In last week’s post, we touched on some of the challenges associated with a recent set of workshops – talking “Paleo” principles to both meat-eaters and vegetarians at The Mat Yoga Studio in Richardson, TX. If you’ve been reading our articles or have done your own Whole30 program, you know exactly why we believe grains, dairy and legumes make you less healthy. However, as those food groups are often the very foundation of a vegetarian’s diet, relaying that material at a yoga studio doesn’t exactly make us popular. And if those same vegetarians are then slammed with the next portion of our presentation (which starts with, “Eat meat…”), well… that has the potential to bring the entire workshop to a crashing halt.
Enter almost any CrossFit gym and you’ll find that the concept of “avoid grains, soy, dairy and beans” is pretty old news. To most yogis, however, that is essentially brand new – and terrifying – information. Studio owner Becky Strahan sent us a note a few weeks prior to the workshop, asking us to approach this issue with sensitivity during our workshops. She wrote, “A few of my instructors (vegetarians) have talked to nutritionists who basically told them flat out that the vegetarian choice is wrong. They felt their choices weren’t honored in any way, and were pretty offended.”
Trying to present our material in a manner that was gentle yet effective was a challenge we took very seriously, and undertook carefully. For those of you faced with similar challenges – how to present your nutritional choices to friends and family in a sensitive manner – we’re happy to share our approach with you. While this particular subject matter is specific to vegetarians, our strategy could be employed with anyone who is reluctant to listen, skeptical of the information provided or defensive about their current dietary practices.
The first thing we asked of the group was simply WHY they became vegetarian. There are a number of reasons commonly cited, and knowing the person’s thought process is helpful when determining how to approach the subject of nutrition. In the course of our consulting, we’ve heard a number of common responses to the vegetarian question, including, “It feels healthier”, “It’s what everybody is doing” (common with teenagers), “I’m concerned for the environment and animal welfare”, and “I have moral/ethical issues with consuming animal products.”
The first two motives are the easiest to address. If the person is omitting animal products from their diet for generally vague “health” reasons, then our approach is simple. We carefully explain how grains, dairy and beans make them less healthy, and why adding dense protein sources back into their diets makes them more healthy. We’ve had great success with this approach – if these clients are willing to try it for themselves, the self-observed benefits of making these dietary changes quickly speak for themselves.
The third reason (environmental concerns) is a bit trickier to address. In this instance, we’ll spend some time figuring out if the person is open to incorporating some animal products back into their diet. If so, we then show them how to do so in a manner that is morally, ethically and socially responsible, being conscious of the environment, sustainability and animal welfare. We also give them some advice for making the transition back into a carnivorous diet a bit easier, both mentally and physically.
The last motive cited (a non-negotiable perspective) is the most complicated to address, and requires the most sensitivity. If a person’s reasons for becoming vegetarian stem from firmly rooted moral, ethical or religious beliefs, then as a friend, coach or counselor, you must honor and respect those choices. In this situation, all we can do is educate them on the health challenges they may face, and offer what we would consider their “best available” food choices and nutritional practices. As each individual has different self-imposed dietary restrictions (vegetarian, vegan, or raw, for example) and various degrees to which they will “flex” their preferences, our specific recommendations will be different for everyone. But from our perspective, all of our vegetarian dietary recommendations are simply designed to limit the damage, without expectations that this person will thrive to the same degree as their meat-eating counterparts. It’s a tough balance – we don’t want to preach, scold or scorn, but we also have a responsibility not to whitewash our material. (After all, they’re paying us for our opinions and guidance.) So we simply offer references, resources and best-practice options, and allow the vegetarian to make his or her own educated food choices.
After the workshops, Becky wrote, “I’d say you were honest about the effect of foods that vegetarians typically rely on, you made good suggestions for steps toward better choices, and were very careful to work within the constraints the individuals set for themselves. You presented useful, practical information in an a direct and truthful manner, but were still very respectful (of their choices).” We thank Becky for her feedback, and hope that sharing our thought processes here gives our readers a better framework on which to base some of their own conversations.
Additional Resources: Struggling to explain your nutritional choices, or looking to convince friends and family to change some of their dietary habits? You’ll find additional helpful tips in our “How to Win Friends and Influence Paleo” article.