Vegetarian diet

As a nutritionist I am regularly approached by concerned parents, often of teenage animal-rights fans, worried about their child’s recent conversion to vegetarianism and their refusal of the daily flesh portion. It’s not only parents of teenage children who are worried, though. The question of the soundness of a vegetarian diet comes up again and again in most talks I give. A number of people say they have grown to dislike meat over the years and are eating less of it, but they are worried about nutrient deficiencies. I can’t avoid feeling that in most people’s minds the word ‘vegetarian’ equates with an unbalanced or unhealthy form of eating.

So what is it that sends nervous shivers up our back at the thought of abandoning meat? There may be several answers to this question. Meat has constituted a part of the human diet for ever; at times our very survival must have depended on animal flesh, especially during icy periods when little or nothing of the plant kingdom was growing. Over time, as man settled down and agriculture started developing, crops became our staple food. Gradually meat acquired the status of ‘special occasion’ food (most people could not afford it daily) or the ‘food of the rich’, making it more desired. Some of these ancient connotations no doubt still linger in the back of our mind; most of us would not as much as dream of serving a vegetarian meal when entertaining, lest we be seen to be economising…

Meat growers and manufacturers have been quick to leverage these subconscious images. We are brought up, with industry’s encouragement, to think that meat = protein = growth = health. The protein issue looms especially large (there is not one vegetarian who has not been asked: “but where do you get your protein?!”). I am repeatedly asked about the danger of children going without protein if they give up meat – so conditioned have we become to think of animal fresh as the only source of protein.

It’s possible to thrive and be healthy on a well balanced vegetarian diet just as much as (if not more so) it is on a meat-based one. Any diet, vegetarian or non-vegetarian, must be wholesome, balanced and individually suited to support your health. 

In truth, protein is one of the easiest nutrients to obtain, even from vegetarian sources. Unless you are an alcoholic or a complete sugar junkie, it would be very difficult for you to become protein deficient if your veggie diet is reasonable. In reality, we need surprisingly little protein. Breast milk, designed to double a baby’s weight within 6 months, contains only 6% protein (and sometimes even less) – and this at a time of substantial growth. It’s likely we need even less protein in times of slower growth or as adults. Most Western children and adults eat far too much protein – an average of 30% (!) of their daily calorie intake – and suffer the consequences.

It is not widely known that protein is easily available from vegetarian sources. The idea that meat is a good source of protein is based on trials done in rats some 100 years ago. Since then, the notion stuck that animal protein was ‘complete’ protein, containing all essential amino-acids in the right proportions. In fact, most whole grains and legumes contain sufficient amounts of protein to meet our daily requirements, even if some of their amino-acids are lower by comparison to meat. In other words, their protein levels may be lower by comparison, but they are still sufficient. In nutrition there’s no need to overload, because excess leads to disease. Sufficiency is better for us overall. A vegetarian eating a balanced diet can obtain all his or her necessary protein from plant sources without as much as thinking about it; if they eat eggs or dairy, protein is even less of an issue. We are brain washed to think otherwise, but the facts speak for themselves.

If you still have your doubts about the protein issue, consider that hundreds of millions of people around the world avoid meat altogether as a matter of choice, for instance for moral or religious reasons, like the Jains or many Hindus and Buddhists. These people are in no way less healthy than the average, animal-protein-eating Western consumer. It’s just a question of adopting a different outlook and letting go of the fear that no flesh equals no health. There’s nothing like fear to stop you in your tracks and prevent you from thinking straight.

When it comes to a different outlook, perhaps we should stop trying to prove that a vegetarian diet can be as good as a non-vegetarian one. It would be wrong to think of a vegetarian diet as some kind of a passable compromise, because a vegetarian diet carries some very positive benefits in its own right. A good vegetarian diet is likely to be

  • lighter and less stressful for the body to deal with;
  • more readily digested and absorbed, and therefore more nutritious;
  • lower in saturated fat; and
  • devoid of excess animal protein, a major cause of calcium loss, osteoporosis and other degenerative diseases.

Time and again research has shown that vegetarians suffer less from many of the diseases associated with the typical Western diet, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and chronic digestive disorders. A good vegetarian diet reflects most of the dietary recommendations for healthy eating, being high in fibre, fresh fruit and vegetables and complex carbohydrates, and being low in saturated fat. If anything, it’s time plant foods are seen to be superior rather than inferior to animal foods.

Let me assure you that by writing this article I have no intention to be a vegetarian missionary. Although I myself am vegetarian, it is not an issue to me if my clients want to have meat as part of their balanced diet (although I would urge them to have organic, non-processed meat for both their sake and that of the animals). The emphasis remains, as always, on the word ‘balanced’. You’d be wrong to assume that simply because you eat meat, you’re automatically healthier than a vegetarian person. You’d be equally wrong to assume that simply because you are vegetarian, you’re automatically granted a higher health grading. In both cases, the diet as a whole must be looked at as well as the extent to which it is suitable for that particular person. This is where many people, especially teenagers, go wrong.

For many teenagers going off meat is a moral issue– the respect and care for animals. This is a fine ethical choice. Strangely, however, when it comes to the dining table these lofty ideals are frequently translated into a free license to indulge in earthy portions of cheesy pasta and fast pizza washed down with generous amounts of fizzy pop (or beer). That would be wrong, and should indeed be a cause for concern for any parent – not because of the lack of meat, but because of the very unbalanced nature of such a diet. You need to know how to eat as a vegetarian just as much as you need to know how to eat as an omnivore. Whichever choice you make, make it an informed one. Educate yourself about your general needs and find out for yourself, or with help, what works better or less well for you. Don’t believe everything you hear; check where the information comes from and who is feeding you it. There’s nothing wrong about questioning commonly held beliefs, and in the age of the internet, there’s also nothing easier to do.

To summarise, there is more than one way in which to eat just as there is more than one way to speak, dress and learn. Including meat in one’s diet is by no means a guarantee for well balanced nutrition. It’s possible to thrive and be healthy on a well balanced vegetarian diet just as much as (if not more so) it is on a meat-based one. Meat or no meat, the message is the same. Any diet, vegetarian or non-vegetarian, must be wholesome, balanced and individually suited to support your health and functioning to the full. This is the goal you should set your eyes on.

© Vardit Kohn, November 2005.   No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written consent.

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