Beneath the hype
The downside to a vegetarian diet
It seems you can’t go a day anymore without hearing the benefits of vegetarianism. Lose weight! Feel healthier! Save the environment! The propaganda is endless, and it’s convincing too.
So convincing, in fact, that I was lured into the trend about a year and a half ago. Though my diet was already relatively meat-free at the time (raw meat grosses me out so I rarely cook the stuff), I saw the transition as a way to monitor my vitamin and nutrient intake. So, in May of last year, I declared my vegetarian status and stopped eating meat altogether.
Things were going well for awhile. I did everything a good vegetarian should, stocking up on vitamin supplements, B12 fortified soy milk, vegetarian cookbooks, and chick peas, lots and lots of chick peas. And then came all those promised results: I lost a bit of weight, felt a bit healthier and probably even lessened my carbon footprint in the process.
But that was followed by the not-so-positive effects. I began feeling tired all the time, I was getting sick on a regular basis, and then the real kicker: I started to lose feeling in the right side of my face.
I didn’t make the connection at first, chalking it up to stress, or exhaustion. But after two doctors’ appointments, a visit to an ear, nose and throat specialist, a skull X-ray, and some blood work, the answer became a little more clear: I was suffering from severe iron and vitamin B12 deficiencies, and the latter was beginning to affect my central nervous system.
According to Bettermedicine.com, symptoms of B12 deficiencies include memory loss, numbness, fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pains, migraines and depression, and can affect the gastrointestinal tract, the nervous system and the cardiovascular system.
But what does it take to be deficient? Well, Livestrong.com says B12 levels are considered normal when they are between 200 and 900 picograms per milliliter; anything under 200 is cause for concern. My levels: 11 pg/ml. To put that into perspective, my sister was previously prescribed supplements when her B12 levels dropped to 100 pg/ml. So I was in some pretty serious trouble.
Now, it may seem biased of me to suggest vegetarianism is an unhealthy way to live, and that may be true. But I prefer to look at it as speaking from experience. I’ve been taking 1000 mcgs of B12 and 900 mcgs of iron a day for nearly five months, and I’m still not 100 per cent. The exhaustion and numbness have mostly subsided, but I still feel the uncomfortable effects of the nerve damage around my right eye, and I still have to vigorously monitor what I’m eating.
It’s true that limiting the amount of meat in our diets can have a positive effect on both our bodies and the environment; but, I don’t believe cutting it out altogether is the answer.
So what can we do? Well, there are a few things, actually. We can start by buying local. Visit the farmers’ market and stock up on grass-fed beef and licensed free range chicken that’s free of hormones, antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Begin incorporating meat alternatives into your diet. Beans and lentils, soy-based products, such as tofu and tempeh, nuts, and eggs are all good options.
I understand there are moral, cultural and religious limitations that prevent people from eating meat, and I do not wish to disregard these beliefs. My issue lies solely with this glorified representation of the vegetarian lifestyle – and the idea that it is somehow superior to its carnivorous counterpart – because for me, that proved entirely false. My brief stint of vegetarianism put my health at serious risk, and I’m still suffering the consequences.