Hair loss, chronic exhaustion and even mental breakdowns: How three women ruined their health by giving up MEAT
- Debbie Dixon, 35, was scared when she discovered her hair was falling out
- The photographer, from London, put symptoms down to her busy career
- But when she went to the doctor she found her meat-free diet was to blame
Debbie Dixon realised something was seriously wrong when her hair started falling out. 'It was very thin and flyaway and, when you lifted up my fringe, I looked almost bald,' says the 35-year-old mother-of-one.
Over the next few months, Debbie's nails started flaking away and she was constantly white-faced with exhaustion.
She put her tiredness down to her active lifestyle and busy job in photography.
Marie Ashton, 41, from Hove, realised her vegetarian lifestyle was ruining her health when she fell pregnant
But as her symptoms got ever more severe over the course of a year, she became scared. 'Some nights, I'd turn in at 9pm, so tired I could hardly get up the stairs,' she says.
'I struggled to focus - everything felt hazy and I couldn't concentrate. When I finally went to the GP, he booked me an emergency hospital appointment and asked: “Do you eat meat?”
'Suddenly, it all fell into place. I had cut back on meat two years before and realised it had ruined my health.'
According to nutritionists, Debbie, who lives in London, is one of many women who may be putting their health - and their happiness - at risk by eating restrictive diets that limit or cut out meat, and failing to replace the nutrients it provides.
And it's an increasing problem. Thanks to the rising inclination to go 'meat-free' some of the time, as popularised by Paul and Stella McCartney's Meat Free Monday campaign, as well as warnings over the saturated fat in red meat, more and more women are reducing the amount the eat.
Market research firm Mintel found nearly a quarter of people have cut their intake, while 10 per cent now eat little or no meat.
Marie feels far better since going back to eating meat, after living as a vegetarian for two decades
Meanwhile, more than a quarter of people say they eat less meat than they did five years ago. However, this can have severe consequences. From protein to iron, meat contains nutrients essential for women's health, particularly in middle age. It's possible to replace these with a vegetarian diet, but it means carefully monitoring what you eat.
For Debbie, limiting meat left her seriously deficient in iron. 'I had really embraced cutting back on meat and felt very virtuous,' she says.
'I've never been overweight, but thought this was a great way of staying slim and fit.
Marie says she knew 'instinctively' that her diet was bad for her health, and the health of her baby
'However, when I went to hospital, they found my iron levels were catastrophically low. I was kept in for a few hours and given rehydration salts, then was on huge doses of iron for around six months, with very unpleasant side-effects.
'Within a week, I felt better, and my energy - and hair - gradually returned. Now, I eat meat twice a day: everything from steak to chicken. I'll never give it up again.'
And Debbie's not alone. 'One in ten UK women is iron-deficient,' says Dr Carrie Ruxton, a dietitian and member of the Meat Advisory Panel. 'It's been proven that even people on very good meat-free diets have low iron levels and so might experience tiredness, loss of cognitive function and breathlessness.
'Vegetarians can find it difficult to get vitamin B12, which we need for energy release; zinc, for immunity; vitamin D, for mood; and omega-3 fatty acids, which are vital for everything from brain to heart health.'
She adds: 'Particular times when women may be at risk of iron deficiency are during puberty, pregnancy and any time when menstruation is heavy, such as when approaching menopause.
'The type of iron we get from red meat, haem iron, is the most readily absorbed by the body. Meat provides the quickest way to get your iron levels back up.'
Protein is also vital for women, says independent dietitian Laura Clark. The average woman needs 45g daily. You could get this from 100g chicken breast and one egg, or over 200g almonds: more than 1,000 calories.
Marie, 41, (right) and Enid, 59, (left) are two of the many more women than men who give up meat
'If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, your daily protein need rises to around 51g,' she says. 'And women over 50 need 46.5g to cope with a loss of muscle mass, called sarcopenia, that comes with age, as protein helps build lean muscle.' This will help protect older women against falls and fractures, says Dr Ruxton.
'If you eliminate meat, you cut a significant selection of food,' says Laura Clark. 'To be a healthy and happy vegetarian, you have to shop well and like cooking.'
That is what Enid Taylor, 59, tried to be - but she found cutting back on meat negatively affected her social life. 'I'd read a vegan diet would make me feel more alert, lighter and generally more healthy,' says the naturopath from Camberley, Surrey.
At first Enid enjoyed her weight loss but was upset when she realised the diet was causing her friends stress
'At first, I enjoyed the food. I lost weight and felt good.' But Enid, a size 12, also began to feel isolated.
'The diet became harder to follow,' she says. 'Not feeling like I could participate fully in social gatherings, such as going out for dinner, was putting a barrier between me and those I loved.' The turning point came at Christmas 2011, when her eldest daughter Melissa, now 40, came to her in a panic about what to cook.
'It showed me how much stress I'd caused to those around me, as well as myself. So I replied: “How about turkey and all the trimmings?” I saw her shoulders drop and realised what a relief my words had been.
'Now, I still eat lots of veg, but I'm convinced we need some animal protein: it's better for the diversity of gut bacteria. And I enjoy social gatherings again. Health is more than physical - it is emotional, mental and social, too.'
Dr Ruxton isn't surprised that Enid struggled to keep up her restrictive diet. 'While I'd never tell a vegetarian or vegan to eat meat, I would impress on them the seriousness of a restrictive diet,' she says. 'If it was a decision for health, I'd try to put them off. It's not healthier, just harder.'
Four million people in the UK are vegetarians - this includes twice as many women as men.
Indeed, despite studies linking red and processed meat with bowel cancer, Dr Ruxton points out two recent studies that have shown rates of bowel cancer to be similar in vegetarians and meat-eaters.
'We know if you take a balanced plant-based diet - low in fat, sodium and alcohol - and add a healthy amount of lean red meat, grilled, you get the same results in terms of lowered cholesterol, blood pressure and weight,' she says.
'Meat isn't the issue, it's processed foods and sedentary lifestyles.'
She adds: 'We're advised to stick to 70g of red meat a day, but that's less a limit, more a requirement.
'This is what the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition say is what we need to meet our iron requirements. UK women eat an average 56g red meat daily, so you could argue we all need more.'
Enid is thrilled to have embraced meat again and is convinced it has done wonders for her inner health
Marie Ashton, 41, also feels in far better health since going back to eating meat. A vegetarian for 20 years, the charity co-ordinator, from Hove, Sussex, abandoned the lifestyle when she became pregnant.
'In 2008, I was expecting my son Connor, now six,' she says. 'I know pregnancy makes you tired, but I was a wreck. We went to a festival and I was so exhausted I barely had the energy to walk around. It felt like I was having some sort of breakdown.'
Marie instinctively felt her diet was no longer providing the nutrients she needed. 'On the way home, we stopped at a pub for food,' she says. 'I looked at the menu, saw lamb pie and thought: “I'm having that.”
'I know the craving was my body telling me I needed red meat, and I felt much better. After that, I would buy steak for dinner every Friday.'
Then, Marie's son was delivered by Caesarean. She lost so much blood, she almost needed a transfusion.
'When I got home, my sister-in-law made us a vegetable pasta dish, which the old me would have loved.
'But I couldn't eat it. I sent my partner out for steak. If my baby needed the nutrients while inside me, he'd need to continue getting them through my breast milk.'
Many vegetarians feel passionately that avoiding meat is best for you. But for some women, a plant-based diet is too hard on their health, as actress Geraldine James, star of the BBC's recent Mapp And Lucia series, found when she cut out meat for a few months.
'It was fantastic, I loved it,' says the 65-year-old. 'Then my doctor said: “You need to eat meat.” When you're in your 60s, you need more protein.'
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