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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014

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In Living

Whether or not a vegetarian diet is healthy is a toss up.

"Reformed vegetarians" speak out


The term "vegetarian," in most cases, is a misnomer because the term means a "plant-based diet" and people who refrain from meat eating usually consume more than vegetables. And yet, many people embrace the word, so much so that for some, it becomes a part of their identity.

"Vegetarians" also serves as a catch-all phrase for people with very different diets. The strictest vegetarians are vegans – those who do not eat any foods that come from an animal including meat, poultry, fish, dairy products and eggs. A lacto-vegetarian includes dairy products in their diets; a pesco-vegetarian – sometimes referred to as a "pescatarian" – eats fish and dairy products; and finally, semi-vegetarians eat primarily a meat-free diet but will "cheat" a little and either occasionally eat meat or consume, for example, beans made with animal lard or vegetable soups made with chicken stock.

Like all diets, a vegetarian diet is only healthy if people follow the rules of a nutritionally-balanced diet which includes the nutrients that one might miss by giving up animal foods. A vegetarian diet can be unhealthy if the diet consists of lots of starches and if meat items are simply replaced with soy foods.

Mary Paul is a nutritional consultant and personal trainer currently living in Minneapolis. She says people should listen to their bodies, experiment with different diets and above all, don't commit to a diet based on philosophical beliefs alone.

"If a person finds the meat industry problematic, jumping into a vegetarian lifestyle is only the right choice if it feels right," she says. "Giving your body what it needs to function properly is the most important key to a satisfying life. Everything else needs to come second."

For some, the vegetarian diet just doesn't work and they fall into the category that's sometimes, lightheartedly, called "reformed vegetarians."

Katie Cross was a vegetarian for six years, but jokingly refers to herself as having been a "Boca-tarian." She says she ate Boca products (soy burgers, "chicken" patties and sausages) almost every day of her life because she didn't like most vegetables and wanted to avoid cheese, which is high in fat. However, when she started having severe stomach aches and bloating, she did some research and realized her high soy intake was not healthy, nor was she eating a balanced diet, so she started eating turkey and fish.

"I felt a lot better," she says. "Once again, moderation is the key. I really thought I was 'being healthy' by not eating meat."

Anne Maedke, a chiropractor, was a vegetarian for several years, but she says it simply did not feel like the right diet. She says having access to well-raised meat helped her make the decision to become a carnivore again.

"Otherwise I might have stayed a vegetarian," she says.

Paula Biasi, age 33, was a vegetarian from the time she was 17 until 29. Biasi, who is a dancer and a yoga / pilates instructor, started riding her bike as her main form of transportation. Not long after, she started to question her vegetarian diet.

"I was bruising easily, and not able to maintain the energy I needed to meet my lifestyle," says Biasi. "And I started craving meat."

Biasi says she resisted the craving for a while because one of the main ethical practices of yoga is Ahimsa, which means non-violence. A vegetarian diet emulated this practice.

"I was afraid of being hypocritical and of being judged. But then my friend and acupuncturist, who is a carnivore, said 'if the Dalai Lama can eat meat so can I,'" she says. "That stuck with me. I realized that I needed to take care of myself so I had energy to take care of other people."

For her first meat meal, Bisasi ate sausage from Whole Foods. "It was so good. I haven't looked back since," she says.

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