Omnivore, vegetarian, flexitarian?

Omnivore, vegetarian, flexitarian?

By John Berardi, Ph.D.

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Oh the carnage!  My recent vegetarian experiment has really ruffled some feathers.  But it need not.  Indeed, there are some important lessons that omnivores and vegetarians should learn from one another.  Lessons that’ll improve health, performance, and body composition.

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Can’t we all just get along?

As most of you know, I’m in the middle of a little plant-based diet experiment.  In essence, I’m trying to see if an almost-vegan, hypercaloric meal plan can be used in my quest to gain about 10 lbs.  Of course, I don’t  want to gain 10lbs of flubber.  I’m shooting for lean mass.  And I’m hoping to accomplish this goal over the next month or two.

Two Week Update…

So far, so good.  I’m up about 4 lbs in the first two weeks.  And so is my buddy Lou, the other guy I discussed in last week’s article, the scrawny vegan that kicked this whole thing off.

Now, truth be told, I don’t have body comp data or pics to share with you today.  Mostly because I’m in Vegas for UFC 94 – Penn vs. St-Pierre.  Go GSP!

However, I’ll report back with pics, stats, and more in two weeks time.  That’ll mark the end of my first month on the program.  And that’s a great time to do my next set of measures.

But for now, rather than talking about my experience with the semi-vegan plan, I want to talk about some of the interesting “discussion” this little experiment has provoked.  And when I say discussion, I mean “carnage”.  How appropriate I’m writing about this while getting ready for a mixed martial arts fight.

Indeed, one unintended consequence of my eating experiment is that certain internet forums are rife with mean spirited mud-slinging back and forth between vegetarians and omnivores.  And although people haven’t necessarily treated me badly, they’re certainly not being very nice to each other.

In reading through these debates I can’t help but think that if everyone would just close their mouths – and open their minds for two seconds – they’d realize there are a lot of lessons to learn from one another.  But it doesn’t usually work that way.  Instead, everyone’s too busy trying to defend their own position.  Sheesh…can’t we all just get along?

Lessons meat-eaters can learn from vegans

In the spirit of the sentiment above, I wanted to share with you a host of lessons I think meat-eaters can learn from proper vegans.  And when I say proper vegans I mean those that actually do it right.  You  know, the ones that eat natural, whole foods.   The ones that cover all of their nutritional bases.  And the ones that stay healthy and lean.  Not the ones that just eat the typical North American diet – sans meat.

Here are a few of those lessons:

Food Prep

Proper vegans tend to find interesting ways of eating more fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds.  In fact, some of the best veggie cookbooks are put out by vegans.  These books show hundreds of ways to make veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes taste great.  You see, they don’t have a choice.  That’s all they can eat.  So they have to make it taste good!

We all could use a few more of these types of recipes in our repertoire.  Especially if your idea of food prep involves only a BBQ grill.  So take heed omnivores.  Go pick up a good veggie cookbook.  And don’t hesitate to buy one put out by a vegan.

Or even get started with Gourmet Nutrition V2. I guarantee you’ll learn some interesting new things in the kitchen that will help boost your health and body composition.

gourmet-nutrition

Unprocessed Foods

Proper vegans tend to eat more whole, natural, locally produced, unprocessed foods.  This means things like raw nuts and seeds.  Whole grains like quinoa and amaranth.  And a locally grown bounty of fruits and veggies.  Again, that’s all they eat.  So they make sure to do it right.

Omnivores can take a great lesson from this.  Sometimes in our quest for filling 1/3 of our plate with animal flesh, we forget to think about what the other 2/3 should be filled with.  And that can be a big, gut expanding, health degrading mistake.

Food Knowledge

Proper vegans tend to spend more time learning about where their food comes from.  In other words, they make it a point to understand which foods come from which regions of the world, which foods are in season during certain times of the year, and which methods are best for raising the healthiest food.  Not only is this environmentally friendly and quite healthy, it’s also pretty cool stuff to know.

Now, I’ll admit it.  This wasn’t high on my priority list until I started reading Michael Pollan’s books.  But The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food changed that quickly.  Knowing more about our food helps us make better nutritional choices – for ourselves and for our environment.  But even if you don’t care about either, it’s damn interesting.

Carbs Are OK

Proper vegans also understand that carbs aren’t so bad for us when they come from whole grain, unprocessed sources and when they’re used in moderation.  Indeed, vegans have to “go through carbs” to get their proteins and fats.  So they’ve learned which carbs to eat and how much they can tolerate.  And the conclusion is usually this – things go badly only when we overeat processed carbs.

That’s a great lesson for meat-obsessed, carbophobic omnivores.  Indeed, some of us can get away with more carbs – even if pasta and rice have failed us in the past.  The key is to go for the real grains.  The unprocessed stuff.  (For more on this, check out our Plant-Based Superfood list on page 14 of the PN Plant-Based Diet Guide).

Lessons vegans can learn from meat eaters

Now, let’s not glamorize the vegan lifestyle too much.  I think many vegans have a lot to learn from omnivores, especially the proper omnivores.  Again, the ones that eat natural, whole foods.   The ones that cover all of their nutritional bases.  And the ones that stay healthy and lean.  Not the ones eating fatty fast food meat with a side of processed carbs and gravy.

Here are a few of those lessons:

Humane Meat

Contrary to popular vegan belief, there are some meat-eaters out there that are concerned with the treatment of animals, with the environmental impact of our food choices, and with our own health and longevity.  So it’s not an either-or thing.  It’s not: eat meat OR care about the environment.  It’s not: eat meat OR care about the animals.  It’s not: eat meat OR care about your body.

Interestingly enough, by choosing locally raised, free-range, hormone and antibiotic free meat, not only are we doing the right thing for the environment and improving animal conditions, we’re actually doing our bodies good by providing all those things vegans risk deficiency in – protein, iron, B12, omega 3 fats, etc.

So this is a lesson both vegans and omnivores can share.  By choosing certain types of meat we can be humane, environmentally conscious, healthy, and muscular.

 Some happy free-range cows
Some happy free-range cows

Weight Lifting

Let’s face it, eating meat and weight lifting seem to go hand in hand.  And if not, at least they’re well-correlated.  It probably has something to do with our primitive past and the fact that we had to sprint and lift to get most of our food.  Or maybe it’s a sociocultural thing.

Regardless, you don’t see a ton of weight lifting vegans.  And it’s a shame.  Weight lifting has been proven in the research to not only improve lean mass and functional independence into age, it also speeds the metabolism, reduces disease risk, and offers heart protection.

Most proper omnivores, at least those who read this site, are all about the weights.  And I wish more vegans would be too.  It would do a long way toward helping them maximize their health while preventing the lean losses that occur with age – the same losses that occur when dropping meat from the diet.

That’s right, some of you vegans are just too scrawny.  But there’s something you can do about it.

Protein

Proper omnivores are often, admittedly, a little protein obsessed.  But that may be a good thing given the list of benefits associated with eating a diet high in lean, complete proteins.  Faster metabolism, more lean mass, and better muscle preservation.  Who wouldn’t want those benefits.

Sometimes vegans miss the boat here, being content with way too little complete protein.  And this mistake means sub-optimal health, performance, and body composition.

However, with today’s food knowledge, food access, and supplement options, there’s absolutely no reason you can’t achieve a protein intake of 1g/lb – whether the protein comes from an animal source or a vegan one.

Indeed, pages 6 and 7 of the PN Diet Guide and pages 5 and 6 of the PN Plant-Based Diet Guide provide comprehensive lists of protein-rich foods.

Supplements

It seems like proper omnivores who also weight train tend to be down with the supplements too while vegans are a little more reluctant in this area.  Again, that’s a shame since the exclusion of meat and fish probably predisposes vegans to a few dietary deficiencies.

On pages 10 and 11 of the PN Plant-Based Diet Guide we discuss how vegans can incorporate supplements to help prevent deficiencies in protein (as mentioned above), omega 3 fats, vitamin D, B12, calcium, and iron.

And, on pages 39-41 of the PN Individualization Guide, we cover other nutritional supplements that can be of benefit to both vegans and omnivores alike.

Enter the flexitarian

There’s a new term that’s being kicked around the internet – flexitarian.  Wikipedia defines flexitarianism as follows:

Flexitarianism is a semi-vegetarian diet focusing on vegetarian food with occasional meat consumption. A self-described flexitarian seeks to decrease meat consumption without eliminating it entirely from his or her diet. There are no guidelines for how much or how little meat one must eat before being classified a flexitarian.

Now, personally, I think the term is pretty goofy sounding.  And I don’t forsee a future in which I would ever call myself this.  Or think it’s cool to call someone else this.

However the idea isn’t a bad one.  Indeed, it might be a really healthy compromise between the extremes of a very heavy meat-based diet and a completely plant-based diet.  I mean, you get the dietary best of both worlds.  You’re not eliminating any food group from the menu – which is always a mistake, in my opinion.  On the other hand, you’re not eating too much of any one food group – which is also a mistake.   Plus you’re getting all the vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants, essential fatty acids, and proteins necessary for optimal functioning.

The phrase – moderation in all things – is one that’s often kicked around in dietary circles.  However, maybe these flexitarians are the only ones getting close to this idea of moderation.  They’re sampling from nature’s bounty of veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, grains, and yes, animals.  And that seems like the healthiest diet of all to me.

In PN V4 we describe it as “a plant-based diet supplemented with eggs and meat”.  And until someone comes up with something better than “flexitarian”, I’m sticking with that as a description – and as my own personal way of eating.

Well, sorta.  After all, I’ve got a few weeks more of this vegan-like thing.

My plant-based dinner
My plant-based dinner

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