Let’s Get Practical
People eat meat and think
“I’ll be as strong as an ox.”
They forget that the ox eats grass.
Pino Caruso (Italian actor)41
Switching from a diet that includes meat to one that is plant-based or plant-and-dairy-based naturally makes us wonder how many other folks are doing the same thing and brings up questions about our overall health and about the simple pleasure of eating as a vegetarian. Let’s tackle some of those questions.
How many vegetarians are there in the world anyway?
The number of vegetarians is around 10% worldwide.
The stats on this differ, sometimes significantly, depending on the source and how ‘vegetarian’ is defined. The number of vegetarians is around 10% worldwide.42 Most of the numbers by country are estimates, but in general we can say that India has the most vegetarians of any country – 32% to 40%, depending on whether those who eat eggs are included. In Taiwan, with its Buddhist vegetarian tradition, 13% follow a vegetarian diet all or part of the time while in Japan the figure is around 5%. Italy reportedly has a higher percentage of vegetarians than any other country in the European Union – about 10% – and Portugal at approximately 0.3% the fewest, though Spain is close with around 0.5%. The figures in the United Kingdom range from 3% strict vegetarian or vegan to around 10% partly vegetarian, with young people aged 16–24 increasingly being vegetarian or vegan. In the USA more than 3% of the population are strict vegetarians or vegans,43 while considerably more (13%) now describe themselves as vegetarian or vegan.44 The number of vegetarians worldwide seems to be increasing45 – certainly the number of vegans is rising fast.46
Will I be tired all the time?
No! Assuming no unrelated health issues, you will likely feel more energy instead of less. If you have vegetarian friends, ask them how they feel. If you don’t, think about the millions of people on earth who work many hours a day without eating animal-based foods. Carpenters, professors, engineers, nurses, librarians, farmers, and salespeople put in long days, year after year, without consuming meat. From Hindu construction workers clambering up and down scaffolds all day long to campesinos working on the land who avoid meat simply because of the cost, to wealthy business owners and world-class vegan/vegetarian athletes, the world abounds with energetic, hard-working vegetarians. Their stamina is notable.
Isn’t it hard for vegetarians to get B12?
In today’s world, getting enough B12 is hard for everyone. Vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria in water, soil, and guts of animals, including humans. But how often do we drink from a stream or pull carrots from the garden and eat them with a little dirt clinging to the sides? Or pick a strawberry and just brush the dirt off a little before popping it into our mouth? Our animals don’t often drink from streams, munch on grass growing in a pasture, or peck through the dirt for bugs either. Even if they do, pesticides used on plants and grasses kills the available B12, and antibiotics routinely given to animals inhibit the ability of B12 to flourish. Their sources of B12 are almost universally through feed supplements. Almost everyone, vegan and carnivore alike, is in need of a Vitamin B12 supplement.47
We don’t need very much B12, but we do need it regularly for red blood cells, nerve fibres in our brain and spinal cord, and for DNA synthesis. B12 is available through dairy products, fortified cereals, and plant-based milks as well as numerous vegetarian supplements. Look for one that’s chewable in order to absorb more of the good stuff.48 B12 is really important. If it’s not in your pantry, go get some!
How will I get the iron I need? Doesn’t meat have a lot more iron than vegetables?
Most of us know that we must have adequate iron for our brains and nervous systems to develop and function well, so iron in our food is important. Meat has both heme (from haemoglobin and myoglobin, found only in animal tissues) and nonheme iron, while veggies have only nonheme. Heme iron is more readily absorbed by the body than nonheme. While this seems to be a plus for meat eaters, it may turn out to be good news for vegetarians. The American Association of Cancer Research reported in 2011 that “Red meat and processed meat intake is associated with a risk of colorectal cancer, a major cause of death in affluent countries ... evidence supports the hypothesis that heme iron present in meat promotes colorectal cancer.”49 In a November 2015 article linking meat with cancer, Time magazine stated, “A larger share of heme iron is absorbed by the body than nonheme, and in the time the stuff spends hanging around, it can reach the colon, causing potentially toxic reactions.”50
Vitamin C helps us absorb iron.
Our bodies absorb iron more easily when we’re also eating vitamin C, which is abundant in vegetarian diets because it’s found in large quantities in foods we eat frequently – nuts, legumes, fruits, and veggies. Dr Reed Mangels in his article “Iron in the Vegan Diet” includes the statement “Iron absorption is increased markedly by eating foods containing vitamin C along with foods containing iron. Vegetarians do not have a higher incidence of iron deficiency than do meat eaters.”51 When we eat a varied diet full of fruits and vegetables of all colours – nutritionists like to use the phrase “eat the rainbow” – we naturally include high-in-vitamin-C sources such as strawberries, oranges, papayas, broccoli, kiwi, and bell peppers in a diet that has foods which are high in iron. Dark green leafy vegetables, dried peas or beans, and tofu, are just a few of those iron-rich foods.
We can explore an overflowing cornucopia, remembering that health professionals around the globe encourage us to heap our plates with fruits and veggies, preferably organically grown, and ladle smaller portions of whole grains and beans beside them. Unless a person is pregnant or menstruating or has a particular medical condition requiring more than normal amounts of iron, a varied diet will include sufficient amounts of iron. One more thing we can relax about!
What about vitamin D3?
Many people worldwide, vegetarian or not, are deficient in this important “sunshine” vitamin these days.52 We can easily find a vegetarian supplement that will supply bone-building and disease-fighting Vitamin D.
Will I miss meat?
For a few weeks or a few months, yes, you might. Or you might not. The first few times you say no to an offer of a hamburger, sausage, or fillet of fish, you may be making your choice based on resolve rather than taste buds, though many new vegetarians just dive with delight into an abundance of foods they’d never thought to explore. They don’t miss the meat, especially meat that is bloody on the plate or at the bone.
Will my food taste as good as meat?
You be the judge. Some vegetarians enjoy meat substitutes made from seitan or soy; some never go near those substitutes. Leaf through vegetarian cookbooks or look online for countless ideas; then pick a few recipes to try. Cook up a batch of eggless blueberry pancakes and douse them with maple syrup, or grill portabello mushrooms with onions and serve over Arborio rice laced with saffron. In other words, play around with the thousands of choices many of us are lucky enough to have in today’s markets.
Don’t vegetarians, and especially vegans, have a reputation for being self-righteous? What’s up with that?
Rabbi David Wolpe addressed this issue with insight and humour in an article, titled “What Meat Eaters Get Wrong About Vegetarians,” published on the website for Time magazine:
Friends, self-righteousness is a universal quality. Whatever habits people hold dear, they tend to discuss in moral terms. So yes, some vegetarians slide into self-righteousness, but have you ever heard hunters defend their hobby? Or meat eaters talk about the design of the human body, digestive system, and manifest evolutionary advantages? I have had people tell me they cannot be vegetarians because they are ‘foodies’ with the same pride as if announcing they are relief workers in the Congo.53
Rabbi Wolpe is telling us that humans in general tend to be preachy about their beliefs. Vegetarians and vegans aren’t unique in this way and arguably aren’t any more prone to self-righteousness than other groups strongly committed to an idea or a cause. Even though some people may decry self-righteous vegetarians while holding on to some righteousness in their own attitudes, we don’t want to let their example guide our behaviour. By giving up eating animals, we feel strongly that we’ve taken the moral high road, but let’s remember that other roads run up the mountain, too, and a few of those could be labelled “acceptance of others’ views,” “giving up judgment,” or “humility.”
Isn’t it hard to be a vegetarian when you’re travelling?
Vegetarians have a natural bond that can transcend politics, social standing, and religious views.
Honest answer? Sometimes it is. But we learn to make road trips with coolers on the back seat, tuck protein bars into our carry-on luggage, and scout out natural food stores and veggie-friendly restaurants. We adapt, and often have a grand time doing so. Think of exploring some part of a city you’d otherwise never visit, tracking down rumours of a vegan chocolate cake. Or planning a vacation based on access to great vegetarian food.
In addition, vegetarians have a natural bond with one another that can transcend politics, social standing, and religious views. Because vegetarianism is gaining favour and respect around the world – especially with young people – we can end up with a ‘family’ in unexpected places.
Fortunately, some products common in vegetarian diets are also commonly available – salads, rice, pizza, bagels, yogurt, nuts, fruit, and, very importantly, chocolate . We may not get to eat what we want when we want it, but we can choose to see challenging situations as adventures rather than burdens. Millions of vegetarians who love to or need to travel wouldn’t dream of compromising deeply held beliefs about vegetarianism because finding good food can be harder than normal while on the road or in the sky.
Some parts of the world are easier for vegetarians to navigate than others; in general, the globe is becoming much more veg-friendly. Internet access has been a great help for travellers seeking vegetarian food or wanting to double-check ingredients, especially in a foreign country where the language may be unfamiliar or unknown. Even though we’re willing to take the time and ask our waiter details about menu items, sometimes the staff just don’t know the answers and don’t pursue finding them; however, access to any smart phone can usually resolve those questions pretty quickly.
Confused about what’s in escamole and unable to speak Spanish? A couple of minutes online will let you know this dish, resembling rice, is actually made from ant eggs. Or perhaps you’ve heard that casu marzu means “rotten cheese” in Italian, and you’re thinking about trying some. In a few taps, you can see that it contains live insect larvae. Or perhaps you’re used to the handy red or green dot systems used in India to easily identify vegetarian foods and you’re travelling in the USA for the first time. As a vegetarian, you’ll want to read the small ingredients lists on the backs of packages. If you’re doing this with cheese, you’ll notice the ingredient “rennet.” Google can quickly tell you that rennet is an extract from the fourth stomach of a young calf, goat, or sheep, so you’ll need to look for the label “microbial enzymes” or “vegetarian rennet” and stay away from plain “enzymes” or “rennet.”
On a back road or broad boulevard in a part of the world you’ve never explored before? Want to know if anyone can recommend a place to calm the stomach’s growls? Search your phone’s veggie app for restaurants, or access websites that identify vegetarian restaurants, complete with customer reviews. Some travellers find it helpful to bookmark blogs posted by vegetarians in areas where they’re planning to travel; then accessing those blogs becomes even easier when stomachs begin to grumble. Of course, most of us have friends who’ve wandered – either purposefully or not – around the globe, and the ease with which we can keep in touch digitally makes getting their suggestions easier. We can take advantage of the expanding web of vegetarians we know personally or digitally.
The internet continues to make travelling as vegetarians easier and easier. If we’re trying to buy food in a store where we have absolutely no clue about the language, we can use online translation services to turn incomprehensible words into our own vocabulary. Find the ingredients list, take a picture, and let translation programs zap it quickly into German or Hindi or Punjabi or Spanish or English or ...
In spite of how much easier it’s becoming to connect with veg-friendly food sources, we all know entertaining stories about restaurants where ordering vegetables is “like swearing at the wait staff.” One amused vegetarian reported that, after ordering a serving of vegetables, a confused waiter told her, “But vegetables are what meat eats.” Another server, when asked if being vegetarian was a problem in his restaurant, replied, “Only for you, madam, only for you.”
We smile and continue to travel as vegetarians.
Sprinting down the track, straining under a bench press, racing a bicycle faster and faster along a path, slicing quick, clean strokes through the water – athletes use their body’s power to accomplish what many of us only sit and admire. Those who compete, especially at national or international levels, focus intently on every aspect of their performance, whether physical, mental, or emotional. Naturally, diet is a major part of this focus. Athletes and their trainers are constantly striving to learn more about which foods contribute to enhanced speed, endurance, strength, flexibility, and concentration. Additionally, professional and world-class athletes – just like the rest of us – are concerned about longevity and optimal health over the entire course of their lives, not just the years during which they compete. So we find that some athletes in virtually every sport have chosen to become vegetarian or vegan.
The list of such athletes could take up pages and pages, but we’ll begin with just a sampling of the names of competitors who are now or were outstanding in their fields. With a bit of further research, readers could easily add many others.54
- Patrick Baboumian – bodybuilder, won title of Germany’s Strongest Man in 2011
- Austin Barbisch – ultramarathon champion
- Tia Blanco – professional surfer
- Mac Danzig – mixed martial artist, retired
- Meagan Duhamel – pair skater, winner of two Olympic medals and numerous titles
- Mika Ireste – competitive roller derby player, vegan since age four
- Scott Jurek – one of the world’s leading ultramarathon (100 miles or more) runners and author of Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Marathon Greatness55
- Billie Jean King – won 39 Grand Slam titles during the course of her career in tennis
- Sushil Kumar – wrestler, won medals in both 2008 and 2012 Olympics56
- Anil Kumble – cricket champion57
- Carl Lewis – Olympic gold medal winner, track and field
- David Meyer – won two World Championship gold medals in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu in addition to numerous gold medals in national competitions58
- Martina Navratilova – held World No. 1 ranking as a professional tennis player longer than any other person in the history of the sport59
- Fiona Oakes – World Record holder, fastest female to run a marathon on all seven continents60
- Weia Reinboud – record-holding track and field athlete in Masters division
- Robert Parrish – professional basketball player, retired. Elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame 2003
- Michael Zigomanis – professional ice hockey player, retired
We all want strong, flexible, healthy bodies. We all want to be able to enjoy hiking, swimming, biking, dancing, golfing, playing soccer, doing yoga, or any of the myriad other activities that bring us pleasure and a sense of satisfaction, that enhance our daily lives. Knowing that some elite athletes choose vegetarianism gives confidence to those of us who generally exercise for fun or health rather than as a career. We can smile as we sweat, realizing that being vegetarian is a way to both live our ethics and build fit bodies, whether we’re professional athletes or not.
Wandering the aisles of a grocery store, we see shelf after shelf of food we no longer want to eat – cookies with eggs, beans with lard, sauces, stews and soups made with animal flesh. But as we take a positive approach, we also notice the heaping produce section with bins of apples, mangoes, coconuts, lychees, pomegranates, bananas, oranges ... on and on, and that’s just the fruit section. Stroll by the veggies and choose from potatoes, onions, cucumbers, broccoli, mushrooms, eggplants, okra, peppers, and many more.
Read labels, read labels, read labels.
Then we arrive at those aisles with bottles, jars, boxes, and cans, and things get more complicated. No worries; practice and awareness simplify our grocery list. After checking ingredients a few times, we know automatically which brands we want – which pasta sauce, crackers, and cheeses are completely vegetarian. Of course, since food selections and ingredients are constantly rotating and changing, it’s important to stay heads up. If we live in or are travelling through a country with an easily understandable labelling system for veggie products, we can quickly see which foods fit our diet requirements and which ones can be automatically eliminated.
Here’s some ingredient and product information to keep in mind:
- Albumen – This protein component – most commonly derived from egg whites but also from animal blood, cow’s milk, plants or seeds – is used extensively in processed foods, especially pastries and baked goods.
- Carmine/Cochineal extract (red dye) – Used in candies, pastries, and some brands of yogurt, this red or purplish-red pigment is made from dried female scale insects. Females are used because their abdomens, which house fertilized eggs, are the most carmine-rich part of the insects and are separated from the rest of the body to be mined for that carmine, a red colour often labelled “natural red 4” or simply “natural colour.”61 Suddenly, that pink yogurt doesn’t look so pretty ...
- Cheese – As discussed in the FAQ section, many cheeses contain rennet, an extract from the stomach of calves, goats, or sheep. Some labels will blatantly state “rennet,” “rennin,” or “animal rennet,” but others insert the vague term “enzymes,” which may or may not be from animal sources. To be confident that we’re eating cheese without rennet, we look for the terms “vegetarian rennet” or “microbial enzymes.”
- Caesar dressing – The small fish “anchovy” gives this salad topping its salty taste. Vegetarian/vegan alternatives do exist, but unless you’re sure of the source, simply buy or order a different dressing and leave the fish to swim another day.
- Dashi – A common ingredient in Japanese soups (including miso soup), dipping sauces, and simmered dishes, dashi is usually made from fish, though it can also be made from kelp. Rather than assume the salty miso you love is vegetarian, check the label for ingredients. Finding miso without dashi in a grocery store generally isn’t difficult, but vetting Japanese foods in non-vegetarian restaurants requires care.
- French onion soup – Beef stock is a classic ingredient in this dish, as well as Parmesan and Gruyere cheeses containing rennet.
- Gummy treats or gumdrops – Children especially like the sweet gummy ‘bears’, vitamins and Starburst candies so popular for snacking and as Halloween treats. However, these sugary snacks contain gelatin, a protein obtained by boiling skin, ligaments, tendons, and/or bones with water.62 Knowing that, they don’t sound much like a treat after all ...
- Ice Cream – Oh, no! Many kinds of ice cream contain eggs. Fortunately, when you’re craving a cone of that sweet, cold dairy product, you can almost always find it without eggs, too. Serve it to non-vegetarian friends, and they probably won’t even taste the difference, no matter which flavour they choose. Vegans appreciate that more and more ice cream is being made from soy or coconut milks. These are often so good they disappear from the freezer faster than the others. For a lighter frozen treat, reach for sorbet, that icy combination of fruit, sweetener, and water or juice.
- Jello – Mix together gelatin, water, sugar, and food colouring to come up with this jiggly dessert. Just like gummy treats, this food has substantial portions of animal by-products. We can make this a cruelty-free dessert by using arrowroot powder (from the rootstock of several tropical plants) or agar agar (from algae).
- Kimchi – A staple in Korea and commonly eaten in other countries, these pickled vegetables are often fermented with fish sauce or dried shrimp. Reading labels will help you find a brand without seafood.
- Marshmallows – Roasted over flames and then slipped between graham crackers and topped with pieces of chocolate, marshmallow s’mores (as in “I’ll have some more!”) are synonymous with campfires in the USA. You’ll also find them floating on cups of hot cocoa, in boxed cereals, or in bowls of jello. Containing gelatin and dried egg whites, traditional marshmallows fall far short of vegetarian standards. However, vegan alternatives are becoming easier to find, either online or in grocery stores. At least one major chain in the United States has begun advertising “Vegan Marshmallows!”
- Refried beans – Lard has traditionally been used in refried beans for Mexican foods. When buying cans of refried beans, it’s easy to simply read the ingredients and screen for lard; when eating at a restaurant, getting accurate information becomes more problematic. Some vegetarians question the restaurant staff closely; others use a veggie restaurant app or web search to find a place that states they serve beans without lard. Fortunately, because of the growing numbers of customers who would prefer this and also because lard is an added expense, more and more Mexican restaurants are cooking their beans without adding animal fat.
- Rice and Risotto – In both Mexican and Italian restaurants, rice and risotto are sometimes cooked with chicken stock.
- Thai curry – Fish sauce is a common ingredient used to make the fragrant curries served in Thai restaurants. However, some restaurants do offer curries without fish sauce. If so, that option will often appear on the menu with a notation such as “strict vegetarian available.”
- Vitamin D3 – D3 supplements are made from non-vegetarian, vegetarian, and vegan sources – fish liver oils, lanolin (from sheep wool), or lichen. Vegetarians make sure their D3 source is from lanolin rather than fish oil, and vegans look for lichen-based Vitamin D3.
- Worcestershire sauce – If you’re grilling veggie burgers and then dousing them with this traditional sauce – uh-oh; you’ve just added anchovies (fish) to what you thought was a meatless meal. Vegetarian Worcestershire sauces do exist. Here’s a mantra to help scout out the right brands: Read labels, read labels, read labels.