Vegetarianism: A Healthy Way of Life
Learn how to see.
Realise that everything
connects to everything else.
Leonardo da Vinci 8
In the past twenty years across much of the Western world, stereotypes of vegetarians have crumbled like week-old pastries. Skinny. Malnourished. Sickly. No, no, and no. Today, many people, even if they personally do not want to stop eating meat, acknowledge that eating less meat is healthy. Certainly vegetarians have an abundance of science to back them up. In 2004, the World Health Organization (WHO), working with the United Nations, issued a document titled “Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health” which stated that, across the globe, nations need to “increase consumption of fruits and vegetables and legumes, whole grains and nuts.”9 Doing so, the report states, is good for both the individual and the planet. We’ll explore how being vegetarian is good for our Earth further on in this book, but let’s begin with how it is good for humans.
Lowering the risk of chronic diseases
Heart attack, stroke, diabetes and various cancers are among the top ten deadliest diseases in our world.10 We have clear evidence that a plant-based or plant-and-dairy-based diet is a powerful tool in helping us avoid these illnesses. Health organizations, scientific studies, and governmental agencies are urging us to eat whole, plant-based foods. In doing so, we increase our chances of living longer and healthier lives and avoiding these killers as well as health problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, and food-borne diseases.11
We have a digital world and libraries full of books that verify the health benefits of a vegetarian diet. When we read the research, our understanding and commitment is often given a great boost. The following are a few suggestions:
- The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted by T. Colin Campbell, PhD and Thomas M. Campbell II, MD.12 Written in clear, informal language, this book examines a study done in the early 1970s involving 880 million Chinese citizens, a study ordered by Premier Chou En-lai as he was dying of cancer. It is a powerful and comprehensive indictment of diets rooted in meat and dairy products, based on “the most ambitious biomedical research project ever undertaken.”
- Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.13 A combination of storytelling and science, Foer’s work examines the “moral dimensions” and environmental consequences of our food choices. Be prepared for some difficult scenes as the author takes his readers into the reality of the lives and deaths of animals on factory farms and in the massive trawling nets of the fishing industry. While this text is informative for even long-time vegetarians, it may be most useful for those who are wondering why and how to create their own guidelines regarding eating animals.
- Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven, Nutrition-Based Cure by Caldwell Esselstyn, MD.14 Written by an internationally known surgeon, this book makes a case for both the prevention and possibly reversal of heart disease through diet and includes helpful vegetarian recipes.
- Cowspiracy, directed by Kip Anderson, is a movie that uses statistics from United Nations data and other reputable scientific sources to discuss the environmental devastation of meat production and the overfishing of our oceans. The film makes an excellent case for the claim that the single most important action anyone can take to help the Earth is to be vegetarian. Cowspiracy has its own website with an excellent ‘Facts’ section at http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/ and there is a companion e-book Sustainability Secret. All provide startling information on the ecological impact of animal agriculture.15 A successor film What the Health highlights the health issues.16
- Forks Over Knives, directed by Lee Fulkerson,17 “examines the profound claim that most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting animal-based and processed foods.”
In our search for vibrant health, what we choose to chew and swallow plays a major role. Our bodies need to constantly regenerate and repair themselves, a job that is much more difficult – and sometimes impossible – when we fill ourselves with fatty, processed, and sugary foods. On the other hand, reaching for the multitude of plants and fruits that fill our markets is a vital step towards glowing health. Over and over again, we’ve heard “We are what we eat.” Eating plants, which are naturally loaded with vitamins, minerals, and fibre, creates bodies filled with – guess what – vitamins, minerals, and fibre, all of which prevent and deter a host of diseases, including many of the most common and deadly.
Basic body design: built to be herbivores
Knowing that a plant-based diet is healthy may still leave a question about whether it’s natural for humans to thrive on a vegetarian diet. Are humans biologically herbivores, carnivores, or omnivores? Do we have physical characteristics most like those of the herbivores, the carnivores, or the omnivores found in the animal kingdom? By comparing the design of the human body with that of non-humans, perhaps we can answer this question.
Let’s start with our teeth. Of course, teeth are all about food, and we sometimes hear a justification for eating meat posed as: “That’s why we have canine teeth! To tear into meat like animals do!” But look up a few pictures of the mouths of herbivores like the hippopotamus or almost-herbivores like the gorilla (which is 98% herbivore, with a small percentage of insects added to the diet) and we find that these plant lovers have huge canines, which obviously aren’t in their mouths for ripping into meat. Yes, we have teeth labelled ‘canines’; so do other animals that are vegetarian. Human canines are much reduced in size, which allows for the side-to-side chewing motion seen in herbivores but not in carnivores or omnivores.18 Rather than having a mouthful of long, lethal canines useful in slashing meat or through the hides of prey, the few and comparatively blunt canines of humans are well adapted to crunching foods such as apples, nuts, and carrots.
In our search for vibrant health, what we choose to chew and swallow plays a major role.
Herbivorous animals, like humans, have differently hinged jaws that enable these side movements of chewing and grinding food thoroughly. The jaws of carnivores and omnivores “only open and shut in an up and down motion,” adding strength and stability to their bites through flesh.19 The mouths of plant-eating animals and humans also have well-developed salivary glands in order to predigest food. In addition, our saliva contains ptyalin, a chemical used to break down starches. Meat eating animals, however, lack ptyalin in their saliva because their digestion takes place predominantly in the stomach with strong hydrochloric acid.
As well as being very acidic – a condition which helps break down proteins and destroy bacteria living on decaying flesh – the stomachs of mammalian meat eaters are huge. Large stomach size works well for an animal that typically kills, on average, about once a week. Carnivores also have short intestines, allowing for quick expulsion of food, while the intestines of herbivorous animals and humans are much longer, giving more time for the complex breakdown of carbohydrates.
In addition, carnivores lap water with their tongues (think of a cat), while herbivores take liquids by suction. Imagine working outside on a hot day and then being offered a cool drink of water. Would you lap or gulp that water?
Carnivores don’t sweat through their skin, but rather control body heat through panting and rapid breathing. Humans and herbivores, such as horses, sweat through their skin.
Finally, the long teeth and retractable claws of carnivores are perfectly designed to help them chase, take down, and devour prey. Some herbivores such as rhinos and bulls are fierce and are equipped with intimidating weapons, but these are used in defence and/or in mating displays rather than as aids in running down prey. We humans are not physically well designed to chase down our food.
However, let’s be objective. With the ability to make tools and weapons and to build fires, perhaps it could be argued that humans can eat meat without being physically adapted to killing and eating raw flesh.20 We can make weapons to kill animals and fire to cook the raw meat that would putrify in our long intestines if left uncooked. Certainly, we could make such an argument, but what we can’t reasonably do is declare that human bodies are designed, by either evolution or a Creator, to capture, devour, and digest meat.
What about dairy products?
Cold milk. Creamy yogurt. Cucumber raita. Those are just the beginning of the very long list we could make of delicious foods made from the milk of cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and other animals. Hundreds of different cheeses, ghee, ice cream, whipped cream, clotted cream, lassi, and kefir are also produced from various kinds of milk. Lacto-vegetarians eat and drink these foods because animals are not killed to obtain them. For many people, especially small dairy farmers and village dwellers, dairy products are relatively inexpensive sources of protein and calcium.
Yet the issues around the production and use of dairy products, especially from cows, are sometimes troubling. The health benefits, environmental costs, and ethical issues deserve a closer look, and then individuals can make informed decisions. Everyone has the right to choose how strict he or she wants to be, where their parameters lie. But we can develop those parameters with open eyes, understanding what our choices involve and support.
Everyone has the right to choose how strict he or she wants to be, where their parameters lie. But we can develop those parameters with open eyes, understanding what our choices involve and support.
If we’re using dairy products, let’s make sure that the nutrition we’re getting is as clean as possible. A growing concern regarding dairy products and health is the use of antibiotics and hormones to treat diseases and increase milk production in non-organic dairy animals, especially cows. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone or Somatotropin (rBGH or rBST), a genetically modified version of a hormone that cows naturally produce, is administered to cows to increase milk production beyond normal levels. These higher levels of production come at a cost to the cow. One of the many problems they contribute to is mastitis, an infection of the udder. To counter the mastitis, antibiotics are routinely used. Because of possible links to several cancers in humans and because of the harmful effects on dairy animals, rBGH is banned in the European Union, Canada, Australia, and numerous other countries. In the United States, this artificial growth hormone and the accompanying use of antibiotics continues on some non-organic dairy farms.28
Supporters of organic dairy practices tell us that it really is possible to treat animals better and to have healthier milk. For example, problems with mastitis could be reduced by better diets, cleaner housing, more space, and less automated milking.29 Efforts in the USA are currently focused on creating genetically modified cows resistant to mastitis.30 We know that steps to improve the lives of animals and increase the safety of our food generally come with an increased cost, and as consumers, we have to make choices that consider our priorities and our budget.
The standards for humane and healthy treatment of dairy animals vary. Of serious concern in India are cattle left to forage for themselves who graze from rubbish dumps and eat plastic bags. One study of milk in Uttar Pradesh revealed dairy contaminated with detergent, starch, and artificial whitener.31 The increase in dairy factories – as opposed to farms – around the world has bred a range of problems. Animals kept indoors all year round can become lame, develop mastitis, and show unnaturally aggressive behaviour. Yet factory dairy farming is growing rapidly, with cows kept enclosed virtually all their lives. For example, in Denmark in 2001, 85% of farms were grazing cows on grass, but by 2010 this number had been reduced to just 35%.32
Vegetarians who choose to eat dairy products and also want to support kind and healthy treatment of animals have some options. Visit a local farm and see if the animals have access to fresh air, natural feed sources, and clean stalls. Call the farmer who makes a favourite goat cheese and ask how much recovery time adult females are given between pregnancies. If possible, choose organic milk products to avoid the hormones and antibiotics that are routinely used in non-organic commercial dairy operations. In some countries, we can look for the label “certified humane raised and handled.”
Choosing dairy products from creatures that have been well treated and cared for is possible. Being informed helps us decide where we want to draw our own lines. Do we want to be particular about the dairy foods we bring into our homes? Would we also be particular when eating with friends, on business, or travelling? What about becoming vegan? Should we stop wearing leather shoes or driving cars with leather seats? Or refuse to eat honey, as strict vegans do? The ability to make choices is one of the great gifts of being human, and one of the great responsibilities.
How do we get our protein?
Imagine letting family and friends know about our decision to stop eating meat. “Mom, Dad (Victoria, Kapil, Devaki, or Felipe), I’ve become a vegetarian.” Unless these folks are already familiar with a plant-and-dairy-based diet, they are likely to respond with initial concerns, the most common of which is “How will you get your protein?”
The concern over getting enough protein reflects a lack of knowledge about nutrition, shared by meat eaters and vegetarians alike. This lack of knowledge is the real deficiency. The problem of protein is easily solved: if we eat a balanced diet with sufficient calories, we’ll get enough protein.33 Women who are pregnant or nursing generally need to increase their calories as well as their protein.34 A half-cup of dal and small serving of naan bread will easily provide 25 grams of protein plus extra calories.35,36 Or try a bagel, a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter, and a cup of soy milk for about the same 25 grams. Vegetarian/vegan athletes at even the highest levels of competition, such as triathlete Austin Barbisch (winner of the 2014 Run Like the Wind 24-Hour Race), have shown us that meatless diets can produce winning results on the field, in the water, and around the track.37 We don’t need meat-based protein for good health.
Even lifelong or decades-long vegetarians are sometimes mistaken about protein needs, believing that we have to put extra effort into making sure we and our families eat plenty of protein-rich foods such as beans, lentils, oats, nuts, soy, quinoa, or dairy products. As healthy and tasty as these foods are, they’re not the only ones on the protein shelf. While a half cup of kidney beans will net seven grams of protein, a medium potato topped with a small serving (half cup) of spinach will net six grams. We can dish up a portion of tofu for ten grams of protein and gain another eight grams by adding an ear of corn and a medium artichoke to our dinner. Essentially, the possibilities are as bountiful and varied as the world’s gardens themselves.
Peas & Beans
The idea that vegetarians must work diligently to eat correct combinations of foods which ‘complement’ each other has discouraged some people from becoming vegetarians or vegans. However, Jeff Novick, MS, RD, and other researchers have concluded that, without a doubt, eating whole, natural plant foods provides an abundance of protein and essential vitamins; we have no need to worry about combining this food with that food.38
Many vegetarians embraced the concept of complementary protein when Francis Moore Lappé published her 1971 best-selling Diet for a Small Planet, which led the way in exposing the environmental impact of meat production. Lappé originally declared that particular foods must be combined in one meal in order to have a full range of amino acids and, therefore, adequate protein. In later editions of the book, she altered her view on this matter.39 Unfortunately, by the time Lappé changed her thinking her first declaration had been widely repeated and published, and this may have discouraged some people from adopting a diet that helps fight heart disease, strokes, diabetes, obesity, and some forms of cancer. However, as research on nutrition has developed, this myth is finally fading. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture declares, in a section of its official website devoted to healthy eating tips, “Combining different protein sources in the same meal is not necessary.”40