If this was a newspaper, this post would akin to a “Letter to the Editor”. I’m not a dietician, nor do I play one on TV. The opinions I express are just that, opinions, albeit backed by a certain amount of research. The question I’ve been pondering is what is the best sustainable dietary regime for long-term health and athletic performance? Vegan, Vegetarian or Omnivore?
I want to establish a baseline first. We’re not talking about junk food aka processed food. The first rule, whatever the dietary regime, is to eat food that for the most part you’ve cooked from scratch. There are plenty of processed vegan and vegetarian “food” available these days (not exactly progress but at least a sign those markets are growing). Plenty of junk food is technically vegan which proves little except that whatever ones’ reasons and/or dogma for eating a certain way, it’s crucial to make wise food choices. Eating lots of processed “food like” products is not what our bodies are designed for. Another absolute must is to buy organic as much as possible, financially and practically speaking. If you are an omnivore, your meat must be organic. Finally, buy local produce as much as possible as fresher produce is more nutritious and it’s better for the environment.
My very unscientific meta-analysis of roughly 3 years of reading published studies and books, watching related TED Talks and YouTube videos has led me to 1 major conclusion. If one steps off of the typical Western diet fun-ride of junk food, massive amounts of sugar, pesticide laden fruit and vegetables and hormone-ridden meat, the vast majority of people will enjoy improved health. They’ll lose weight, have increased energy, lower blood pressure and cancer risk, the works. The big take away is that we are ingesting a whole lot of low-grade poison. Generally speaking, people who label themselves vegan, vegetarian or omnivore are making conscious, informed decisions about what they eat. It’s not surprising, therefore, that study after study shows that that people who consciously follow these diets demonstrate better long-term health markers compared to the general populace.
As to whether 1 of those 3 diets is better than the others, I can only gather a few conclusions based on what I’ve read. The first is I haven’t seen conclusive proof of a clearly superior dietary choice that will work for absolutely everybody for the rest of their lives. Also, it’s ridiculous to opine that vegan or vegetarian diets aren’t good for optimal athletic performance in general and strength sports in particular. Any of these 3 diets, wisely chosen and tailored to the athlete, are valid. The only other clear evidence I’ve seen is that, due to many different factors, people metabolize food differently. If you and I eat 100 grams of rice, for example, my body will metabolize it differently from yours. Thus not all diets work everyone nor do all food choices work the same for everyone within a given diet.
I grew in a vegetarian household but the diet was not imposed on me as I got older. If I wanted to have meat, I was free to have it, typically chicken or goat. Provided we had the money, that is, which sometimes wasn’t the case.
The end result was that I ate a lot of the vegetables, fruit, grains, some dairy products and occasionally some meat. It was the “omnivore” diet decades before it became a thing. Later, as a busy young adult I switched over to the typical western diet because it was convenient. As a 20 something, I was still a lean, mean fighting machine but I couldn’t help but notice how horrible and lethargic I felt after some meals. As I got older, I learned to listen to my body and slowly reverted back to more “omnivore” diet. These days I’d characterize my diet as flexitarian: I eat mostly vegetables, fruit and nuts, some grain and dairy products, and finally meat or fish a few times a week. While it’s usually not a conscious decision, I might go a number of days consuming a vegan type diet, were it not for the milk in my coffee. Yes, I do sometimes use oat milk if I’m out of milk-milk.
I think it’s simple, buy ingredients, not “food” with ingredients. Fresh ingredients are great, but in a pinch frozen vegetables and fruits will do. An easy way of reducing meat intake is to only buy organic and local. Not only is it the logical, healthier choice, but it’s quite a bit more expensive, which makes it conscious, considered choice. One therefore tends to buy less of it, but appreciate it more because it’s special occasion.
Sometimes a little bit of hunger is not a bad thing. I remember a number of occasions in my teenage years when I was flat out hungry (mostly my own fault, long story) so my n’eer do well friends and I had to dodge and weave and hustle to score some cooked street food or few pieces of meat to make with rice and beans. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated any meals since, like I did for those when the outcome wasn’t exactly certain. Gratitude and appreciation for what you have makes the food taste much, much better. You have to work for it. Buy the best ingredients you can, and assemble the simple component ingredients into a meal by the alchemy like process called cooking. If you have the ability to do this – and share this meal with people you care about – that is something to be truly grateful for.