Most people's thoughts surrounding "risky behavior" are focused on actions related to drugs, driving and sex. But the foods you eat every day can be risky, too -- especially if you choose to take on a new dietary regimen without doing enough research first. How risky could food be, you ask? Well, if you consider that nutrient deficiencies can cause a whole host of negative side effects that can range from weight gain to decline in brain function and beyond, the answer is "very risky." If you're like many Americans, your new "trend" may be to go meat-free.
The health benefits associated with a healthy and well-balanced vegetarian (or vegan) lifestyle are undeniable. Countless studies have shown that a well-planned, nutritious, plant-based diet is associated with a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and stroke, as well as with longer life expectancy.
The key phrase that isn't emphasized enough is "a well-planned, nutritious, plant-based diet." People automatically associate a vegetarian or vegan diet with health, but in reality, eliminating meat from the diet is not a ticket to good health. In fact, it's just as easy to be an unhealthy vegetarian as it is to be an unhealthy omnivore. The real benefits are seen when meat and/or dairy are replaced with more fruits, vegetables, beans, whole soy, and nutritiously-dense foods.
You Get Your Diet Information From Unreliable Sources
If you decided to go vegetarian after reading a magazine story with your favorite celebrity endorsing a vegetarian lifestyle, you definitely want to keep reading. Although they probably appeared very skinny and healthy, that does not mean they are getting the proper nutrients that the body requires for optimal functioning. Vitamin deficiencies can easily occur in a poorly-planned vegetarian diet, particularly vitamin B12. A recent study showed that B12 deficiency is fairly prevalent among the vegetarian population. A long-term deficiency can ultimately cause irreversible nerve damage. Avoiding deficiencies may be easy as doing your homework. Search for a reliable source when you're looking for diet advice, or consult your physician or registered dietitian.
You Are a Snack-aholic
I frequently come across vegetarian-junkies -- those who eliminate meat from their diet and fill up on chips, pretzels, and cookies due to the fact that they don't know what else to eat. The problem is, processed snacks don't add any bang to your nutritional buck. It's just another form of worthless fuel that may pack on the pounds (since it won't fill you up) and put you at risk for chronic health conditions. If you enjoy snacking often, try to tone down the chips and dip and select more nutrient-rich foods like carrots and peanut butter, air-popped popcorn, whole-grain crackers with hummus, or almonds with raisins.
Your Diet Looks the Same Every Day
Imagine waking up every morning and putting on the same outfit. While your outfit of choice may be great for a night out on the town, it probably is not as appropriate in a job interview. Bottom line: One outfit can't meet all of your personal and professional needs. You probably know where I'm going here -- your diet, in this scenario, is the outfit. The harm in eating the same old, same old means you'll be missing out on a variety of essential vitamins, minerals and healthy fats, which puts you at risk for nutrient deficiencies or going back to your meat-eating days. Getting variety in your diet is key when it comes to staying on a healthy track. Focus on getting adequate protein (nuts, seeds, legumes, tofu), calcium (dark and leafy greens, kale, broccoli), iron (dried legumes and lentils, soybeans), vitamin B12 (fortified cereals, soy milk, fatty fish), vitamin D (midday sunlight and supplements) and plenty of deeply hued fruits and vegetables.
You Live in a Protein Bubble
There are two misconceptions when it comes to protein. The first, that you can only get "real" protein from steak and chicken, and the second, that you need lots and lots of it to stay healthy. If you're living in a protein bubble, I'm about to pop it. Although your diet no longer consists of protein from sources that moo and cluck, the protein from foods that make no sound at all can be just as good. Good sources of plant based protein include lentils, whole soy, peanut butter, quinoa, black or red kidney beans, chickpeas and peas. Further, you need much less of it than you think. Most healthy individuals need about 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. You can calculate this with a few easy steps:
- Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to get weight in kilograms
- Multiply that number by 0.8 to 1 for your range
- Ex: If you weigh 125 pounds, your protein needs would be approximately 45-57 grams per day.
You Think You're Immune from Food-Borne Illness
While many individuals adopt a vegetarian diet for the health benefits, others choose to take the veg-route after one too many nights sleeping next to the toilet bowl. Unfortunately, living a plant-based life doesn't eliminate your exposure to nasty bacteria from food. In fact, a report from the CDC indicates that almost as many food-borne illnesses are derived from plants as from meat. Although food-borne illness outbreaks occur almost weekly, only the most widespread make the news. An example would be the outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes in cantaloupe that resulted in 33 deaths and almost 150 illnesses back in 2011. Bottom line, food safety practices should be a key component for anyone (especially children and individuals with compromised immune systems) who wants to focus on truly "clean" eating.
Plants are fabulous, and they don't always get the attention they deserve. By avoiding these pitfalls and making plants center stage in your diet, you may just be adding years to your life and more importantly, life to your years!
Brigid Titgemeier, nutrition assistant at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, and Julie Kane contributed to this blog post.
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