Kat Saks grew up in Montana, where meat was always on the table. In fact, she had never considered not eating meat. But when she began yoga teacher training at Laughing Lotus Yoga Center in Manhattan and her instructor mentioned that vegetarianism was one way to practice ahimsa, the yogic principle of nonharming, she decided to try it for the duration of the program."I wasn't confident I would make it through the four months," she admits.
Saks's journey to vegetarianism was not without setbacks. In the first few weeks, she struggled with cravings, even "slipping" once and eating a piece of chicken. But as the months went by, she felt transformed. "I noticed a significant shift in my mood and emotions, and a general lightness of being on my mat—I felt more fluidity of movement, and everything was just a little bit easier," she says.
Almost two years later, Saks, 27, is fully committed to a vegetarian lifestyle, in which spinach, beans, and grains like quinoa have become the new staples in her diet. "I fell in love with it after a while," Saks says. "I was skeptical at first, but practice is believing."
Many students find that yoga and vegetarianism go well together; ahimsa, a central tenet of classical yoga, is often used as an argument against eating meat—and, some argue, against the consumption of any animal products. And it's not just yogis who are giving up meat. About 3 percent of Americans don't eat meat or fish (including the less than 1 percent who are vegan, eschewing eggs, dairy, and honey as well), according to a 2009 poll conducted by Harris Interactive for the nonprofit Vegetarian Resource Group. Many more are striving to eat less meat. Another poll, conducted in 2008, found that a full 10 percent of Americans have considered going vegetarian.
Be The Change
From a health standpoint, there is good reason to consider plant-based eating. Vegetarian diets are associated with a number of health advantages, including lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels, compared with meat-based diets. Vegetarians are less prone to cancer, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes, according to the American Dietetic Association. On average, they also have a lower body mass index.
Even in the city of Chicago, famous for its Polish sausage and Italian beef sandwiches, government officials extol the health benefits of eating less meat. For the past three years, Terry Mason, MD, Chicago's health commissioner, has given up meat for the month of January, encouraging residents to do the same. Last year, Mason, a urologist who suffers from high cholesterol and had a coronary stent implanted in 2005, went even further and gave up meat for seven months—and is now working toward giving it up for good. "I'm going to focus on eating a healthy and delicious variety of fresh fruits and vegetables," he says.
As awareness grows about the personal health benefits of eating less meat, so too do concerns about the ethical and environmental implications of a meat-based diet. The average American consumes an astonishing 31 land animals per year, and at least that many crabs, lobsters, and fish, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
"Most farm animals are raised in factory farms, industrialized large-scale facilities where they suffer immensely," says Paul Shapiro, a spokesman for the organization. "To the extent that we reduce the consumption of animals, we reduce an enormous amount of suffering."
Many yoga practitioners are taking that to heart. "I can't even imagine going back to eating meat," says Diana Rein, 32, who lives in Los Angeles and has been a vegetarian for more than two years. After a few months of practicing vinyasa yoga daily and listening to her teachers talk about ahimsa, meat became unappetizing. "Something clicked," she says. "It was strange, but I haven't wanted it since."
Some say that this kind of shift in awareness about the connection between what's on your plate and its impact on the world around you is common when you commit to a regular yoga practice. "The goal of yoga is to dissolve the state of exclusive, individual reality into one that's inclusive, or one consciousness,"says Los Angeles yoga teacher and former Vedic monk Steve Ross. "From this nondual way of looking at things, everything is a part of you. When you realize this, you don't want to harm any being or any form."
This feeling of connectedness often extends to a desire to care for the environment, and there's growing evidence that what's on the other end of your fork has far-reaching implications for the health of the planet. Raising animals for slaughter contributes to land erosion and water pollution. And a seminal 2006 United Nations report found that, globally, livestock and dairy farming produce more greenhouse gas emissions than transportation. Two engineering professors at Carnegie Mellon University calculated that a person choosing to eat a plant-based diet rather than meat just one day per week would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the same amount as driving 1,000 fewer miles per year. Going entirely vegan would be equivalent to driving 8,000 fewer miles per year.
Whether you want to live longer, strive to eat more in accordance with the principles of ahimsa, or hope to lighten your environmental footprint, there are plenty of reasons to give up or eat less meat. But you also need to make sure that you're getting enough of the key nutrients such as protein, iron, calcium, and B-12 vitamins.
"Deciding to be a vegetarian doesn't mean that you're going to be healthy," says Keri Gans, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and a registered dietitian in Manhattan. "I've had young women coming in with their hair falling out because they're not eating a well-balanced vegetarian diet."
Laura Valle, 37, an American who lives in Selfkant-Höngen, Germany, and practices Ashtanga Yoga, dabbled with vegetarianism at different points in her life for both health and ethical reasons. But even after adopting the diet full-time in 2007, she found herself living on the vegetables and starches she prepared, but not adding anything extra to accommodate her new diet. Soon, she was constantly hungry and craving salt and junk food.
"I wasn't making balanced meals," she says. She studied up on nutrition for vegetarians through books, DVDs, and podcasts and began adding whole grains, beans, and things like tempeh, a soy protein, to her diet. "I realized I had to have a better range of foods to eat," she says. "And then I just started to feel great."
Around this time, a bout of adult acne led her to also give up dairy (which she says cleared the condition), and soon thereafter, she cast eggs out of her diet to become vegan. Her husband followed suit a few months later.
According to the American Dietetic Association, a well-planned vegetarian diet can meet all your basic nutritional needs without requiring vitamin supplementation. But your needs will vary depending on your eating habits and your body's specific requirements. For example, pregnant women require extra calcium, protein, folate, and iron, and children typically need proportionately more calcium than adults. Vegans, who don't get vitamin B-12 in their diets, should consider taking a supplement or eating fortified foods, including some soymilks and cereals.
In general, a healthful vegetarian diet will include plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein such as beans and tofu as well as sources of heart-healthy fats, such as avocados, nuts, and olive oil, Gans says. Whatever you do, don't replace the meat in your diet with heaping bowls of mac and cheese or slices of pizza. Common pitfalls for new vegetarians include eating too much saturated fat in the form of full-fat cheese or filling up on low-fiber carbohydrates.
If you include processed foods in your diet (such as veggie burgers or frozen organic dinners), be sure to check the sodium content, which can be just as high as in the meat versions.
Take It Slow
If you haven't yet made the switch to a plant-based diet but are curious, you might want to consider trying it for a month, like Chicago's Dr. Mason—or even one day a week. Meatless Monday, for example, a popular initiative backed by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, works to inspire Americans to do just that for the sake of their health and that of the planet.
The good news is that in recent years it's gotten a lot easier to make the change to a plant-based diet. "Five years ago, if you wanted soymilk, you had to go to Whole Foods. Now, you've got Ralph's, Albertson's, and Safeway asking: "What kind?" says Nancy Berkoff, a registered dietitian in Long Beach, California.
Whatever the motivation, new and aspiring vegetarians should be gentle with themselves as they strive to give up meat. "Very few people become vegetarians overnight. It all depends on what they ate to begin with," says Berkoff. "Usually, it's a gradual process."
When Diana Rein, who is training to become a yoga teacher, first went vegetarian, she found she gained weight because she was eating a lot of stuff she hadn't previously indulged in—including sweets and foods made with refined flours. "I just thought, 'This is vegetarian,'" she says. Over time, however, her tastes have changed. "It's hard at first to clean up your diet, but once you do, you really do stop craving the other stuff that you thought you wanted."
Getting What You Need
According to nutritionists, it's easy to get almost everything you need from a plant-based diet. Here's how some common nutrients measure up.
Protein provides the amino acids essential for the growth and repair of tissue. The average American woman needs about 60 grams (g) per day. Men need about 70. One cup of cooked beans has about 15 g; a cup of barley, 11 g; a cup of cottage cheese has 15 g; and a cup of soybeans, about 22 g. If all your protein comes from plant-based sources, make sure you eat a variety of these foods every day, to ensure that you get the correct balance of amino acids your body requires.
A deficiency of this mineral limits the delivery of oxygen to the cells, leading to fatigue and brain fog as well as to decreased immunity. Men need 8 milligrams (mg) per day, while women need 18 mg, and pregnant women need 27 mg. There are plenty of plant-based iron-rich options: Nuts, tofu, dark leafy greens, and lentils are good sources. (Pairing these with foods high in vitamin C, such as tomatoes, peppers, and citrus fruit, will increase iron absorption.) And many breakfast cereals are fortified with it.
B-12 is vital for the maintenance of nerve and red blood cells, and it's used to make DNA. Both men and women should get 2.4 micrograms daily. While it's abundant in fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, it's not present in plant-based foods. However, some breakfast cereals, like Kashi's Heart to Heart, are fortified with B-12. Silk and organic Wildwood soymilks both offer 50 percent of the recommended daily value per serving. Some rice drinks and veggie burgers are fortified with it as well. And Red Star Vegetarian Support Formula nutritional yeast supplies the recommended daily intake in about two teaspoonfuls.
Most vegetarians get a similar amount of calcium in their diet as meat eaters do, but vegans (who don't eat dairy products) tend to get less, so they might consider taking a supplement to make up the difference. The recommended daily intake of calcium for most men and women is 1,000 mg. A cup of plain low-fat yogurt has roughly 448 mg; a cup of nonfat milk has 316 mg. One cup of steamed collard greens has 266 mg, and a cup of calcium-fortified orange juice has 300 mg. Look for calcium-fortified soymilk and tofu, too. As for supplements, be aware that, unless specified, many multi-vitamins provide only a small amount of calcium.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for cardiovascular, eye, and brain health. But if you don't eat fish, your diet may be low in two important ones, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
The World Health Organization recommends 0.3 to 0.5 grams daily of both for men and women. Another important omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, is abundant in plant sources such as flaxseed, walnuts, soy, and canola oil. Aim for 1 to 2 grams per day. (The body can manufacture EPA and DHA from vegetarian ALA sources, although you'll need a lot more.)
Algae supplements provide some DHA, and so do eggs from hens fed an omega-3-rich diet. Udo's Oil DHA 3-6-9 Blend provides a balance of vegetarian omega-3 and omega-6 oils, with DHA from farmed red-brown algae. The good news is that while vegetarians who don't eat fish may miss out on the heart-healthy benefits of EPA, their cardiovascular health is on average superior to that of meat eaters.
Katharine Mieszkowski is a freelance writer in Kensington, California.