, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients that are critical for everyone, especially diabetics because many of these deficiencies worsen insulin resistance.
Obviously, there’s a “wrong” way to do both a vegetarian and omnivore diet. You want to keep processed and refined foods out of the picture as much as possible. But if you had to choose between the perfect vegetarian diet that covered all your basic needs and the perfect omnivore diet, the diet that would win out nutritionally and from a blood sugar perspective is the diet that included meat. On an individual level, the amount and type of meat will vary.
Could you follow the perfect vegetarian diet and just take a multivitamin? Vitamins don’t offer the body what food can because nutrients work in synergy with each other and there are compounds in foods that we haven’t even discovered yet that are part of the overall health benefits we receive. (1) Also, synthetic, man-made vitamins can be harmful. (2)
This does not mean that all supplements are bad. There are many companies out there that literally package dried organic whole food products into capsules for people who need more concentrated sources of nutrients and those can be hugely beneficial and often necessary – because they’re real food in a pill, nothing has been separated from the food. They also tend to contain animal parts and glands from healthy sources because animals who are healthy and eat their natural diet give us so many key nutrients, many not found in plant foods or too difficult to absorb from plant foods. So, why not just eat the animal product?
One important compound, especially found in grass fed red meat, is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is a cancer-fighting compound, aids in weight loss and has been shown to improve Type 2 diabetes. (3)
The debate over vegetarian vs meat-eating is so heated and so ridiculously misconstrued in both directions that it’s not even helpful anymore to debate the research. Studies on diet cannot adequately account for all the factors that go into the progression of a disease. They also don’t account for quality and source of the food (and all the things that poor quality foods contain that contribute to disease), genetics, individual biochemistry, sleep, stress, exercise, how study participants were birthed and whether or not they were breastfed. They also define “healthy” very differently. As sick as I was in my 20s, every doctor told me I was “healthy” because nothing showed up on the lab results. Clearly, we need to revise what how we measure “healthy”. I’ve discussed the limitations of science before. So, please reference those for what the science has told us so far.
What About the National Diabetes Guidelines?
The dietary approach recommended by the American Diabetic Association (ADA) is deeply problematic. When compared to the ADA guidelines, a diet with fewer carbohydrates and more meat wins out for obesity, cardiovascular risk factors and diabetes (4, 5, 6) These studies looked at the Paleo diet, a more ancestral approach to eating, where we consumed animal products and higher fat foods like nuts, eggs, avocados, coconuts, etc.
In practical terms, the Diabetic diet recommended in hospitals and by doctors only keeps you diabetic and helps the disease progress.
This diet is founded upon outdated theories that low-fat and low-calorie diets are beneficial, when we know that they are not. They’ve only worsened the obesity and diabetes epidemics and there’s enough national consensus on that for me to just leave it there. If you have a few minutes to watch this obesity doctor take down the guidelines and talk about how doing the opposite can actually reverse your diabetes, it’s so worth a listen. Pull it up on your phone and listen on your way home from work. Do it.
Why a Vegetarian Diet Won’t Help You That Much
Let me give you a run down of why I think vegetarian diets are not ideal for diabetics:
- Balanced blood sugar – you need that. Diabetics are generally insulin resistant, that means that eating carbohydrates will only worsen the problem by increasing blood sugar and insulin. Let’s say that as a vegetarian, you’ve done the right thing and filled your plate with non-starchy veggies like broccoli, asparagus and a mixed greens salad. What else are you going to have? Rice? Quinoa? Pasta? Bread? Those are too high in carbohydrates and since there’s no protein from meat in the meal to slow down digestion, your blood sugar will spike quickly. Ok, scratch that, instead, you opt for beans or hummus for protein. Nope, those are still mostly starch too. Just because something contains protein, doesn’t mean it’s going to help stabilize your blood sugar. Ok, just the veggies then. Do that long enough and you’ll be starved, greatly reduce your muscle mass and tone and start to experience cognitive and mood problems. You’ll be grumpy, for sure. I don’t advocate zero carbohydrates, they just are best paired with animal protein if you’re trying to reduce blood sugar spikes.
- Do you have a life? Experience stress? Want to exercise and build lean muscle mass? Lose weight without actually depleting yourself (ie. starving yourself)? You need lots of amino acids, found in protein. You’d have to eat a ton of vegetables to get what you can get out of meat because you have to remember that vegetables bind up their nutrients and amino acids into fiber that we have a difficult time breaking down properly. That’s great for our poop, but not for the demands that a typical working, active person needs. All of the chemicals and neurotransmitters in your brain that help reduce depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and everything else rely on a steady supply of amino acids. If you don’t get enough, your body will break down muscle to get it, which means your metabolism slows and your body is…. actually breaking down.
- Do you want to feel full and not have to graze all day? Protein in vegetables is absolutely not the same as that found in meat. I mean, it might be similar on paper if you list out the amino acids in beans and rice and those in meat. Side by side, they’re both “complete proteins”, but the structure of each is totally different and your digestive system and brain see them as totally different and will respond differently and in a more advantageous way to the meat – ie. you’ll be more satisfied, eat less and have less increase in blood sugar and less insulin output. The animal protein takes longer to digest (a good thing!), which will slow the emptying of everything else in your stomach, keeping it nice and even. You stay fuller longer and you can avoid having to eat as frequently, which means, less insulin in your blood and an opportunity to burn your own stored fat.
- Do you want to avoid heart or cognitive problems and weird facial tics? The reality is that our soil is depleted and our plant foods are no longer as rich in minerals due to the poor soil. Minerals drive almost all of our biological functions, keep our nervous systems healthy and help us maintain a normal heartbeat. Like a battery, we are electrical beings with a charge. Minerals in the form of ions are what keep us charged up and in balance. That’s how our nerves function to help us think, act quickly and move our muscles. Mineral deficiencies cause all kinds of problems and diabetics are most assuredly deficient in minerals. Magnesium is a big one, which we need in large amounts and its deficiency is implicated in numerous health conditions including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and facial tics. The great thing about our symbiotic relationship with animals is that they do a huge, huge service for us. We can’t properly digest grass (one of the most mineral-rich foods on land), but they can. We send them out to eat grass all day and they concentrate the minerals into their meat for us. So, a small amount of meat has more mineral content than a large salad. I love cows. Major gratitude.
So, do you get where I’m going here? There’s no doubt that there are many approaches to reversing diabetes. I simply am advocating for the approach that covers all your bases, that doesn’t make you feel deprived, that doesn’t feed into massive misinformation around what we need to thrive. Eat real food and keep the quality as high as possible, focus on vegetables and bring in the amount of healthy animal protein that makes you feel your best. And don’t forget fat, you need that too. Next week’s post is all about why fat is really our bestest of friends in the health game and most certainly for diabetics. Stay tuned!
As always, let me know what you think. Weigh in on this controversial yet crucial topic. Dialogue is important. I love hearing from you 🙂