There seems to be new diet trends popping up every time you open the refrigerator, but no extreme eating regimen sticks out more than the Atkins Diet. The carb-phobic diet book was written in the ‘70s and got insanely popular in the ‘90s; since then, people have obsessed over their meat intake. And lately, we’ve been hearing far too much about meat-only diets—and a little less about vegetarian diets. But is there any weight to either of these eating ways? Is one better than the other? To answer these questions (and more!) we spoke with Ruth Frechman, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, and looked at the facts.
Meat is the best source of protein, which the body needs to function optimally. Red meat is also a good source of iron, vitamin B, riboflavin, thiamin and niacin.
“Meats have high levels of saturated fat and can raise cholesterol,” Frechman says. Because of it’s high-fat content, red meat has been linked to heart disease, cancer and diabetes. And processed meat is loaded with sodium, which can raise blood pressure. Although it’s often thought of as the healthier option, chicken and turkey have been found to be more strongly associated with weight gain than eating red or processed meat, a new study finds.
“If you’re just eating protein, you’re not getting carbohydrates, which you need for energy, so instead you’re burning fat,” Frechman adds. But that’s not as good as it sounds—this process is called ketosis and it can result in muscle and joint pain. High-protein diets can also result in a strain on your kidneys and dehydration. “You’ll lose water from your muscles and lose muscle mass.”
Still not convinced that your body needs veggies? New findings show that even early Neanderthals ate—and cooked—vegetables. Archaeobiologists at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. have found remnants of date palms, seeds and legumes (including peas and beans) stuck in the teeth of Neanderthals, who were once thought to be strictly meat-eating humans.
Vegetarians generally have a lower risk of developing high blood pressure, several forms of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity because these diets are usually lower in fat and higher in fiber. Vegetarians as a group are often healthier, as they tend to be nonsmokers and drink less alcohol.
A vegetarian diet will result in a quicker weight loss because it tends to be low in calories. “You may loose weight but you also may lack energy,” says Frechman. You’ll get more vitamins, minerals and nutrients but you probably won’t get enough calcium (from diary) or essential fatty acids (from fish) or folic acid (from grains). Also noticeably absent from most vegetarian menus: Protein, which protects your immune system and builds muscle mass. “If you’re on a vegetarian diet long enough, you could suffer from malnutrition.”
That’s not to say that an all-vegetarian diet can’t be done—people clearly do it. You just need to work harder to make sure you’re getting a balance of all the necessary vitamins.
“Both of these diets would be lacking nutrients, but the vegetarian diet would at least have a few more nutrients,” Frechman says reluctantly, after we forced her to choose a lesser of two evils. But she’s quick to add: “I don’t see any pluses for either of these diets.” Your body needs a balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats. “Any diet with less calories than normal will cause weight loss,” Frechman begins. “That’s the only positive thing with either of these, but really, they’re unhealthy, short-term fixes.”
The American Cancer Society suggests that each of your meals be two-thirds plant-based. That means the bulk of breakfast, lunch and dinner should be made up of fruits, vegetables, beans or grains. The other one-third should be meat (about three ounces per meal and no more than 18 ounces each week). When picking meat, choose the leanest cuts of meat and opt for low-fat cooking methods (such as baking instead of frying), and keep processed meats (yes, even pepperoni!) at a minimum, as they’re high in sodium.
When it comes to veggies, you want to eat about 2 ½ cups a day—or 17 ½ cups each week. “For balance, eat 1 ½ cups of dark-green vegetables, 5 ½ cups of red and orange vegetables, 1 ½ cups of beans and peas, 5 ½ cups of starchy vegetables and 4 cups other types of vegetables in a week,” says Frechman